On my third day in the Southern California (Saturday, August 15th) I headed north to the Temecula, in southwestern Riverside County, with a friend of mine. To get there from San Diego you take Interstate 15 over a series of hills to the Temecula Valley. It is about 45 a minute drive from Escondido and Ramona. It is bordered by Murrieta on the northwest and the Pechanga Indian Reservation on the south, with unincorporated areas of Riverside County on all of its other borders.
I first visited the area in the late 1980’s when I was in the Marine Corps and stationed at Camp Pendleton. Back then I don’t recall seeing any vineyards or wineries, all I remember is a lot of cows and a few residential areas. Today it is a booming residential, tourist destination and wine country.
The history of wine making in Temecula started in 1968 when Vincenzo and Audry Cilurzo established the first modern commercial vineyard in the Temecula Valley. In the same year, Guasti-based Brookside Winery planted its own vineyard and in 1971, Brookside produced the first wines from Temecula grapes at their Guasti Winery. Callaway Vineyard & Winery opened the first Temecula Winery in 1974 and it was the first winery I ever visited in Temecula in 1999, thirty years after they began farming grapes in 1969. In 1975 John Poole opened Mount Palomar Winery which I also visited back in 1999 and revisited on this trip, 10 years later. In 1978 the Cilurzos opened the third Temecula winery at a new site. Their original vineyard, Temecula’s oldest, is now owned by Maurice Carrie Winery. Approximately 1,300 acres are currently planted in commercial vineyards. Within the appellation there are 5,000 acres located in a protected area referred to as the Citrus/Vineyard Zone most of which is generally located on and around Rancho California Road.
Thorton Winery - Temecula
Our first stop for the day was Thornton Winery, which opened in 1988. Their primary focus is on sparkling wine made in the Méthode Champenoise process. But, I decided to only taste a sample of their white and red still wines.
Most wineries require that you “belly up to the bar” where you stand and have a person behind the counter samples of their wine. It isn’t a very relaxing way to enjoy the wine and few, if any, people are going to enjoy their wine at home in this fashion. Such tasting rooms are more like wine bars than tasting rooms.
At Thorton Winery you are able to sit at table either inside or out on their beautiful patio in view of the fountain and restaurant. A server then brings you a tasting menu with a number of flights to choose from such as all white wines, all red wines, a mixture of red and white wines and different varietal variations (Rhone, Italian, or a blend). The tasting fees are between $10-$17 for six moderate sized proportions. My friend and I both chose the “Cal-Ital & Rhone Flight” ($13) which consisted of the 2007 Viognier ($28 a bottle), the 2006 Thorny's Coat Red which is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Barbera, and Sangiovese ($18 a bottle), the 2005 Syrah ($24 a bottle), and the 2007 Sangiovese. Overall I would say that the quality of the wines was fair but at those prices it is easy to find higher quality of wines.
Mount Palomar Winery - Temecula
Our second stop in the Temecula wine country was at Mount Palomar Winery. Mount Palomar has 40 acres of producing vineyards overlooked by the Palomar Mountain range and their main emphasis is on Bordeaux style blends and Italian varieties. But what I found to be most interesting was their excellent Port and Solera Cream Sherry. The winery uses two main brands: Mount Palomar and Castelletto. The Castelletto name (“little castle” in Italian), used by Mount Palomar for our Italian style wines, comes from the family of our founder's wife, Olivia de Reya Poole. The name “Castelletto” is a title awarded in Italy to Antonio and Sebastiano de Reya in 1735. The Castle and Star image on the label is found on the original Castelletto crest.
Today, Mount Palomar Winery is owned and operated by Louidar Inc., an Arizona Limited Liability Company. Current development plans include extensive new vineyard plantings; a larger wine production facility; a new guest facility including restaurants and a wine country resort and spa and estate homes.
During our visit we tasted the 2006 Mount Palomar Viognier. It is an “okay” wine for $20 but I have certainly found many others that were better for the same price.
Our second wine was a rare varietal which is only produced by four wineries in the United States - the 2007 Castelletto Cortese. Mount Palomar introduced this Italian variety to California in 1991. It is grown mainly in the province of Piemonte in Northwest Italy, is often considered Italy's premiere traditional white variety. If you visit the winery this is a unique opportunity to try something different and expand your palate!
Our third wine was the 2005 Mount Palomar Cinsaut. This varietal is usually used as a blend so you don’t find too many 100% bottlings. It is a light bodied wine that would work well white meats such as turkey and a fair price at only $14.40 a bottle.
Our fourth wine was the 2006 Mount Palomar Meritage $24 which wasn’t all that impressive followed by the 2004 Mount Palomar “Cloudbreak” which was already showing a little age around the rim. For $50 I can certainly find many more impressive wines elsewhere.
Our sixth tasting was the 2004 Mount Palomar Syrah which for $44 which was way over priced as nothing about it rang my bell.
However, our final tasting was worth the drive to Temecula alone. The 2008 Mount Palomar Solera Cream Sherry is an absolute dream! Since 1978 Mount Palomar has produced handcrafted sherry wines in their outdoor aging solera. Using the classic Palomino variety and patient aging of at least three years under the sun creates rich, almond caramel, butterscotch and hazelnut flavors with a long silky finish. This wine sells for $29 and I bought three of them, one to keep and two to give as gifts to friends.