California wines have won worldwide recognition, but not all of the prize-winning vintages are produced by our northerly neighbors. In less than two decades a cluster of wineries in Riverside County has garnered numerous awards for Southland vintners.
Spread over the rolling hills of Rancho California are 3,000 acres of grapes, a vineyard area that has been given the name Temecula for an Old West town nearby.
Nine wineries are happy to host visitors for tastings and tours. All but one are family-run, and you'll receive a very warm welcome. Best of all, the wineries are close together on a rural route that you can easily circle in a day's outing.
To reach the state's newest wine valley, drive east from Los Angeles on California 60 (Pomona Freeway) and join Interstate 215 south at Riverside. Soon after the freeway merges with Interstate 15, exit east on Rancho California Road.
Labor of Love
The Temecula wine trail begins about four miles beyond at Hart Winery, a labor of love for a former junior high school teacher, Joe Hart.
Turn left up the dirt road to the hilltop building, where you can taste Joe's red and white varietals amid oak aging barrels and stainless-steel storage vats. His 1984 Chardonnay boasts a silver medal from the Los Angeles County Fair. Hart Winery is open weekends from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Next along Rancho California Road is the area's largest and best-known winery, Callaway Vineyards, now owned by Canadian liquor giant Hiram Walker. It was started by Ely Callaway, who retired as head of Burlington Industries and left New York to become a wine baron in Southern California.
His first vintage was produced in 1974 and Callaway's wines (exclusively white varietals) have gathered medals at numerous major wine competitions. The thrice-expanded winery offers organized tours, tastings with lectures, and luncheons.
Visitors are welcome daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except major holidays. Free tours begin on the hour to 4 p.m. For $1.50 per person, you can join in a lecture and tasting on the half-hour.
Call the Callaway visitors center--(714) 676-4001--for luncheon events and reservations. The winery's annual Mother's Day brunch on May 10 costs $25 and includes three wines.
Just down the road you'll find the much-smaller Piconi Winery, established by a Fallbrook doctor in 1981. Ribbons awarded John Piconi for his white, red and rose vintages are displayed in the tasting room that's open weekends from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Next is the very popular Mount Palomar Winery, the creation of John Poole, who once owned radio station KBIG in Los Angeles. Some of his 13 estate-bottled wines can be sampled in the busy tasting room, where you also can buy deli goods to enjoy at picnic tables outside.
Mount Palomar Winery is open every day except major holidays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tours are given at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m., with an additional one offered at 11:30 a.m. on weekends.
Continuing east on Rancho California Road, look for a crossroad called Calle Contento and turn left up the hill to Britton Cellars.
You'll get a panoramic view of the vineyards from this new winery, where a tasting counter is set up next to the wooden aging barrels and gleaming steel storage vats. Visitors are welcome on weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Go back down to Rancho California Road and cross over on Calle Contento Road to the Cilurzo Vineyard and Winery, a pioneer in Temecula's wine-making enterprises.
After working weekdays in Hollywood as a TV lighting director, Vincenzo Cilurzo tended the grape vines he and his wife planted in 1968. A decade later, the Cilurzo family, including a daughter named Chenin, started the winery that is a folksy stop along the wine route.
Visitors can drop in daily between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. for tasting and informal tours. If the winery door is locked, a sign urges you to "come up to the house," the Cilurzos' adobe home on the hilltop.
Going east again on Rancho California Road, you'll see the newly opened Maurice Carrie Winery, a project of Mr. and Mrs. Budd Van Roekel that is named for the female co-owner. A tasting room and landscaping have yet to be completed, but visitors can stop by any day to taste the various vintages between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Two more wineries are open to the public in the Temecula area and complete a circle wine tour. Continue east on Rancho California Road and turn right on Glenoaks Road before reaching Lake Skinner. When Glenoaks Road ends, turn right on DePortola Road and follow it to the Filsinger Vineyards.
Established by Anaheim pediatrician Bill Filsinger and his wife, Kathy, the small winery welcomes visitors for tasting on weekends, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can take a picnic to enjoy in the gazebo with one of the Filsinger wines that have won medals at Los Angeles and other county fairs.
Farther along DePortola Road, look for the entrance to the new Baily Vineyard, another family winery. Turn right on unpaved Pauba Road and follow it about half a mile.
Four vintages have been released this year, the creations of Carol and Phil Baily, who left San Marino and computer software development to become Temecula wine makers. Tasting is offered weekends from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and dinners for groups can be arranged in the vineyard-view dining room by calling (714) 676-WINE.
Return to Los Angeles by continuing on DePortola Road, turning left on Anza Road and going right on California 79 to rejoin Interstate 15 north. It leads to California 91 (Riverside Freeway), which you can follow west to Interstate 5.
Round trip from Los Angeles for a Temecula wine tour is 190 miles.