Out of Town: A Day Exploring Temecula’s Wine Country

Last year, I finally took advantage of the opportunity to visit Temecula’s Wine Country. With iPods loaded with crazy throwback tunes, playlists roaring and near perfect weather, my friends and I hit the open road on our way through the hills to Temecula. What was I expecting upon arriving? To be honest, I had no idea.  I had been to Stone Brewing Company the previous year so the scenery I was looking for was similar to that. Desert hillsides lined with sparse greenery, palm trees and a lot of rocky soil. As we approached the “Welcome to Temecula” sign, we drove past gorgeous housing communities and neighborhoods, which had me scratching my head. Okay… so, where is wine country? We kept on driving on Rancho California Road when the houses cleared to wide open fields and lots of greenery appeared as if being hidden under the blanket of developments. Winery after winery, vineyard after vineyard and an occasional small neighborhood greeted us along the way. We had an agenda on this day, and it consisted of visiting a couple of sought after wineries by the names of South Coast Winery, Hart Family Winery and Callaway Vineyard and Winery.
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We decided to visit South Coast first as this winery is also a gorgeous resort with a highly rated, onsite restaurant. How did South Coast Winery come about and why Temecula? Jim Carter, the owner and proprietor, originally grew up in Ohio where he was fascinated with playing in the dirt and watching plants grow. After Jim’s dad, Jim Sr., introduced him to this portion of Southern California, a lightbulb went off in his head, and he snatched up 400 acres of land where South Coast Winery sits today. Jim began analyzing the land and, eventually, nurturing crops he planted on his land with the help of his newly hired team. The wineries and vineyard was more to Jim than just producing wine — it was an experience, and one that Jim wanted to take the extra step on. In the early 90s, Jim expanded on his venture by building villas, a restaurant and spa smack dab in the middle of the 38 acres under vine. His vision was and is to provide visitors a complete wine country experience revolving around pairing his wines with the finest foods and accommodations.
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Pulling into the parking lot, the beautiful single level building sprawled out in front of us with beautiful lilac draped pergolas evoking visions of an entrance to a secret garden. The signs for the restaurant displayed an arrow left to the front door while the tasting room visitors were asked to continue down to the next door. With our stomachs growling, we stopped at the restaurant first. The temperature was in the low to mid-80s on this afternoon so outdoor seating was the gameplan. We were able to secure a seat that overlooked the back property and housing while covered with enough shade to not cook in the sun. The menu looked absolutely delicious! We decided to start our lunch with a cheese and charcuterie board paired with a bottle of their refreshing GVM white blend (Grenache Blanc, Viognier, and Roussanne). An assortment of cured meats, olives, cheeses, nuts, and jams set the groundwork for my main dish, the Chipotle Barbeque Chicken Pizza. Covered with red onion, mozzarella, avocado, cilantro & chipotle barbeque sauce, this pizza exploded with flavor and was really balanced by the white stone fruit flavors the GVM packed. We wrapped up our lunch and proceeded on to dive into the tasting room feet first.
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With many selections to taste from, we had to be strategic with the five wine limit each in the tasting. For $15 ($20 on the weekends), each patron is allowed to taste 5 selections of their choice. Having to select 5 of the 40 offered proved to be a task, but we decided to stick with familiar varietals that are grown in other parts of California, as well as Virginia, so that we could really analyze how the terroir defined South Coast Wineries wines. The first standout of the day was  the 2010 GVR ($20), consisting of 41% Viognier, 40% Grenache Blanc, and 19% Roussanne. Bursting from the glass with pure honeysuckle and overtones of light citrus blossom, this Rhone style blend coats the entire palate with fresh honey, juicy pineapple, hints of pear and citrus blossom. It finishes with the same honeysuckle that appeared on the nose, tapering with luscious structure and velvety smooth.

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There was no question… this bottle was coming home with me. Up next was the 2013 Viognier ($20). Fragrant and floral, this white was packed with ripe peach and nectarine while showing a smooth round structure and finishing with a kiss of minerality. Delicious and well suited on its own or with spicy Asian food. Now onto the reds, beginning with the 2010 Group Therapy (39% Syrah, 17% Grenache, 29% Mourvedre, 10% Cinsault, and 5% Petit Verdot) ($20). Immediately, I picked up smoky nuances that taper down across the palate. Flavors of ripe red berry takes over and finishes like it began — jammy with hints of spice and earth. A very interesting blend that really showed off the terroir and proved to be a bit of a flavor roller coaster, but enjoyable none the less. The other stand out red was the 2010 GSM (40% Syrah, 18% Grenache, 30% Mourvedre, 12% Cinsault) which showed similar smoky character while carrying a bit more spice aromatically. Earthy qualities really shined while dried fig and blackberries carried throughout, picking up peppery notes mid palate and finishing with smoky oak notes. Another great red from some of my favorite varietals. We wrapped up with a rich, honey drenched 2012 Late Harvest Roussanne. Honeysuckle aromatics peaked my interest while lemon poundcake flavors exploded across the palate with a drizzle of fresh honey and hints of white stone fruit as it finished smooth and clean. My impression of Temecula thus far presented by South Coast Winery was the whites really outshined the reds, but can I be swayed by our other stops? We made our way to the door, but not before I scooped up a bottle of the Viognier and the GVR.

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The next stop on our trip is Callaway Vineyard & Winery. From the main road, the winery itself looked like a shipping warehouse. Of course from that angle, you can’t really see what’s behind the giant CALLAWAY logo on the side of the big white structure. Pulling onto the property, a windy road brings you up the steep vineyard covered hillside while cypress trees lined the property line and up the private driveway to the left of the building. We pulled through an opening between what appeared to be the production facility on the right and the tasting room on the left. As we pulled level in the back lot, gorgeous views peering out over the main vineyards down the rear hillside and valleys below welcomed us as we hopped out of the car and took it all in. We made our way towards the sign directing visitors to the left for the winery and right for the restaurant that was currently closed until dinner time. Taking a peek into the restaurant, Meritage, an enclosed glass shielded patio with fans above the tables overlooked the sprawling vineyards below. It is definitely something to consider, if visiting later in the day. To our left, the pathway to the winery entranced greeted us with a gorgeous wooden backdrop bearing CALLAWAY in large iron lettering reflecting into a water fountain pool below. A modern look to the whole building and outlying areas, but with clean subtleties. As we made our way past the water fountain towards the door, we spotted a metal pergola covered platform that I would assume was used for outdoor seating or a wedding ceremony that too overlooked the vineyards below.

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As visitors enter the front door, you are placed directly into the wine shop where you can purchase bottles or merchandise. From here, you can pay for your tasting, opt for an enomatic machine card to taste along at your own pace or to purchase a glass. When visiting these places, clearly I’m going for the guided tasting, so we paid and made our way into the main tasting room. Simplistic and bare, the main tasting room featured concrete floors, enomatic machines lining the left back wall the length of the room, standing bars in the middle of the room and a long, dark stone tasting bar awaited us. The tasting fee runs about $15 per person and includes six, one ounce pours. We began the tasting with the 2012 Special Selection Viognier ($22). Aromatic and rich with orange blossom, apricot, and hints of citrus carrying it into rich flavors and a smooth body of tropical fruit, spice and a kiss of citrus to round out the finish. My next selection was the 2012 Winemaker’s Reserve Roussanne ($30), a crisp, yet soft structured white. Mineral driven from the nose to the palate, this white is accented by lush pear and tight tropical fruit that opens up after a few swirls. Overall, a great Summer sipper. On the flipside of the tasting, a red that really stood out above the rest was the 2010 Special Selection Mourvedre ($30), which is 95% Mourvedre and topped off with 5% Syrah. Very aromatic wafting dried Italian herbs with fresh eucalyptus notes carrying to the palate while picking up notes of cola and red berries and concluding savory. Overall, the wines were decent, and the views of the rear property were delightful. The winery itself was a bit commercialized and lacked that warm welcoming feel, but worth checking out if you are in the area.

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The last winery of the day was the most talked about — Hart Family Winery. This is a spot that really stands out as one of the top producers quality wise that I have read about. This is a winery that offers the warm welcome and smiling faces when you enter and shines as the mom and pop winery that doesn’t need a huge facility to churn out over 30 types of wines because their focus is quality and is driven by passion and love of what they do. It also doesn’t hurt that it is one of the more picturesque vineyards in Temecula. A straight shot road off of the main drag is highlighted by native trees and landscaping, cypress trees lining the entrance road and a gorgeous barn style production and tasting room. The family’s gorgeous home sits at the peak of the hillside with sprawling vineyards surrounding their view of the mountains in the distance resembling a Shar Pei’s wrinkles. We hopped out of the car and took a deep breath to take in the gorgeous facilities and impressive views. Laughter of a group of people celebrating a birthday with cake and singing on the covered porch surrounding the entrance to the tasting room welcomed us. This is what makes this place special. The smiles and enjoyment, the quality wines, and the breathtaking views, THIS is a winery. We made our way into the tasting room, and we’re instantly greeted and, of course, offered birthday cake. To the right, your usual wine nick-nacks for sale along and straight ahead, large windows offering guests a glimpse into the barrel room,where barrels are displayed stacked four to five high. On your left, the red granite topped tasting bar with a couple people purchasing more wine for their celebration outdoors. Behind the bar, a huge chalkboard decorated with the latest Hart Family offerings and prices and to the right, a door leading into the barrel and production room.
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In walks the winemaker, Jim Hart,  for a quick chat with patrons visiting. We introduced ourselves and began our tasting guided by the winemaker, which was a real treat. The tasting fee is $12 and allows patrons to choose from 6 wines to taste from the menu. Now one of the highlights early on that I discovered by reading other blogs and the Hart Family site is that they grow and produce an Aleatico. What’s Aleatico? Why have I never heard about it? You are probably asking yourself. I, too, was in the same boat until my wife introduced me to this Italian red grown primarily in the Lazio and Apulia regions of Italy often dessert style. It was originally made famous from its origins on the Island of Elba, where it was used to create the cult wine Aleatico di Portoferraio. This wine is also grown in Chile by a different name of Red Muscatel. When visiting Florence a couple years ago, I was able to try this wine in its dessert form, and I was really impressed by it’s fruit forward character bearing dried berries and floral nuances, semi-sweet with higher alcohol and often fortified with a near Porto style richness. This drove my excitement, and we will come back to their rendition.
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The property, Jim went on to explain, consists of about 10 acres of Syrah, Tempranillo, Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but they also source from other local vineyards to supplement their production. Annually, Hart produces close to 4,000 cases, which compared to most is a small production, but their focus is quality. After beginning their journey in 1970s, when they first planted their vineyards and constructed a tasting room on the property, they opened their doors in 1980. Now how about the wines? At the time of our tasting, Hart had a couple of whites, a rose, several reds, two reserve reds and their Aleatico on the menu. We began the tasting with a little-known Italian grape varietal from Northern Italy by the name of Arneis. The 2014 Arneis ($26) is very aromatic that wafts white stone fruit and hints of nutty character while the flavors take it to a whole new level with peach and apricot flavors running the show carried by a mineral backbone, finishing clean, dry and crisp. A real gem and one that I before continuing the tasting asked Jim to set aside a bottle of for me. The next wine we tasted was the 2014 Sauvignon Blanc ($26), which was a blend of both the Estate parcel and Temecula Valley’s Huis Vineyard. The typical grassy quality leads, but doesn’t dominate as lime balances out the nose. The palate is dominated by a citrus blend mingling with white stone fruit, lively acidity and a bone dry crisp finish. Another stellar wine, and we are clearly off to a good start. Next up is the 2014 Rose of Tempranillo ($24) grown from 100% Estate grown fruit that really highlights the type of year 2014 was for the Harts. Coming in around 0.4% residual sugar, this rose offers creamy strawberry character from nose to the palate while finishing with a smooth, silky mouthfeel. Thus far, the Hart Family wines can be friends for years to come.
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The reds started off equally impressive beginning with the 2012 Sangiovese ($30), 2012 Barbera ($28) and leading us to the very impressive 2012 Mourvedre ($36). This medium to full bodied red leads with toasty oak notes, caressed by smooth mineral notes and rounded off with dry red fruit as it concluded with integrated, tight tannins. My overall favorite non-dessert red was the 2012 Syrah Estate Grown ($36) grown from a two-acre block planted in 1974. This near perfectly balanced Syrah offers copious amounts of red currants and wild berries showing great depth and complexity tapering off in a lengthy, vanilla-lined manner. An excellent Syrah and another that made the trip back East with us. The last wine of the day was what I have been waiting for, the 2012 Aleatico ($60). Extremely floral with ripe red berries exploding from the glass adding hints of sweet tobacco and leather, it is built on a rich fortified backbone with impeccable balance for 19% ABV. Overall, this place earns my two thumbs up and proved to be a no brainer when visiting Temecula. If you are looking for a new California viticultural area, Temecula demands your attention, and I back that notion.

South Coast Winery, Resort & Spa

34843 Rancho California Rd,

Temecula, CA 92591


Callaway Vineyard & Winery

32720 Rancho California Rd,

Temecula, CA 92591


Hart Family Winery

41300 Ave Biona,

Temecula, CA 92591


Last year, I finally took advantage of the opportunity to visit Temecula’s Wine Country. With iPods loaded with crazy throwback tunes, playlists roaring and near perfect weather, my friends and I hit the open road on our way through the hills to Temecula. What was I expecting upon arriving? To be honest, I had no idea.  I had been to Stone Brewing Company the previous year so the scenery I was looking for was similar to that. Desert hillsides lined with sparse greenery, palm trees and a lot of rocky soil. As we approached the "Welcome to Temecula" sign, we drove past gorgeous…

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South Coast Winery
Callaway Vineyard & Winery
Hart Family Winery


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