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Temecula Wine Country

The first full day of our Temecula Wine Country press trip began with a precarious drive up to the Wild Horse Peak Vineyard. Of course, I was sitting on the side of the bus with the mountain drop off views. Deep breaths. I kept my head down and prayed for a safe ascent. Mind you, I have climbed Machu Picchu in Peru, and that bus ride up is much more precarious. As I get older, more things bother me that never did before.  Alas, we reached the top and enjoyed fresh air and sunshine, surrounded by vines and trees. 

Temecula Wine Country

Temecula isn’t resting on her laurels, as other California wine regions do. Jim Hart of Hart Winery tells us that “Temecula struggles with recognition” and that “their identity has not truly been honed”.  Part of this is because Temecula is a destination wine country and not a distribution wine country. Most Temecula wine is consumed locally, versus distributed across the country to restaurants and wine shops. Another identifier of Temecula is that all wineries in Temecula are family-owned. In fact, none are corporate-owned.

When you think of Temecula you think of warm temps, hot air balloons, and wine tasting. Yes, it does get warm here. Especially in the summer. But, Temecula actually has a Mediterranean climate. It leans more arid and benefits from good diurnal shifts (warm days and cool nights). Wild Horse Peak sits at 1,900 feet elevation. A full 500+ feet higher than any other vines in the area. This elevation gives temps 5-10 degrees cooler than the rest of Temecula. 

Why Wild Horse Peak?

The Wild Horse Peak property is owned by Jim Carter, who also owns South Coast Winery, Berenda Road Winery, and Carter Estate Winery. The 400-acre plot of land boasts 140 acres under vine, planted mostly in 1995-97.  According to Jon McPherson, winemaker at South Coast Winery and Carter Estate “the yields on the vineyards at Wild Horse Peak are historically cropped very low, the color and tannin development in the fruit always seems a bit higher than the valley floor, and the wines are more intense.” He tells me that they “have done tannin and color trials on the fruit and it is significantly higher than that of the valley floor.  This is attributed to the lower yields, higher altitude, and limited irrigation available.” The vines are watered from their reservoir, which in some years is very limited, based on rainfall. That brings us to the wines. 

Wild Horse Peak Tasting Notes

While standing on Wild Horse Peak, we tasted two wines with WHP fruit. Talk about enjoying wine directly at the source!

South Coast Winery Wild Horse Peak Syrah 2016 $30

This wine has a medium + body with a full-bodied, and textured (almost clay-like) feel. Lots of red fruit. Medium, well-integrated tannins. Great balance on this wine.

South Coast Winery Wild House Peak Syrah 2016

South Coast Winery Wild Horse Peak Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 $40

This is a 4-block blend, all Wild Horse Peak fruit. Sweet spice (vanilla) notes and savory (green) notes, plus baking spices. Dry, chalky tannins. Ripe, full fruit forwardness.

South Coast Winery Wild Horse Peak Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

Other Wild Horse Peak wines from South Coast Winery can be found at the link HERE.

While on our Wild Horse Peak jaunt, we also tried the below wines.  These wines do not have Wild Horse Peak fruit, but they are good examples of what you can expect from high-quality Temecula wines. 

Wiens Waxman Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 

Pyrazines and eucalyptus on the nose, but soft on the palate. Dare I say: delicate? Soft tannins. Tasting notes from Joe Wiens of Wiens Family Cellars: If Temecula Valley is a bowl, WHP sits on the southeast edge, and our Waxman Vineyard in La Cresta is the opposite edge of the bowl, northwest of the valley. We see good diurnal shifts, and cooler days being closer to the coast, and about 600 feet higher in elevation than the valley floor. The soils are less nutrient-rich, so we see lower yields (about 2 tons per acre), with very nice concentration and character from this site. 

Wiens Waxman Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

Joe Wiens and his Waxman Cab Sauv

Hart Winery Reserve Volcanic Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 $52

This wine is asking to be laid down. A big boy Cab, not for the faint of heart. With full bodied, grippy tannins, according to Jim. #laymedown

Hart Winery Reserve Volcanic Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

Wilson Creek Winery Cinsault 2016             

LOVE this wine. For those jonesin’ for a Pinot from Temecula, this is as close as you’re gonna get. And it’s good. Tasting notes directly from Gregg Penny royal, the vineyard manager at Wilson Creek Winery: The Cinsault is 100% valley floor Temecula AVA fruit from the First Light Vineyard. Cinsault is a heat-loving, floral soft wine with moderate but firm tannic structures. We sometimes refer to it as the warm climate Pinot Noir for the similarity in density and the commonality of rose in the bouquet.

Wilson Creek Winery Cinsault 2016

Gregg Pennyroyal and his Cinsault

Hart Syrah Volcanic Ridge 2016 $52

Love this guy. Feels like an Old-World Syrah. Slate and minerality on the nose. Tasting notes directly from Jim Hart of Hart Winery: grapes from a vineyard that is approximately 12 miles from the Pacific Ocean. 2400 feet elevation. The vineyard is surrounded by a wall made from volcanic rock cleared from the vineyard site. Much more of a cool climate Syrah.

Hart Syrah Volcanic Ridge 2016

Thank you for joining me to explore Wild Horse Creek in Temecula wine country. Cheers!

The People. The Passion. The Perseverance.

This is the motto of the 50th Anniversary of the Temecula Valley Wine Country. This year, 2018, marks the 50th Anniversary of Temecula Valley Wine Country. Press and writers were invited to attend a 10-course wine pairing dinner called “Behind the Wine Bottle” to celebrate this anniversary. The food was courtesy of Executive Chef Leah di Bernardo of E.A.T. Extraordinary Artisan Table, a local restaurant and marketplace in Temecula. Wine pairings were courtesy of Leoness CellarsRobert Renzoni Vineyards, and Doffo Winery. From the layout, to the execution, wine, and food; everything was TOP NOTCH. It was a very impressive event and one that I was very grateful to be able to attend.

The wine history of the Temecula Valley actually goes back more than 50 years. Wine grapes were first planted by Spanish missionaries in 1820. 50 years ago in 1968 is when the first commercial vineyard was planted by Vincenzo and Audrey Culurzo. The first commercial wine (from Temecula Valley grapes) was not produced until 1971 by Brookside Winery. And in 1984, the Temecula Valley was officially recognized as an AVA. Trouble struck in the 90’s when Pierce’s Disease (which comes from the Glassy Winged Sharpshooter) wiped out 40% of vineyards in the Temecula Valley. Vines were re-planted in the latter part of the 90s to more diversity, including grapes of Italian, Rhône, and Iberian heritage.

Temecula has a thriving wine scene with over 2,500 acres planted and over 40 wineries operating. 23 million people live in Temecula and the surrounding areas, which gives the region a “built in” audience. It is the perfect day or weekend trip for many in southern California. So much so, that over 91% of Temecula wine is consumed locally. Not leaving much for “export” out of the area. Temecula has suffered from a not so stellar reputation over the last couple of decades, but I can authoritatively say that quality here has skyrocketed and Temecula can stand confidently next to many classic wine regions in the world.

Food and Wine Details

Chef Leah prepping the first course

Aperitif: Carter Estate Brut (approx $35)

Chardonnay grapes from the South Coast. This wine is dry, yeasty, and toasty. Everything you could want in a sparkling! Quite respectable and enjoyable.

Grilled Peach Toast (Almond Ricotta, Seeded Bread, Pistachio Dust)

Pairing: Leoness Cellars 2017 “Melange d’Été”

This wine is light, crisp, and off-dry with 1.5% RS. It is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, and a few other. Melange d’Été means “blend of summer” which is quite fitting. A perfect name for this aromatic white. This wine gives me citrus, green fruit, and an abundance of tropical fruit (peach, apricot).  “Like with like” is a great wine pairing rule that rings true here. I also had the pleasure of sitting with Tim Kramer, winemaker at Leoness. Quite fun to enjoy wines with the winemaker at your side!

Tim Kramer of Leoness Cellars


Grilled Peach Toast

Local Halibut (Smoked Créme Fraiche and Forged Greens)

Pairing: Robert Renzoni Vineyards 2017 Vermentino

First off, the smoked créme fraiche on this dish was to die for. We could not get enough. And fun fact, Robert Renzoni was my first and only wine club many years ago. Now that I am intimately involved with wine, I like to pick it all out myself, so a wine club doesn’t work for me. I digress! Vermentino is an Italian variety. The Italian expression would generally be more nutty and have more minerality. This guy is more fruit-forward. The wine sees a super cold fermentation for 30 days. The cool helps to preserve the fresh fruit aromas. On the nose I get citrus (lime), green fruit (pear), and tropical fruit (melon). On the palate, lots of stone fruit plus tropical fruit (pineapple and lychee).

Local Halibut

Cook’s Pig Heritage Pork (Strawberry Variation, Confit Belly, “Bone Marrow”)

Pairing: Robert Renzoni Vineyards 2015 “Lyric Rose” Rosé of Syrah

This wine is named after Lyric, Robert’s daughter. It is made in the Provence style with lower brix, sugar, and alcohol. The wine is totally dry though it has a candied/confected red fruit (watermelon and raspberry) note. In regards to the food, this dish is divine. On another level. Chef Leah somehow managed to make a chimichurri with strawberries. And the pairing is stellar. The red fruit notes in the wine bring out the strawberry in the chimichurri. And the meatiness of the Syrah works well with the pork belly.

Cook’s Pig Heritage Pork

Palate Cleanser: Fermented Beets and Sauerkraut

I love fermented/pickled anything and they did a good job with the execution of this course. See picture below: it was passed on a tray with small forks. A nice way to switch gears and give everyone a break from another plate dropped in front of them.

Fermented Beets and Sauerkraut

Cheese Course (Triple Cream Brie, Oak Cracker, Honeycomb)

Pairing: Doffo Winery 2017 Viognier

The Doffo family is from Argentina, where my people come from! This wine sees concrete egg fermentation, which is said to add minerality. We dined with Damian Doffo, winemaker, as well as his father. This low-acid Viognier with a delicately perfumed nose is their only white wine. I find many aromatic wines a bit “in your face”. This one is not. The palate is also delicately perfumed, floral, and feminine. Plus, the pairing works well: fat with fat. Public Service Announcement: For god’s sake, don’t buy grocery store strawberries.

Cheese Course

Beets & Berries (Beets, Local Berries, Whipped Chévre, Walnuts)

Pairing: Leoness Cellars 2014 Cellar Selection Meritage

This wine definitely has some power on the nose. Predominantly Merlot based with some Cabernet Franc. It’s a masculine, strong, and assertive red. The Cabernet Franc lends green, vegetal notes. A well-balanced wine with integrated oak use. I get red plus black fruit, black pepper, earthiness, and a slight funk. This is also a nice pairing.

Beets and Berries

Braised Lentils (Spiced Beluga Lentils, Pimentón, Soft-Cooked Quail Egg)

Pairing: Doffo Winery 2015 Motodoffo “Gran Tinto”

Why I have never put a soft-cooked egg on top of lentils, I will never know. On to the wine! This wine is 85% Zinfandel plus 15% Petit Syrah. A big boy. Hellooooooooo New World (both on the nose and the palate). I get fruit, fruit, and more fruit. Plus some chocolate and Raisinets (I have never used that descriptor before!), but it’s a good way to convey a raised note with chocolate.

Grilled Octopus (Sous-Vide; Tomato Emulsion, Shell, Celery)

Pairing: Robert Renzoni Vineyards 2014 Estate “Sonata”

A lovely wine with some heat on the nose (it makes my sicilia stand on end!) and a very approachable palate. This wine is a blend of Brunello plus Cabernet Sauvignon. All estate fruit. A solid, good wine.

Grilled Octopus

King Trumpet (Seared, Sprouted Grains, “Steak Sauce”)

Pairing: Doffo Winery 2015 “Mistura”

This wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. A lovely nose with a fruity, juicy palate. Some of the fruit is ripe, almost raisined but I like it. Structured. A very appealing and approachable wine. Fantastic pairing.

“Coffee” (Iced Granita, Toasted Hazelnut, Vanilla)

Vanilla Bean Gelato (Braised Figs, Port, Armagnac)

Pairing: Leoness Cellars 2014 Signature Selection “Grande Mélange”

This is a Châteauneuf-du-Pape style blend of Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, and Mourvédre. This wine has grace, elegance, soft tannins and can stand to age a bit. A delightful red to finish off dinner.

Vanilla Bean Gelato

Temecula has everything a successful winegrowing region should have: history, land, people, passion, and the tools. With this event, my expectations of Temecula have been exceeded. And I am confident that I am not the only one. People’s view of Temecula and Temecula’s wines will only go up from here!

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