With over 800 wineries in California, and nearly 16 in the Temecula Valley of Southern California, it is no wonder that Temecula is considered by my wife and I to be our "old stomping grounds." As eonophiles, or lovers of wine, we have this unwritten mission to educate our slacker friends on the liquidious benefits of the nectar of the gods and to ensure that we have a healthy heart by imbibing more than our fair share of the 2.01 gallons of wine per capita consumed in the US.

Since Temecula is located only 90 miles southeast of Los Angeles and 60 miles north of San Diego, it recently made a perfect day trip for my wife and myself and nine goofy Generation X friends celebrating one of the "kids" 30th birthdays. I am convinced that as the old commercial said, "I'm not going to pay a lot for my muffler," or for my wine, hence our quest for inexpensive wines from four of the many local wineries.

Our first stop along Rancho California Road was at Maurice Carrie Winery. This is a large, beautiful French farmhouse that began in 1986 and produces a massive 30,000 cases of wine each year

Why this winery first? That's easy. Their wine tasting is free and the Cody's Crush makes an excellent summer sipper wine for under double digits, hence, the large crowds bellying up to the wine tasting bar or purchasing their outstanding baked Brie sourdough bread for $10.99. After tasting a few wines, it's very relaxing to people watch on the front porch while sitting at one of their many picnic tables. Or, if you're with the loud group like we were, we had the entire covered gazebo for a picnic, vino, munchies, and bs'ing.

After causing a ruckus, we decided to move on to a relative newcomer, Wilson Creek Winery, located just down the road. This family run winery began in 1998 and produces a decent 6,000 cases of wine annually. It's a fun atmosphere, with its sponge painted walls, large wedding gazebo and terraces, a swing and two ever-friendly Golden Retrievers, Taffy and Merlot. After ponying up a couple bucks for tasting, wherein you get to keep the souvenir wine glass, I was intent on studying their sampling list of nine wines. Hmmm! After winning a few LA County Fair medals, the prices have certainly gone up. I wondered if wine production is up 52% and California produces 3.3 million tons of grapes annually, why wouldn't the prices of wine be decreasing?

With that quest resolved, we sampled a very interesting 2001 White Cabernet Sauvignon, $22.95, that was a semi-sweet white wine. Our two other favorites included the "DUET" Late Harvest Cabernet/Zinfandel, $16.95, that was a sweet and luscious red dessert wine, and the Almond Champagne, $14.95. This champagne was a hit with our crowd of relative wine newbies, because of its sweet almond taste of this carbonated gem. The gang then decided that it was time for a few photos and to caravan to Hart Winery.

Hart Winery began in 1973, and is a personal favorite of my wife, the teacher, since Joseph Hart was a former teacher. There's some alleged rumor about him quitting teaching to start a winery, which isn't really a bad idea. This is a small, funky winery, with a very cozy wine tasting room directly in the midst of the wine storage tanks. Although small, it makes for a fun tasting as this room is always crowded and easily allows for interesting conversation, like "Lance, get the hell out of my way. I'm going for more wine."

Three outstanding wines that certainly left a great taste in our mouths were: 1. 2001 Estate Viognier, $18.00, which is very dry, crisp, and ripe with pineapple, grapefruit and guava. 2. The 1999 Sangiovese, $14.00, is a medium-bodied red, with mild spice and is certainly worth the price and the trip. 3. The 2000 estate Merlot, $24.00, is somewhat pricey, yet, is intense, oaky and drinkable now or in 10 years after storing. Yah, like that will happen in my house!

As the 10:00 am - 5:00 pm wine tasting hours were drawing to a close, Kim and I received the usual cold dead fish stare from our friends as they inquired, "Where next?" Of course, to Falkner Winery, which is set way up top a hill and has a great view of the rows of grapes below. This small winery was established in 2000, and produces 6,000 cases a year, and also does not compete with the Sonoma or Napa Valley "big boys" that produce more that that in a month. But, that's still okay, in my book. After a long, pleasant day of winery hopping, wine guzzling tasting with friends, this large ranch structure with the weird mythical wine gods in the stained glass windows was the perfect closing to an excellent day. We again plunked down a few more dollars for their keepsake logo wine glass, and some very good wines. I believe that I was accidentally over served, since I was lax in taking sampling notes. Oh well, have to go back soon!

As if tasting wasn't enough, we decided on dinner at The Temecula Pizza Kitchen. This is a must because their reasonable priced pizzas are out of this world. The now ravenous group quickly devoured appetizers of bread knots and pepperoni chips. Everyone at our large, boisterous table shared pizzas, since we all wanted to try a slice of each other's gourmet pizza. The Sundance Kid, had sun-dried tomato, goat cheese and garlic, while The Tom Mix Pizza had sliced pear, pinenuts and gorgonzola cheese. Of course, there was the trusty standard: pepperoni pizza, too.

After stuffing ourselves, it was time to say goodbye and head back home to feed our two bloodthirsty Chow-Chow puppies with an appetite for furniture.

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