Without Prior Notice: Surprising Temecula Southern California Wine Country

I envisioned Temecula as a flat expanse of dull, plowed agricultural lands. From all my travels to grape-growing regions, I should have known better…

Reprinted from Pinewood News, Munds Park, AZ, May 24, 2010

Do you like surprises? I do. When driving past the golf course at night, I am pleasantly surprised when dark, humped shadows turn into elk cows and calves grazing peacefully.
I like the unpredictably of our Arizona sunsets. Would we so admire the hot reds, fuchsias and purples if they were visible from our Munds Park decks at every setting of the sun?
Just the thought of a surprise birthday party terrifies me. But I love being blown away by the complexity of the first taste of an unpretentiously-priced wine.
I like surprises and so I am liking Temecula Valley Southern California Wine Country. I didn’t do much research before coming, but I did look at a map. I envisioned Temecula as a flat expanse of dull, plowed agricultural lands. From all my travels to grape-growing regions, I should have known better. Grapes are best grown on rolling hills that provide drainage and optimal sunlight. But on the two-dimensional, beige-colored map flattened on my Munds Park dining room table, the area looked … well, frankly it looked … beige and flat.
Now in Temecula, I am first surprised by tall, rolling hills striated by grapevines and back dropped by dramatic granite-bespeckled mountains. Here horses, golfers and grapes live in harmony. Lush green hills around golf courses and horse properties are dotted with squat olive trees and spires of Olympic cedars. Rose gardens spilling with ample blossoms and parcels of thick forests skirt the edges of golfers’ and riders’ views.
Outside the door of my room at Temecula Creek Inn — home base for my southern California stay — I am pleasantly surprised as the “flower” near which a hummingbird hovers is shifted by my perspective and turns into a nest. She hops in and finds a quiet respite.
Dinner at the Thornton Winery amazes with simple, gourmet cuisine. “Over the years I’ve learned to get back to the simple things … three or four ingredients so you can taste what you are supposed to taste,” says Chef Steve Pickell, schooled in DC in the 1980s and working in New York City, Chicago and LA before returning to southern California.
The pan-roasted Pacific Sea Bass with lemon, olives and bay leaves from Chef’s on-site herb garden was laid on Mediterranean Cous Cous. Four ingredients, and to die for! “Lobster used to be my favorite sea food,” reveals fellow foodie and travel writer Marilyn Hill. “But now I prefer sea bass. The chef can do so much with it to make it his own using local ingredients.”
Local foods are an integral part of Temecula’s dining scene. Southwest Riverside County has the highest number of boutique farms per capita than any other in California. Chef Pickell celebrates his relationship with local growers by presenting the freshest tastes to his guests.
Wine maker Don Reha has paired Thornton’s 2008 Viognier with the course that we are enjoying out of doors. I remind myself that it snowed last week in Munds Park. “It’s one of the best that I’ve made,” says the young, unpretentious wine maker who has twenty-six harvests under his belt. “I am learning every day. My philosophy [on wine making] is always changing.”
And so I get my third surprise: Thornton’s 2008 Viognier. It is a complex, multi-layered wine: peach in the nose, tangerine in the mouth, and fire in the belly. Temecula Valley Southern California Wine Country, an unexpectedly satisfying destination, is so close to home. One hour north of San Diego, one hour south of Orange County and one hour west of Palm Springs. An easy fly or drive from Phoenix or Munds Park.
When You Go:
Temecula Creek Inn – spacious guest rooms over-looking a championship golf course rated Four Stars by Gold Digest Places to Play. www.temeculacreekinn.com
Thornton Winery – tastings, tours, food, wine, and jazz concerts from April through October. www.thorntonwine.com
Today I can’t stop exploring the world (I blame it on my father’s Viking blood) and write about my adventures – many as a solo woman traveler. Life isn’t always rosy; I lost my firecracker reasoning skill to head injury in a horrific rollover accident that should have taken my life. Brain injury hasn’t stopped me from traveling, although it sometimes makes for amusing travel antidotes that I hope you will enjoy. That’s why they call me “UNSTOPPABLE!”

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