Seeking an Interesting Bottle of Wine
in San Diego County
By Erin O’Neill-Hodge
Paso Robles has been my place to seek a good bottle of wine the last four years, as my sisters and our daughters travel over President’s Holiday.
But, this year I was feeling like a new adventure, convincing everyone we needed to explore new territory. I suggested a trip to Temecula, a 75 minute trip from Orange Country. My husband and I explored Temecula over 12 years earlier and felt the wines needed to mature. I thought it was time to see if the wine had grown up, was worth tasting.
The decision was unanimous and our plan was set into motion. I went to the Temecula Wine Country website and downloaded their Winery Self-Guided Tour Suggestions, printing the “Rancho California Trail East”, “Rancho California Trail West”, “De Portola Wine Trail”, “Off the Beaten Path”, “Calle Contento Wine Trail”, “Familiar Favorites”, “Something for Everyone” and “ Old World/New World Temecula Style.” We decided to start on Saturday with the Rancho California Trail East since I recognized some familiar names from a past trip such as: Maurice Car’rie Winery, Van Roekel Winery, South Coast Winery Resort & Spa, and Wiens Family Cellars.
‘We visited several more wineries on our list and felt like we were at Disneyland on a ‘Black Out Day’. The tasting rooms were as big as a Costco and felt impersonal.’
Meeting up at the Spring Hill Suites Temecula Valley Wine Country right off the 15 freeway leading to Temecula Wine Country, we had our maps ready to go. Heading east on Rancho California Road for about 7 miles we arrived at our first winery, Maurice Car’rie Winery. Much to our chagrin the place was a zoo! It was literally packed to the gills. The parking lot had buses and limos as well as family cars. They had a “Farmer’s Market” type art festival as well in the parking lot. We walked inside and turned around, retreating to our cars. Oh no! What have I done? Temecula is only 50 miles north of San Diego, 75 miles from Orange County and 90 miles southeast of Los Angeles. It felt like all 27 million people from the surrounding counties were all visiting this busy weekend.
We visited several more wineries on our list and felt like we were at Disneyland on a ‘Black Out Day’. The tasting rooms were as big as a Costco and felt impersonal. The area around the wine bar was ten deep in tasters. Forget about a paper wine flight list for note taking. They weren’t available and when requested, I received an incredulous look like, “Why are you asking for such a thing? Here just drink your wine!” You had to buy tickets for the wine pourer to check off wine your taste, until your card was finished. The fee for tasting was high, $15–$20 for only five wines. Prices increase on a holiday weekend. We ended up skipping South Coast Winery & Spa, and Ponte Family Estate Winery, all on our list.
‘Although we walked into mayhem with people standing 5-6 deep at every bar, we persevered and inched our way closer, finally experiencing a great tasting.’
Determined to have a good experience, I convinced the group to stop at Wiens. Wiens Family Cellars is located 7 miles East of the 15 on Rancho California Road. We know them as owners of Orange Coast Winery in Costa Mesa. Wiens is known for its quality bottles of red wine, like ‘Big Reds’. I was not disappointed. I think of all the wineries we visited the entire weekend I enjoyed this one best. We stood in a long line and bought our wine tasting tickets, paying $15 for 6 tastes. I think I tasted 9-10. Thank goodness for spitting.
Although we walked into mayhem with people standing 5-6 deep at every bar, we persevered and inched our way closer, finally experiencing a great tasting. We were amazed at the service we received from our server Terry. She spent time talking to us offering us off menu samples of wine. I was able to ask questions and take notes. Everyone in the group purchased at least one bottle of wine. I especially liked the Reserve Zinfandel 2010 priced at $49 a bottle. For the White Wine drinkers in the group Pink Crowded was a hit, a Dollcetto Sangiovese at $22 a bottle. I also liked Clementine, a Chardonnay, and a Pinot Gris with Mandarin Orange for $24. The other wines we savored and also enjoyed:
2012 Zinfandel Monfort Vineyards $34 ✰+
2011 Domestique, a GSM (very drinkable) $39 ✰+
2012 Syrah $39 ✰++
2010 Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah ✰
2011 Red Crowded, (a party in your mouth with 14 different grapes) ✰
Considering the first impression of the groups Temecula trip, this stop was a jewel that softened our attitudes and convinced us our visit was worth the trouble.
The next morning we circled for a quick pow-wow, deciding we needed to find smaller wineries off the beaten path. Aha, the less traveled road would lead us to discover small, hidden wineries where we could relax and enjoy the experience. Sunday turned out to be an excellent day!
We began the morning with a stop at Doffo. Located on the Northeast border of Temecula valley and founded in 1997 by Marcelo Doffo. It is built around the former site of a Temecula historic landmark schoolhouse. Inside is a private collection of over 100 racing and vintage motorcycles. Their bottles of wine were not bad either. The Malbec, Syrah and Zinfandel 2011 were all winners. My sisters went gaga over the fresh chimichurri, buying several jars. The tasting room was very relaxing and the employees very attentive and helpful.
Across the road was Chapin Family Vineyards. While sitting on the patio an employee visited and poured our wine. They gave us all bottles of water and treated us to a delightful tasting experience. The tasting was $15 for 5 tastes. I was pleasantly surprised. Of the five I tasted, I fell in love with the Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, buying two bottles for $49 each. Wines I tasted:
White Passerina from Italy ✰+
2009 Syrah ✰+
2009 Cabernet ✰++
2009 Malbec ✰+
2009 Chapin’s summit Blend ✰+
They also have a selection of meats, cheese and crackers if you wish to munch while your taste. I would definitely go back.
Armed with an employees’ recommendation, the group set off to have lunch at Falkner Winery. My nieces were looking for a Vegan/Gluten free restaurant. I thought good luck! Boy was I surprised. The Pinnacle Restaurant at Falkner Winery offers great panoramic views, outstanding Mediterranean style food and high quality service. Yes, Vegan and Gluten free are on the menu. Our large group of nine was seated within a short amount of time. The food was excellent and reasonably priced. This was a nice relaxing lunch. Yes, there wine was tasty also.
Upon another recommendation we headed after lunch to Robert Renzoni Vineyards. This place was rockin’! Although we had to drive on a dirt road, up a very steep hill and then walk down to the tasting room in a very large barn, we had a great time. They had a live band in the patio and the place was packed. We weaseled our way to the bar and began our search for a good bottle of wine. The Tuscan Villa tasting room is expected to open soon. $15 for 5 tastes. I liked their:
2011 Big Fred Red
2010 Old Vine Zinfandel
2010 Concerto which is a blend of Zin, Syrah and Merlot (a ZSM!)
The last place we tasted was a request by me. I wanted to revisit Wilson Creek Winery & Vineyards again after 12 years. I knew it would be crowded but I was ready to fight my way through the crowds. Wilson Creek is famous for their Almond Champagne, the only champagne I will drink. So off we went.
‘Once inside I started counting the bars. I think I stopped at nine, three were outside. We decided to go outside where it was less crowded.’
The place had either tripled or quadrupled in size since my last visit. Parking our car way out in the North 40, we started our journey though the huge dusty parking lot to the winery. Suddenly a young man zipped up to us in a ‘bus’ golf cart. Hopping aboard he drove us to the wineries’ front door. There was a point of purchase station outside the winery to queue up and buy our tickets. The price to taste is $15 on weekdays, but $20 on weekends.
Once inside I started counting the bars. I think I stopped at nine, three were outside. We decided to go outside where it was less crowded. Some of the group found a bar inside. Our server Mark was very friendly and knowledgable. These are the wines I tasted:
2012 “Yes Dear” Chardonnay $25 ✰+
2011 Zinfandel $32, ✰+
Almond Champagne ✰ $16.99
Sparkling Sangria,✰++ (My daughter’s rating) $16.99
All in all it turned out to be a great weekend. Temecula deserves more exploring. I plan to go there is the future but not on a big holiday weekend, nor a regular weekend, but during the midweek when it is quiet to relax and seek tastings of interesting California bottles of wine.
Erin O’Neill-Hodge enjoys a good bottle of wine, visiting and enjoying California wineries from Lake County to Orange County, from the Paso Robles Gold Coast to Gold Country and from Lodi to Bakersfield with her husband, a writer & photographer.
Some notes on our wine ranking system.
– -✰ means -What’s next on your list of wines
-✰ means -Not liking it too much
✰ means -We’ll drink this wine, expecially if it’s hosted!
✰+ means -You’ve got our attention and we might buy this wine.
✰+ + means -We’re hooked and we’re going to buy this wine.
When you see -✰/✰+ with a slash, it means we disagree.