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Savor the Splendor of Temecula Valley

Savor the Splendor of Temecula Valley

California’s Best Kept Wine Country Secret

Hot air balloons over vineyards in Temecula Valley | Photo Credit: Visit Temecula Valley

California is well known for its highly revered wine regions: Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, and even Santa Barbara all come to mind. But there’s one tiny wine region nestled between the thriving metropolises of Los Angeles and San Diego that likely isn’t on your radar yet but should be, and that’s Temecula Valley.

Located just 22 miles from the Pacific Ocean, Temecula Valley sits against the eastern slopes of the Santa Ana Mountains. Featuring rolling hills dotted with lush vineyards, it’s a picturesque backdrop for the perfect getaway. As the region’s reputation for quality wine production grows, so does its appeal to tourists and wine lovers around the world. From its humble beginnings as a Spanish mission outpost to its current status as a premier wine-producing region, Temecula Valley has become an increasingly popular destination for wine tourism in California.

Looking Back

Temecula Valley’s rich history dates back to the colonization of California by the Spanish. Wine grapes were first planted there in the 1800’s by the San Luis Rey mission padres who brought vine cuttings from Europe to cultivate for sacramental wine. 

Fast forward to 1968, when Vincenzo Cilurzo saw the potential of Temecula Valley. Pursuing a long-held dream of retiring to an estate with a comfortable Mediterranean-style adobe, the Cilurzo family purchased 40 acres along Long Valley Road (now known as Rancho California Road). They planted their first vineyards to Petite Sirah and Chenin Blanc, establishing the first modern commercial vineyard in Temecula Valley, paving the way for others to follow.

An ad for “Gentlemen Farming” in Temecula in a 1960s paper | Photo Credit: Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association

In 1974, Ely Callaway (of golf fame) founded Callaway Winery, marking the beginning of large-production winemaking in Temecula Valley. Callaway eventually sold the winery in 1981 to Hiram Walker and Sons, returning to the production of golf equipment and apparel. 

By the time of Callaway’s sale, wine production had taken root in Temecula Valley, leading to a period of tremendous growth during the 1980s-2000s. The Bailys were a part of that growth. “When we first moved to Temecula in 1981, there was only one stop sign, no stop lights, and just a handful of wineries,” says Phil Baily of Baily Winery. But he was an avid wine enthusiast and believed great wines could be made there. “Temecula had this pioneering spirit, and the people there were starting something new,” he recalls. “Great wines were being made, though the region didn’t have any recognition yet.”

Phil Baily | Photo Credit: Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association

But vineyard owners would find they had a tough road to hoe. “In the 50 years since the first commercial vineyard was planted here, the region has flourished despite some very real challenges,” says Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association’s executive director Krista Chaich. 

One of those challenges was a Pierce’s Disease outbreak in the 1990s that decimated 40% of the area’s vineyards. “The fact that we survived a massive Pierce’s Disease outbreak might be one of the most surprising things about this area,” says South Coast Winery Resort & Spa’s winemaker, Jon McPherson. “It was hard to imagine the region continuing after that. But investment and growth remained strong, and we seemed poised to rise from the ashes as the new millennium started.” 

Some say the Pierce Disease outbreak actually created an opportunity for replanting and increasing the overall quality of grapes in Temecula Valley. “We have passionate entrepreneurs and talented winemakers who have poured their hearts and souls into putting Temecula Valley on the global wine stage,” says Chaich. As grape quality improved, the region then focused on building hotels and restaurants to develop tourism.

Here and Now

Jon McPherson with bottles of classic method sparkling wine at Carter Estate Winery | Photo Credit: Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association

Today, Temecula Valley is home to 46 wineries and 80 growers, with more than 25 varieties of grapes. The region has gained recognition for producing award-winning wines, particularly red blends, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. But part of what makes Temecula Valley unique is that it isn’t defined by one specific variety or wine style, allowing winemakers the freedom to create different wines for a variety of palates. 

Some wineries focus on Italian or Iberian, and others on southern French varieties. “It’s a region that doesn’t have a signature grape, because so many grapes do well,” says Baily. “I specialize in Bordeaux varieties, while others like GSMs or Italian varieties. Part of what makes it such an interesting region to visit is that there are all kinds of grape varieties that might capture your fancy.” Collectively, winemakers agree that Mediterranean varieties are something to hang their hats on. “Though Cabernet and Chardonnay seem to be what consumers keep asking for,” says McPherson. 

With long, sunny days, afternoon breezes, and cool nights, the climate is ideal for growing high-quality grapes. The two low-elevation coastal gaps—the Rainbow Gap and Temecula Gorge Gap—channel cool ocean breezes that reduce vineyard temperatures in the evenings, bringing welcome acidity to the fruit.

Like anywhere else, they think about climate change. But Temecula is temperate, with neither highs nor lows at the extremes. “Sure it gets hot, and the diurnal to nocturnal swings can be in the 30 to 40 degree range during the growing season, but that’s why we can grow a range of grape varieties. There are those that do better, or require less water or attention, and that’s what we’re slowly all gravitating to as we figure it out,” says McPherson.

“The growing conditions here are certainly conducive to great vintages, and while a number of producers are pushing the envelope with different varieties that aren’t mainstream, everyone is trying to embrace sustainability, organic growing methods, new wine styles, and creative takes on wine in general,” says McPherson.

Patio overlooking the vineyards at Bottaia Winery | Photo Credit: Bottaia Winery

Temecula Valley remains approachable and casual. Unlike wine regions with astronomical tasting fees, Temecula’s tasting fees average $20-$30. There are premium experiences available as well. For example, boasting the largest amphora collection on the west coast, Somerset Winery offers a guided tasting of all their wines aged in Italian amphorae that let the fruit shine and allow the voice of the vineyard to speak. 

As the wine IQ rises in the U.S., people are more open to trying something new and interesting. Brian Marquez, winemaker of Wiens Family Cellars says that though Wiens is primarily a Bordeaux house, “I see Italian white varieties like Fiano and Vermentino thriving here in the Temecula Valley. Currently there’s a number of producers here in the Valley making these and I see them becoming more popular with consumers.”

A Bright Future

Looking ahead, Temecula Valley is poised for continued growth. “Since you won’t find many Temecula Valley wines in traditional stores, and the region is primarily direct-to-consumer, our winemakers see endless possibilities when it comes to crafting their product,” says Chaich. “The innovative, creative spirit that emerges from the freedom to dream, experiment, and explore, while producing outstanding wines, is something that will continue to define Temecula Valley wineries.” 

McPherson believes Temecula has yet to realize its potential. “Hopefully, wineries will continue to focus on varieties and styles of wine that work with the climate and soils as our consumer base looks to try things that aren’t mainstream,” he says. “I’m sure we’ll always accommodate the palates of those looking for a good wine and a good time, but maybe it’s with Grenache Blanc and Mourvèdre, not Chardonnay and Merlot.”

Some say that Temecula Valley will never be anything more than a destination wine region. But maybe it doesn’t need to be more than that. The AVA is very small (in fact, you can drive from one end to the other in just 15 minutes) and most of the wines aren’t distributed nationally; you have to visit in order to taste them. And because there’s not a lot of land available for expansion (though some are eyeing the surrounding foothills), Temecula’s winemakers don’t necessarily dream of getting bigger, they just want to continue making the best wine they can.

A couple tastes wine after a motorcycle sidecar tour through Temecula Valley | Photo Credit: Sidecar Tours

As the region’s reputation for crafting quality wines continues to grow, so does its appeal to tourists and wine enthusiasts. Coupled with increasing opportunities for luxury and adventure (like hot air balloon rides, golf, and spas), the unforgettable experiences found in Temecula Valley will only increase their wine tourism. Get there before the secret is out.