Sunday, September 10, 2006
24 Hours in Temecula review by (Billy)
Greetings wine lovers. I arrived back home in Minnesota today from a 2 week FOT (family obligation trip) - vacation in Southern California. In between weddings, family visits, beach trips, and mountain hiking, the fetching Mrs. Billy found some time to get her and me away from the kids and craziness to visit the southern California wine region of Temecula. Nestled between LA and San Diego, Temecula hosts some very special vineyards and wineries.
Over the course of about 24 hours we visited 6 wineries (Wilson Creek, Wiens, South Coast Winery, Callaway, Frangipani, and Mount Palomar) and tasted wines at all except Callaway.
The first thing to realize about Temecula is that it is not the lush and verdant geography of the more northerly California wine making regions. To get there from the coast, you drive through rugged (though beautiful) scrub-covered mountains to elevations of about 2600 feet then back down. The rusty-taupe of the sandy soil pervades the color palate in your view. The Temecula "wine country" is clearly marked and the relatively short drive down Rancho California Road (the main winery/vineyard drag) and it's offshoots is simply gorgeous. Being there in early September meant that ripe clusters of grapes were clearly visible (and pickable) from the roads and parking lots. What a treat!
I'll post my review each wine from each location above, but this review is for the region/trip overall.
If I had to pick a "favorite" place the winner would definitely be the Wiens Family Cellars. While the tasting room that we visited was a converted trailer (construction on their main facilities is still finishing up), the conversation, wine, and interaction here was the best by far. Far from being the most "polished" and certainly having the least "wine schwag" for sale, Wiens was overall the most interactive, most knowledgeable, and most passionate (in this bloggers view) about what they did. It also helped that we spoke with Joseph Wiens, one of the family.
A close second would be the friendly folks at Wilson Creek. This was the first vineyard we visited and tasted at so we purposely refrained from judgment until well after the trip. Even so, the casual atmosphere, heartily social enthusiasm for wine tasting, and the fun family story of the Wilson Creek Winery left us with fond memories of this location. Their tasting room was airy and light. The staff was helpful and fun. There was plenty to read, pictures to see, and wine gadgets to buy. Folks there were as comfortable chatting as they were buying. There was no "hard sell" or push to do anything more than enjoy some local wine. Special props to "Alex" our server and back room tour guide. We had a blast!
Our last stop on day one was the South Coast Winery. We stayed in one of the bungalows here overnight and ate in their restaurant as well. I must say, the accommodations here were fantastic. There were beautiful bordering on opulent and the view was terrific. I wish I could say as much for their wine. This is where I am unsure how much ambiance affects my evaluation of the overall wine experience. But suffice it to say that the tasting room at South Coast was very "nice". It was big and dark and cold and you got the impression that you were not allowed to touch anything. It was like your old aunt's house - the one with all the Hummels where your hand gets swatted if you reach out too far lest you slip and break a figurine. The ventilation was blowing so much air (quietly though) that I could feel the draft across my hands and face and had to turn and walk away from the bar to properly sample the nose of the 6 or so wines I tried there. The staffer was nice enough though apparently unenthusiastic about being there and she made clear the difference between someone like Joseph Wiens who is vested and passionate about his wines and a part time taste pourer who just has to finish her shift.
Still the stay at the South Coast Winery resort was fantastic and I would recommend it to anyone again in a heart-beat. Go for the resort, not for the wine.
Day two saw us start off at a winery tour of Callaway winery. While their location was beautiful and the tasting room simply gorgeous, we actually passed on tasting here. This was due to the miserable experience we had on our tour. The tour guide was another of these "why are you crummy tourists bothering me by being here today?" kinds. She was apparently annoyed with the questions we and others asked and sped through rote recitations of each location we visited. Both the Mrs. and I got a distinctive "piss off!" feel from her. Unfortunately, this spilled over into our general impression of the winery (unfair I know, but hell if I was going to spend more precious kid-free time risking more of that kind of an atmosphere). So we left and headed to one of the backside wineries.
Frangipani was the penultimate vineyard/winery we visited and a woman who will remain nameless played host to us. She was a piece of work. She had the attitude of a Manhattanite and the demeanor of an underripe lemon. Honestly, we felt like she was mad that I was taking tasting notes. While we were there a fellow came in with a flyer for some sort of Temecula valley vintner's event. Our hostess read this fellow the riot act in a clear play of "kill the messenger". She was neither kind nor coy in her opinions and it did not matter who else was there to hear them.
The tasting room was so-so, but our hostess grabbed the tasting glasses by the bowl (a big no-no in my book as it betrays a lack of care about the wine and lack of respect for the taster). There were no palate cleansers (e.g. crackers or something) available. Remember, my favorite tasting room was a converted trailer, so I am not one impressed by marble and vaulted ceilings. But I would rather have been served vinegar by the folks from Wilson Creek or Wiens than spend much more time at Frangipani. It got so bad that the Mrs. actually left to go sit in the car while I finished my notes. In retrospect it wasn't worth it to even go there. Now, I hope that this was simply an "off" experience but until I hear otherwise, these impressions are pretty solid.
We finished up at Mt. Palomar Winery. This was a very nice way to end our 24 hours in Temecula. The tasting room was quiet, paneled in dark woods, cool, and inviting. Our pourer, "Ray" was very nice and had some fun stories about the wines we tasted as well as good explanations of what we were tasting and how the wine making practices of Mt. Palomar influenced the flavor profiles we samples. The only downside to the Mt. Palomar experience was the "hard sell" we experienced regarding their wine club. Nevertheless, even this "hard sell" was not presented in such a way as to sour us on the experience or the wines we tasted there. We left with 3 bottles (to be reviewed later).
Over all our 24 hours in Temecula California were fun and memorable. The stay was gorgeous and while some of the wines were only so-so, many were good and a few were superb. The smaller nature of the wineries and vineyards means that the likelihood of your getting to speak with someone who is doing more than just pouring samples is high. Even the crusty folks added spice to the trip and made a memory.
Leaving the region we had tasted 37 wines, consumed 1 bottle over dinner and left with another 8 (to ship home). Not a bad 24 hours.
Watch (above) for the reviews to come and Raise a Glass!