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Hidden Gem Of Southern California

Wine enthusiasts gather for the
Temecula Valley Winegrowers
Association's 12th Annual
Harvest Wine Celebration.

Hooray for the underdog! May the Chicago Cubs (again) make it to the World Series! God bless the Edsel! Lottery winners are everyone's ultimate dream come true! With television shows like, American Idol, we little guys finally have a chance at making it big! (Opening Photo: South Coast Winery's Barrel Room.)

Like these examples above, every once in a blue moon, all the planets are in alignment and some wondrous magical spark occurs that creates a lasting impression for all to rally behind at one point or another. Now, you're wondering, how does this cosmic mumbo jumbo all connect with the wineries in Temecula, California?

Like David slaying Goliath, educated wine drinkers throughout the globe need to keep their attention focused on Temecula's 18 amazing wineries producing top-notch varietals before they slay the sleeping giants like Sonoma, Napa, and down under.

Recently, Kim and I were invited by our friends at the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association to visit their "David" and sample our way through their very intimate and quite special 12th Annual Harvest Wine Celebration. Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, we have been returning to Temecula, which we affectionately call "our old stomping grounds" at least a couple times each year for over twelve years now. With our annual crusades, we've brought wine newbies, wine haters, and have successfully converted a number of people over to the unique power of the hidden gems right here in our often overlooked Southern California backyard.

Custom Etched Bottles
at Miramonte Winery.

But, this trek to the Temecula Valley Wine Country proved to be extraordinary. Rather than winery hopping among the weekend throngs of informed wine lovers, who sometimes race to every single winery to guzzle, sample every single wine they produce, we were now part of an elite group.

We were privileged to meet and spend time with winery owners, winemakers, and sample a few of their latest special release wines as they were paired with gourmet foods. Having our very own separate check-in and wine tasting areas, we were able to pick and choose which wineries we wanted to visit during this annual two day fall celebration and actually take our time enjoying the rolling hills of this lovely winery microclimate. Now, considering that this chilly November weekend is the busiest weekend of the year in Temecula, where do we start?

One way that time is recorded is when trees are chopped down and the rings are counted to determine how old the once living tree was. Not being lumberjacks, one method my wife and I as followers of Bacchus, the god of wine, can track time is by recalling how the sleepy little winery town of Temecula has been growing up before our eyes, adding one or two more wineries, every so often. With this in mind, we considered checking on some of the newest additions, and then, revisiting some old friends who have witnessed even more growth and change than we have over the last twelve years. Pack a sweater, and come along as we try to describe just how delicious some of the latest wine releases are and as we share some of the mouth watering recipes we collected along the way.

While checking in for this remarkable weekend at Thornton Winery, we were briefly able to meet one of the key people responsible for this yearly event, Linda Kissam, the Executive Director of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association. Then, since we were already at Thornton Winery, this sounded like an excellent place to start this upscale journey on the trail of the nectar of the gods. With giant-sized wine pours of their crisp, lemon, and grapefruit citrus flavored 1996 Brut Reserve, a dark berry fruit flavored 2001 Cabernet Merlot, and a 2002 sweet Muscat Canelli, we paired each with the appropriate food offerings: bay shrimp & scallop salad with red curry rice, and Belgian chocolate mousse with brandied cherry sauce, and the feasting has officially begun. Two words: yum yum!

Belgian Chocolate Mousse with Brandied Cherry Sauce

1 ½ lbs. Semi-sweet chocolate chips ½ cup prepared espresso coffee
4 egg yolks 1 cup heavy cream
¼ cup sugar 8 egg whites
½ tsp. Vanilla extract pinch of salt

Melt chocolate chips in a double boiler over low heat, stirring occasionally. Add brewed espresso. Stir and let cool to room temperature. Add egg yolks to chocolate, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Whit 1 cup of cream until thick, then gradually beat in the sugar until stiff. Beat egg whites with salt until stiff peaks are formed. Gently fold egg whites into cream. Stir about 1/3 of egg white-cream mixture into the chocolate mixture. Then scrape remaining egg white-cream mixture into the lightened chocolate mixture, fold together gently then refrigerate 4 hours, or until set.

Brandied Cherry Sauce with Ameretti Crunch

1 14 ounce can of cherry pie filling, drained
½ cup brandy
½ cup sugar
¼ cup water

Combine above ingredients in a sauce pan. Simmer over low heat until sugar melts and liquid reduces by ¼ (caution, brandy may ignite flame and will eventually burn out.) Let cool, then puree in a food blender until very smooth — pass through a strainer. For the amaretti crunch, simply crush amaretto cookies and sprinkle over chilled chocolate mousse with brandied cherry sauce.

As we criss-crossed the Temecula Valley, we wended our way over to meet the Falkner Winery owners, Ray and Loretta Falkner. With annual production of 7,000 cases of wine, the very friendly Falkners firmly believe that thanks to their winemaker, Steve, they produce top quality wines at very competitive prices, even compared to the big boys up in Napa or Sonoma.

Faulkner's outdoor tasting bar and picnic area

Owner Ray Faulkner in the tasting room.

They currently coordinate an impressive 50 to 60 romantic outdoor weddings featuring unlimited wines, and unlike other wineries, due to Falkner's unique location they have no curfew due to noise restrictions. Through corporate events, meetings, wine tasting classes, and lavish winemaker dinners, all held on their beautiful hilltop winery property, Falkner Winery certainly is where fun and quality come together. After chatting with the Falkners and receiving a personal tour that was brimming with enough facts and figures, our heads were spinning, and we hadn't even tried any of their tantalizing wines, yet.

We decided to pull up a bench at one of their picnic tables, and let Ray and Loretta tend to the detailed preparations for the 1,000+ Wine Harvest Celebration attendees, and their regular 250+ weekend wine tasters that would soon be at their doorsteps.

Their smooth, lightly oaky, estate grown 2001 Fume Blanc was an impressive buy at six bottles for only $35.00. It paired very well with their Thai spiced lamb chop on jasmine rice, as the natural acidity of the wine helped tame the hot spicy peanut sauce very well. Next, we sampled their 2000 Amante, a medium bodied, super Tuscan red with rich flavors of plum, cherry and spice. At $13.95 per bottle, when you purchase two bottles, you get one bottle free. As we enjoyed the pleasant atmosphere and killer view of the valley below, we were impressed at how well this weekend of underdogs was shaping up, and it was only 10:30 am on Saturday morning.

After hearing good tidbits from others in the know, we went searching for the brand new winery and resort destination in the Temecula Valley that has recently been raising the level of expectations from all Temecula Winery attendees.

South Coast Winery machine
takes the physical labor out
of harvesting grapes.

At Temecula Springs Resort and South Coast Winery, this still under construction 38 acre vineyard and luxurious retreat is located in the heart of Temecula Wine Country. Once completed, this massive compound will have not one but three label producing wines; regular tours and wine tasting; a 140 seat Vineyard Rose Restaurant; the GrapeSeed Spa and Salon; a gift shop; 70,000 square foot meeting facilities; and 76 rustically elegant Bungalows in the Vineyard that should be completed in first quarter of 2004. Kim and I had the pleasure of talking with the jovial proprietor, Jim Carter, about how his impressive dream was becoming quite a reality. Having grown grapes for Callaway Winery for years and years, he decided that it was time to create his own destination for the upscale traveler. With a winery, restaurant, spa, and well decorated bungalows, guests would never have to leave his resort.

While noshing on bruschetta topped with diced tomato, and olive pesto garnished with feta cheese and thoroughly enjoying smoked salmon with cream cheese, capers and onion, Kim and I sampled some of their four intoxicating wines. Their 2002 Reserve Chardonnay had ripe tropical fruit character and was heavier than most Chardonnays.

We made sure to each try a few glasses of their excellent Pinot Grigio, since, you know, we wanted to be sure that the quality remained consistent from one bottle to another. After a brief tour of their one completed Bungalow model, we smelled a need for a future feature article and decided that we'll come back as soon as all units are fully constructed and decorated.

Although only open as a winery for one year, the Ponte Family Estate, has a long grape growing history for the last 70 years. While there, we met a very friendly employee who made us feel more than welcomed, Mindy Smith, with Special Events and Catering, while she successfully coordinated yet another beautiful wedding on their gorgeous property. She filled us in on some of the many impressive highlights of the 350 acre Ponte brothers Family Estate: their Smokehouse Café, where the bar in food presentation and taste has been raised in Temecula; Tasty Tuesdays, the intimate cooking seminars that have been so popular that they sell out far in advance; and their first fall winemakers dinner held in the winery's Barrel Room, where guests will enjoy an exquisite four-course menu paired with a selection of Ponte Family Estate wines.

While enjoying the $19.95 per bottle of 1997 Sangiovese, a medium bodied, deep cherry color, with aromas of currants and raspberries, it was paired with grilled ground lamb kebabs with fresh hot pepper pesto, tabbouleh salad and tzatziki dipping sauce with pita triangles.

Unlike other wineries, Ponte prepares all foods onsite, rather than catering in. For dessert, pecan and filo dough tartelettes continued the Mediterranean food theme and was paired with an excellent $15.95 per bottle of Isabel, a sweet, light, fruity dessert wine named after one of Roberto & Claudio Ponte's daughters.

Continuing on, we visited another new Temecula winery, Palumbo Family Vineyards and Winery. On twelve acres, this intimate winery and tasting room produces approximately 1,600 cases of wine annually. Samplings included their 2001 Sangiovese, with tannic and black cherry flavors present, and their 2002 Merlot, where this weekend was the exclusive preview of this unreleased wine.

Maybe it was bad timing, but just as we parked and were walking up to Wilson Creek Winery, the live jazz music stopped. Then, this usually fun winery had all Wine Harvest guests out back in a large impersonal tent manned with less than friendly staff, and where all food was catered in.

While munching, I couldn't help think that quality control must have also been on break along with the jazz band. The herbed risotto with chicken and sun dried tomatoes was lacking tomatoes, but more than made up for this by having too much salt. On the other hand, the butternut squash bisque with caramelized onions was warm and tasty on this cold November afternoon.

Liquidious samplings included their 2002 Estate Chardonnay that was $18.95 per bottle of toasty oak and vanilla tones; 2001 Estate Zinfandel that was described as big, bold and beautiful. Wow, all that for $36.95 per bottle. As an added bonus was a barrel tasting of Wilson Creek's new Sherry, which was very sugary and syrupy sweet and needed more oak barrel aging. Lastly, although manufactured and bottled elsewhere, the Almond flavored Champagne, was always a consistent crowd pleaser.

As the chilly dark November clouds progressed from a light mist to a full downpour, we successfully ended our day on a good note by visiting Churon Winery. Kim and I spent a great deal of time talking to Chuck, ½ of the winery name (along with Ron) and part owner of Churon Winery and Bed & Breakfast. He graciously led us on a personal winery tour and pointed out his beautiful black and white photography exhibited throughout the winery. While thoroughly engaged by this genuinely interesting and well traveled man, we sipped 2002 Chardonnay that had a buttery aroma and a smooth, oaky finish. To complement the beef burgundy and parmesan cheese crisps, the ruby red 2002 Zinfandel, made an excellent pairing with its hints of pepper and spicy fruit.

Callaway wines will soon produce
bountiful grapes and then
into splendid wines.

After heading to our hotel relishing an overall very successful first day, we couldn't wait until Sunday to continue our quest in search of more good food paired with more outstanding undiscovered local wines. As big, white fluffy clouds filled the blue Sunday morning sky, we were hoping to visit a few more wineries before departing back home.

First on our short list was Callaway Winery. After cruising up the long, twisty driveway, we were ushered into a private entrance where a romantic meeting room was the scene for the wine crush aficionados. Their 2003 Nebbiolo Bello was a nice, light, fruity wine that would make a great summer sipper out back by the swimming pool. Callaway's 2001 Dolcetto, although somewhat tannic, had a strong palette of black cherries and berries. To round out this breakfast of champions, the Nebbiolo Bello fruit compoté was served atop buttery pound cake. With strawberries, berries, peaches, and other fruits marinated in rich, red wine, this was certainly a recipe worth acquiring. We've since made this easy recipe at home, and love it!

Nebbiolo Bello Fruit Compoté Served atop a Buttery Pound Cake

3 pounds fresh or frozen fruit 1 cup sugar

1 cup Nebbiolo Bello or similar red wine
1 pound caked thinly sliced
1 Tsp vanilla

Add fruit, wine and sugar together in a pot and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and add 1 teaspoon of vanilla. Refrigerate for 2 days prior to serving spooned over sliced pound cake. Serve with a glass of same wine used in fruit mixture.

Being Sunday morning, we went to what was originally intended to be a church, but now is Baily Winery.

This large block building with gargoyles, fountains, and a large covered outdoor patio had rustic wrought iron chairs and umbrellas optimistically blocking the sun.

As we sat at an outdoor table, we overlooked rows of rose bushes in bloom, and soaked up their sweet aroma and relaxed atmosphere by enjoying Baily's two wine offerings. First, was their 2002 Montage, a soft, white wine for $14.95 per bottle that paired well with their grilled vegetable ravioli salad with tomato Caesar dressing garnished with feta cheese. Next, was their 2001 TV Red wine. At only $9.95 per bottle, it is comprised of 100% Sangiovese grapes and has hints of berries and light spice. It paired very well with chocolate cups filled with rum chocolate mousse. Chocolate and red wine — a match made in heaven.

The buffet line at Miramonte is
one of the most popular spots
at the festival.

Up another precariously steep driveway, high atop a hill, Miramonte Winery is perched overlooking rows and rows of grape vines. Always one of our favorites as we tour Temecula, we are consistently impressed by their quality wines, but not their parking lot.

Their 2001 Chardonnay makes a great $10.00 purchase if you like light, lightly acidic Chardonnays. Their 2001, 100-year-old, Old Vine Zinfandel, at $25.95 per bottle, has a strong black cherry and spice character. These Cucamonga grown grapes show their age well, and produce a Zinfandel that's not too heavy. To match their wines, gourmet food tasting included grilled marinated chicken breast with a blue cheese, toasted pecan glacage, served on Zinfandel vinaigrette tossed autumn greens. As we savored the beautiful crisp weather, we were seated at an outdoor table adorned with a fancy tablecloth, and a fruit and decorative wine bottle centerpiece. Kim and I chatted with one of the winery employees as she cheerfully made the rounds greeting each table of guests, and we learned that their great movie and wine nights will soon be up and running once again.

Now, to navigate the narrow, steep parking spaces and successfully make it to our last winery of the day was quite a challenge.

Grilled Marinated Breast of Chicken with a Blue Cheese and Roasted Pecan Glacage served on a bed of Zinfandel Vinaigrette tossed Autumn Greens

Chicken Breast

8 chicken breasts (marinated overnight in oil & Miramonte Chardonnay)
¼ pound Maytag blue Cheese ¼ cup pecans & 1 Tsp. Hot sauce
¼ cup buttermilk 2 Tbsp Creole seasoning

Old Vine Zinfandel Vinaigrette

Fresh Herbs (basil, chives, Italian parsley, & dill) ½ Tsp kosher salt
½ Tsp chopped garlic & shallots ½ Tsp black pepper
½ Tsp mustard/Dijon or whole grain ½ cup champagne vinegar
½ cup Old Vine Zinfandel 1 cup pure olive oil

Whisk well until blended and serve on autumn greens

Preheat oven to 400 F. Blend blue cheese, buttermilk, pecans, 1tablespoon Creole seasoning and hot sauce in a food processor until smooth. Set Aside.

Season the chicken breast with the rest of the Creole seasoning. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, add chicken breast and sear for about 2-3 minutes on each side. Put chicken breast on baking trays and spread 1 Tbsp of blue cheese pecan mix over the top of each breast and bake for approximately 6-8 minutes.

Did you know that Maurice Carrie Winery was the first Temecula winery to grow Pinot Noir grapes? Hence, my hankering for some of their $16.95 bottle of 2002 Pinot Noir. With a light spice character, and hints of cherry, this wine will age well. Their 2002 Chardonnay was mellow, smooth on the tongue and a good buy at $9.95 per bottle.

As we Wine Harvest Celebrants had our private tasting nestled among their huge 9,800 gallon steel tanks holding a bounty of Muscat Canelli, Gewürztraminer and other potent potables, we kept warm with their excellent French onion soup and tasty, crusty bread.

In sum, we thoroughly enjoyed our private tastings, away from the hustle and bustle of the crowds, and prized meeting some of the friendly winery owners and winemakers in this intimate experience. For those preferring a more upscale, but not snooty wine tasting experience, there is nothing like our own hidden gem, Temecula, within our Southern California backyard. Pack a sweater to brave the cool winter weather and warm yourself by sampling some of the fruits of the vine that both new and old wineries have to offer. It's worth the trip to visit 18 unique, award winning wineries to get a taste of a higher elevation and sample some of their microclimate wines as they continually raise the bar by ever-improving and innovating.

Like the rings on a tree trunk, Temecula is forever growing and is one powerful underdog that we'll continue to celebrate every time we pop open a wine cork or raise our wine glasses in a toast.

— Read Jetsetters Magazine.