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Temecula Valley is earning its reputation as a top-ranking wine destination

The region is producing highly rated wines that stand up to some of the steepest competition

Ponte Vineyard Inn
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I confess: As a onetime Bay Area resident who enjoyed easy access to the renowned Napa and Sonoma County growing regions, I hadn’t given Temecula the credit it deserves. My early experiences were of the less epicurean variety (I’ll admit to being a passenger on a party bus or two), and despite roughly a half-century of winemaking history, the region had primarily seemed like a beautiful day destination for Southern Californians for whom a visit to a more established wine region was out of reach. How wrong I have been. Producing highly rated wines that stand up to some of the steepest competition, Temecula Valley is a legitimate wine-lover’s destination whose time has come.

Robert Renzoni
Robert Renzoni

In any wine growing region, the landscape will lure romantics to dream of living on a vineyard and bottling their own wines, and Temecula is no exception. According to Robert Renzoni, proprietor of his namesake Temecula vineyard, there’s far more reality to the winemaking life. “It’s a labor of love, there’s no question,” he says. “It’s a lot of work, it’s a lifestyle, it’s a passion. And if you’re looking to make a quick buck, you’re in the wrong business.” Representing his family’s fourth generation in the business, Renzoni, who was named by another Robert (Mondavi, that is), would know. And through this hard work and investment in his operation, together with his winemaker, Olivia Bue, the Robert Renzoni label hasn’t had a wine rated under 90 points in five years, though he says Bue’s determination to hit above 95 is what drives her to continue to generate excellent wines. “I want people who know wine, who like wine, to want to come here because they know they’re going to get a good product,” he tells me from a patio table outside his tasting room and adjacent Italian trattoria with views of the surrounding vineyards. “I tell people, ‘You want cabernet, go to Napa. But you want syrah and sangiovese, tempranillo perhaps, montepulciano — OK. You’re in the right region for that.’” robertrenzonivineyards.com

BJ Fazeli
BJ Fazeli

While the region you’re in is surely Temecula, the influences of each winery can transport you across the globe. Just next-door lies Fazeli, founded by owner BJ Fazeli, featuring a heavily Persian influence in homage to Fazeli’s upbringing in Persia (now Iran). Even the names of his wines, many of them award-winning, hearken to his roots. (For lovers of the sweeter varieties, I recommend the Norooz, a light muscat/viognier blend named for the spring equinox and Persian New Year). Wonderfully affable and warm, it’s easy to see why Fazeli — both the wines and Fazeli himself — has developed a hearty following: As we talk, he greets his tasting room visitors as though they’re entering his home. Echoing my hunch that Temecula has evolved in recent history, Fazeli tells me, “It’s not that we haven’t had [industry interest] here, everybody comes here. It’s just now, more and more, Temecula is being put on the map because the wines are getting so much better and people are starting to notice us.”  To his point, a 2019 Wine Enthusiast article listed Temecula among its 10 Best Wine Travel Destinations, and was the only region in California on that list (gasp!). fazelicellars.com

It’s a South American influence at Doffo, the family winery on the other main stretch of the valley, helmed by patriarch Marcelo Doffo. The native Argentinian, who spent his childhood on his grandparents’ farm, arrived in Temecula by way of Orange County, purchasing and settling on a former cattle ranch when his health sent him a stern message to slow things down. Instead, his past came calling in the form of hard work and hands in the soil, and Doffo Winery took shape. Here, the family embraces the vines as an animate member of the family operation. Touring the property, daughter Samantha Doffo describes each varietal and even individual vines as though they have their own personality, and speakers installed throughout the vineyard have played classical music for them to “go to sleep to” from 7am to 7pm for the past 25 years. As exceptional as the wines Doffo produces is the setting in which guests taste. An avid motocross family, the tasting room — in fact, the entire property — proudly displays Marcelo’s venerable collection of lovingly restored motorcycles, Vespas, and memorabilia, making it hands-down the most unique setting in which I’ve ever tasted wines. doffowines.com

Marcelo Doffo and son Damian
Marcelo Doffo and son Damian

Global travels continue at Bottaia, a four-years-new winery set on 45 acres that produces fabulous estate-grown Italian varietals. Its bright, contemporary farmhouse-style setting is alluringly serene, as is its reservation-only policy that limits groups to eight or fewer. Guests can also book an experience in the Wine Blending Lab, where they’re guided through a barrel tasting to blend and bottle their own creation. Though it’s a 21+ destination, it also features a gorgeous pool on-site that welcomes all ages, with Italian cabines (changing rooms), lounge chairs, a full bar serving cocktails, wine, and beer on draft, and a café. bottaiawinery.com

The valley’s culinary offerings were equally as impressive as the wines I tasted on my visit. At The Restaurant at Leoness Cellars (located within walking distance from Renzoni), the menu offers an array of dishes for broad appeal in approachable but delicious preparations. Most importantly, don’t be deterred by the $13 price tag of the hand-cut fries. Prepared to order with house-made ketchup, I can guarantee you will not have even one fry left over, and it’ll be worth every penny. The seabass, served over risotto, was delicious and complemented the many estate-grown wines my sister and I tasted at the table with co-owner Mike Rennie, who shared with us the winery’s history and heavy emphasis on farming first. According to Rennie, Leoness is the largest grape farming company in the valley. Also one of the more established producers here, Leoness provided grapes, and still does, for other labels in Paso Robles and beyond long before launching its own label in 2002. As a testament to their commitment to the land, some of Leoness’  bottle labels, as well as the art in the restaurant’s dining room, feature an image of Rennie’s business partner and co-founder Gary Winder’s hands in the property’s dirt; one of Winder’s now-antique tractors greets guests at the restaurant’s entrance. “Basically, we’re just farmers,” Rennie tells us humbly. “I pride myself in that, because good wine starts in the vineyards.” leonesscellars.com

At Leoness, an antique tractor is a symbol of its founders’ focus on farming
At Leoness, an antique tractor is a symbol of its founders’ focus on farming

Not far across the valley lies Europa Village Wineries & Resort, which includes three wineries, each of a different country: Italy (to debut in 2023), France, and Spain. Bolero, the Spanish winery, is home to Bolero Restaurante, helmed by Executive Chef Hany Ali, an Egyptian-born, Swiss-trained, globally influenced toque whose arrival in Temecula follows his travels worldwide (28 countries, to be exact) in Four Seasons Resorts kitchens. Despite an impressive résumé that might portend a matching ego, there’s none to be found with Chef Hany — it’s clear that watching people savor his creations is his own great joy. A Jamón Ibérico platter is an authentic opening into a Spanish meal at Bolero, and it’s delicious accompanied by select cheeses and other small bites. The Organized Caesar is an inventive take on the classic, with the salad rolled up to stand within a thin jicama wrapper. Blistered shishitos maintain their fire, but they’re tempered by a bed of chickpea puree. The paella is the restaurant’s true showstopper, and people in the know make sure to order it upon being seated — it requires a (well worth it) 45-minute prep time. If you’ve paced yourself well, the dessert menu does not disappoint, and my advice is to order more than one. europavillage.com

If the desire to taste all that Temecula has to offer has you longing for another day, Bottaia’s sister winery Ponte offers the Ponte Vineyard Inn. Set amid yet more vines and stunning scenery, the AAA Four Diamond hotel is an ideal base from which to explore the 40-plus wineries that dot Temecula Valley. Beautifully appointed rooms are spacious, and the bed was one of the comfiest hotel beds I’ve slept in. The quiet setting is a great spot to recharge, with a pool and hot tub on-site for a soak after a long day. Then, it’s just a walk across the parking lot to the tasting room when it’s time for more wine. On its other side, The Ponte Vineyard Inn sits adjacent to South Coast Winery, which has its own hotel as well as its Grapeseed Spa, because if you’re going to indulge, why do it halfway? There, I enjoyed a spectacular, kneading-tight-muscles-to-jelly massage at the hands of the small but mighty Keiko. With that, my awakening to the delights of Temecula was complete. pontevineyardinn.com, southcoastwinery.com

Ponte Vineyard Inn
Ponte Vineyard Inn

My former bias in check, I left Temecula thinking of Robert Renzoni’s wise words when I asked him outright if the area was going in the right direction. “Oh, hell yeah,” he said emphatically. “There’s no question.”

Featured Photo Ponte Vineyard Inn
Image Credits Photography courtesy of Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association

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