TEMECULA, Calif.—You might imagine that you’re cruising the undulating hills of Tuscany, but geographically, you’re not even close. You’re in California’s Temecula Valley, a jewel about an hour’s drive from San Diego and 90 minutes from Los Angeles and Palm Springs.
“Where the sun breaks through the mist” is the interpretation of “Temecula,” a Luiseño Indian word. The Temecula Indians settled here, perhaps as far back as 900 A.D., so it’s no surprise that the area’s heritage is one of the richest in Southern California.
This pocket of the state is where tradition merges with the present day. Even though the wine region celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018, Temecula remains more off the beaten path than Northern California siblings Napa and Sonoma—at least for now. This region offers little hype and fewer crowds, but plenty of nature, delicious food, and outstanding wine.
It’s pretty, too. The Temecula Valley teems with painterly landscapes where mountains meet vineyards, yet the spirit of the Old West still thrives in the quaint and walkable Old Town Temecula with buildings dating to the 1800s. Meanwhile, the setting as you coast on Rancho California Road, Calle Contento, and De Portola Road—where nearly 40 wineries are located—is magical. While sipping a juicy Sangiovese, it’s impossible to ignore the Santa Ana and San Jacinto Mountains as they loom nearby, appearing to be just steps beyond the acres of lush, green vines.
One of the region’s favorite wineries is Somerset Vineyards, set along the De Portola wine trail. Growing fruit on 13 acres, the vineyards produce varietals from the Rhône Valley as well as Spanish Macabeo (also known as Viura), Monastrell (commonly called Mourvedre), and Tempranillo. Stop by for a glass of Viognier or opt for a winery tour to taste straight from the barrel.
Nurturing 25 acres of fruit, the boutique Peltzer Winery pays tribute to its farming roots at “Crush House”—a fun and stylish tasting room set in a barn. Filled with vintage finds, recycled goods, and old tractors, the rustic space is an oasis, ideal for tasting Prosecco, Syrah rosé, and Cabernet Franc.
Meaning “cask tasting room” in Italian, BOTTAIA provides wine lovers much more than a place to sample the latest vintage. The clean-lined, modern building on Rancho California is a work of art on the outside with its stark, white clapboard siding and expansive vineyard (and pool) views, and on the inside with its chic, feel-good space. Of course, the experience is all the better when you have a glass of crisp Pinot Grigio or silky Barbera in hand.
Speaking of views, don’t miss Callaway Vineyard, just up the road. One of Temecula’s most prominent players, the winery and vineyard crafts an impressive selection of red, white, and rosé wines, appealing to both newbie and veteran drinkers. If you can choose only one, though, go with the Calliope Red, a complex blend of Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Syrah, Grenache, and Petite Sirah. Savor your pour while gazing at a multicolor sunset as it fades over the vineyards.
Sitting on a gorgeous property—also on Rancho California—Carter Estate Winery & Resort bottles Chardonnay, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon, along with excellent sparkling wines, the only style wine produced at the winery. Drink the Blanc de Blanc when you’re in the mood for bubbly (you’ll swear it’s Champagne), whether you’re celebrating or not. Beyond wine, Carter Estate offers tons of hospitality too. The property’s resort features elegant bungalows and suites, all exuding a residential vibe, so you’ll feel more like you’re staying in someone’s home than a hotel.
Where to Eat
Where there’s great wine, there’s bound to be delicious food. Located at the Temecula Valley Inn, the Cork | Fire Kitchen excels at farm-fresh, creative plates ranging from quinoa falafel to Skuna Bay salmon to a perfectly seared steak alongside potato pave and bordelaise. Save space for something sweet—the churro waffles are incredibly decadent but so worth the calories.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so start the morning at Toast with a filling plate of “Chicken Fried Chicken,” as the name suggests, but with a biscuit, sausage, gravy, and scrambled eggs. The beloved brunch spot also whips up hearty sandwiches like the “Live and Let Rye” Reuben and the “Baby Got Banh Mi,” a Vietnamese staple using Asian-glazed carnitas, ham, daikon radish, and Thai aioli stacked on a baguette.
For a piece of Paris in Old Town Temecula, visit Laurent’s Le Coffee Shop, a patisserie and café preparing croissants, macaron, marzipan, as well as coffee drinks, croissant French toast, and a yummy croque-monsieur. Another Old Town frontrunner, The Goat & Vine, makes every menu item from scratch. The eatery features comfort dishes such as Mediterranean chicken pizza, Mother’s meatballs, and pulled pork with Swiss on a hot pretzel bun. From the same owners, The Nightingale is in the Truax building.
Try the curried hummus with naan and the short rib pappardelle. Get up close and personal when you dine at the Chef’s Counter, the best viewing spot to watch the kitchen team in action.
While wineries and restaurants may be a draw in Temecula, more treasures should be uncovered. One you can’t miss is Temecula Olive Oil Co. Old Town is home to a brick-and-mortar shop, but it’s worth the 25-minute drive to visit the ranch on Highway 371 in Aguanga. Here, proprietor Thom Curry offers farm tours and hosts olive oil tastings on his stunning property. Also in Old Town, Temecula Lavender Co. is another family-owned business, selling products crafted from lavender plants harvested on their nearby farm, an idyllic parcel brimming with lavender, grapevines, and roses.
Put on your hiking shoes and spend a few hours trekking the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Preserve, home to 200 bird species and 49 endangered species including mountain lions and pond turtles. At 9,000 acres, the reserve protects unique ecosystems while offering hiking, walking, biking, and equestrian trails for avid outdoor types. Expect to spot Englemann oaks, riparian wetlands, vernal pools, and wildflowers galore. Hike to the Moreno and Machado Adobes, which were bunkhouses for cowboys back in the day. The adobe structures date to 1846, making them the oldest standing buildings in Riverside County.
In Temecula, it’s easy to eat, drink, shop, and be one with nature all on the same trip. The region may be miles away from Tuscany, but it’s catching up to its wine country neighbors. A short drive from the coast, desert, and several major airports, Temecula remains under the radar for some, but this slice of Southern California shouldn’t be missed.
Tracy Kaler is a travel writer based in New York. She’s written for The Telegraph, Barron’s Penta, amNewYork, and other publications. When she’s not glued to her laptop, she’s wandering the city she loves or off discovering another part of the planet.
The author’s trip was sponsored in part by Visit Temecula Valley.