Archive for category California

Tasting in Temecula

It’s been quiet around here lately.  Too quiet, and I’m sure “real” bloggers are cringing at the silence.  But I’ve been out tasting and traveling, and today I’m back with a discussion on California’s Temecula Valley.

Never heard of Temecula?  Well, you’re in good company and there are a few reasons for its obscurity.  For one, it’s pretty small – only 40-ish wineries call Temecula home, and you can drive from one end to the other in about ten minutes.   It’s also pretty far off the beaten path for most wine travelers, located about halfway between LA and San Diego.  To top it off, the wineries here are fairly small, so their wines are rarely found outside of Southern California.P1150558

Until recently, any visit to Temecula would be a short one – there were scarcely enough wineries in the valley to make a day of it.  And what you’d find were mostly sweet wines and flavor-infused sparkling wines.  Nothing wrong with that of course, but it did mean that the region was always overshadowed by it’s bigger brothers to the north.

Fortunately for wine lovers the tide in Temecula is changing.  While the sweet wines and fruity bubbles are still there, the region is upping its game on the more traditional reds and whites.  Many could easily hold their own when compared to similar wines produced in other parts of California.  The Italian white varietal Arneis really shines here as well as Muscat made in a range of styles.  For reds there’s a huge variety, but Syrah and Zinfandel in particular are worth seeking out.

With over 40 wineries you can easily spend a couple of days here.  Wineries in Temecula fall into two broad categories: tiny-production family wineries, and large “chateaus” with plenty of room for busses and limos.  There’s really no middle ground.  Both are making pretty good wine, but I greatly prefer the smaller places which are less crowded and thereby offer more personalized attention.

If you’re a first time visitor, Hart Winery is a great place to start.  This small family winery is the first one on the map and serves as a great introduction to the wines of Temecula.  If you’re not sure where to go from there, they’ll offer some solid recommendations of both large and small wineries.

Tasting fees in the region are generally $10-$15 for 5-6 pours.  Most places hold you pretty strict to that number, often by using poker chips to keep track of your pours (a blatant and tacky tie-in to the nearby casino.)  However, an extensive collection of 2-for-1 tasting coupons is available at .  A few appear in the printed Temecula Visitor’s Guide as well as on winery web sites.

P1150556The nearby casino is your first hint that despite being a legit wine region, Temecula has also become a party destination for Southern Californians with money to throw around.  In fact, weekends here can be nothing short of miserable, especially during the summer as the larger wineries become crowded and  temperatures can exceed 100 degrees.

So if you’re trying to save a buck here, avoid weekends!  For inexpensive hotels, check out nearby Corona and San Marcos, or even San Diego.  In fact, combining Temecula with a visit to San Diego is a great way to experience the region, especially if you’re a beer lover (since that’s kinda San Diego’s thing.)

If you get hungry, your best option is to head back into the city of Temecula or pack a picnic.  Several wineries are picnic friendly and offer first-come-first-serve picnic areas for groups of 10 or less.  Many of the larger wineries do have restaurants on site, but most are unjustifiably expensive and only open on weekends.   The one exception seems to be the deli at Cougar Vineyard & Winery where you can get a pretty good deli sandwich and drink for about $10.

So, should your travels take you to southern California, or if you just happen to be in the mood for something a little different for your next wine trip, give Temecula a shot.  I’d be curious to compare notes!

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Day Trip – Avila Beach, CA

As winter draws to a close, I always start dreaming of warmer places.  So this seems like a great day to talk about one of my favorite “accidental” California wine country discoveries – the tiny coastal town of Avila Beach.

While poring over our map on a recent Central Coast trip, we spotted a small cluster of wineries on the coast that we’d never noticed before.  Given that we’d driven past it dozens of times on California’s 101 freeway, we were a little surprised at our oversight – how had we never heard of Avila Beach?Avila Map

Only a few minutes from the bustling Paso Robles/SLO wine region, Avila Beach is a popular, yet uncrowded destination for many California golfers and beach goers with a unique history.  In the mid 90’s, a ruptured oil pipeline had rendered Avila Beach uninhabitable.  The state of California sued, and the oil companies spent a record-setting $200 million cleaning up the mess.  In the process,  the entire town was literally razed and re-built. Today, Avila Beach is a clean, charming town bustling with shops, restaurants, wineries and hotels.

If you’re looking for a break from the usual wine country scene, Avila Beach is the perfect day trip.  Once you make the short drive from Paso, you’ll find plenty of free curbside parking.  Ditch the car because you can walk the entire town easily.  In the center of town, four wineries (a good number for a day trip) have tasting rooms to keep you busy: Alapay Cellars, Peloton Cellars, Morovino Winery, and 2nd Chance Winery.  There is a fifth – Kelsey See Canyon – that’s on your way into/out of town as well.  Tastings are reasonable – less than $10 per person – and always waived with bottle purchase.  Most also offer wines by the glass.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr

Photo Courtesy of Flickr

Avila boasts plenty of great restaurants, but I recommend grabbing some tacos from Taco Shack (it’s better than the name suggests) and have lunch on the beach.  Save the nicer places for dinner, where you can grab a table by the ocean an enjoy a more relaxing meal.  If you need a pick-me-up, there are a couple of great local coffee shops as well.  I’ve also been told that a soak in the hot tubs at Sycamore Mineral Springs is an absolute must.

Given the touristy vibe of the place, we didn’t have the highest of hopes for the wines.  Perhaps that’s why we were so incredibly thrilled with what we tried.

Alapay and Peloton both featured solid, well-made wines – a number of which came from high-profile vineyards.  Some crowd-pleasers, but also some fantastically complex wines as well.

Morovino offers a fun take on Italian varietals, while 2nd Chance is the second label for Cottonwood Canyon, should you happen to be a fan of their wines.

While we didn’t get a chance to visit Kelsey See, they look to be a worthy stop as well.  Along with the usuals, they also pride themselves on making apple wine – a gutsy move in this part of California.

So next time you’re in the Central Coast and need a break from the norm, take a day trip to Avila Beach.  You won’t regret it!

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Why a trip to Lodi really ought to be in your future

If you want strange looks at a cocktail party, tell people you’re planning a trip to Lodi, California.  The “why-on-earth-would-you-ever-go-there?” look tells you two things: either they’ve never heard of the place, or (among wine folks) they consider Lodi something of a backwater.

We received a number of those looks from the folks in Sonoma on our fall California trip, which just wrapped up.  This year we decided to give Lodi a shot, along with a couple days on the well-traveled roads of Sonoma (our favorite wine region ever!).Harney Lane's Winery Dog

A hidden gem of a wine region, Lodi has  been on our radar for quite some time.  But even though Napa Valley legend Robert Mondavi got his start here, Lodi has remained largely off the tourist circuit.  Until just a few years ago there were only a handful of tasting rooms – not really enough to make a day of it.   Today there are over 60 with new ones opening nearly every month.   Let’s keep it our secret though, because Lodi’s obscurity makes is a great destination for the Dirt Cheap wine traveler!

Charming, clean, and very green (drought? What drought??) Lodi seems a world away despite being a mere hour-ish from Napa.   Best known for its old vine zinfandels – some of the oldest zin vines in the world – you’ll also find some exceptional tempranillo, syrah, sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc.

Gone is the pretense you might find in other wine regions.  Laid-back is the name of the game here, in the tasting room especially, where you shouldn’t be surprised if the owner excuses himself to punch down a tank of fermenting grapes.  And since Lodi is a working town as opposed to a tourist town, most of the excellent restaurants and cafes in the region are priced to fit a working man’s budget without sacrificing quality.

In the tasting rooms we’re thrilled to report that tasting fees are very modest ($5 is the norm), the tasting menus are unusually generous (I don’t think we were ever poured fewer than seven wines) and the fee is nearly always waived with bottle purchase. Bottle prices are equally reasonable, and often a bargain for the quality you’ll experience.

A LOT of wine comes from Lodi and you’ll see several familiar “supermarket” brands represented here (Woodbridge, Delicato, Michael David, Oak Ridge, and Gnekow Family).  They all have tasting rooms, and if you see a tour bus or Limo in Lodi, that’s probably where it”ll be.

Old Vine ZinBut we think you’ll be better served by one of the 50 or so smaller wineries in the region.  The wine quality is impressive, prices are very reasonable, and the tasting rooms are uncrowded and friendly.  And once you’ve worn out the countryside, you can grab dinner downtown and check out some of the storefront tasting rooms – some of which don’t close shop until 9 pm.

The region is compact, so the short drive between tasting rooms will save you a bundle on gas.  The roads are flat, straight and well-marked which makes for easy diving and navigation.  And the lack of tourists means traffic is nearly non-existent.

If you go, be aware that many tasting rooms are only open on weekends (Thursday – Sunday).  Thursday is the slowest day. There are plenty of tasting rooms open earlier in the week, but you may need an appointment for some of the smallest ones. has the most up to date list of tasting rooms.  There are also still a handful that offer free tastings, and naturally we have them up on the Dirt Cheap Wine Country free list.

If you’re visiting the Napa/Sonoma area, Lodi is only about an hour away… just keep going east on Highway 12.  However, if you’d rather stay in the Lodi area there are a few pretty good hotels in the area available for well south of $100/night.


… a few wineries that we thought were well worth the visit…Lodi 3

Klinker Brick (tasting fee: $5) Open Thurs-Mon

Macchia (tasting fee: $5) Open Thurs-Mon

Jeremy Wine Co. (tasting fee: $5) Open Thurs-Sun

St. Amant (tasting fee: free) Appointment Required

Harney Lane (tasting fee: $5) Open Thurs-Mon

Heritage Oak (tasting fee: $10) Open 7 Days


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Gift Basket Surprise

We just got around to opening our last bottle from a Wine Country Gift Basket that we received last Christmas.  The basket included a bunch of snacks plus a Chardonnay and a Cabernet Sauvignon.  The wines were from someplace called Kiarna Vineyards – a winery I’d never heard of.  Honestly, I’d expected the wines to be horrible, so I had been procrastinating on opening them.

Google revealed that KiarnaVineyards is owned by Houdini, Inc. – the parent company of Wine Country Gift – and is one of several house brands that Houdini owns to supply their gift basket business.  In other words, you won’t see these wines in stores.

According to Kiarna’s web site they produce five different wines.  Kiarna claims the wines come from Monterey, California;  however, the wines are only labeled as “California” which means the grapes could be from anywhere in the state.

2013-04-03 05.04.13Upon finally trying the wines, we were pleasantly surprised!  While neither of the wines were show-stoppers, they were both well-made with decent levels of complexity and balance.  The Chardonnay was crisp with lots of lemon and green apple flavors, hints of butterscotch and even some raw hazelnut.  The Cabernet was effervescent and tart, with notes of cola, strawberries and raspberries.  Both wines seemed  “sticky” which made be wonder if  there was some  extra sugar added to the mix.  Both also claim to be barrel aged, but unlike many California wines, the oak was subtle – a big plus if you prefer European wines.

According to Kiarna, both wines are medal winners at various wine competitions – a measure regarded by many as a better indicator of quality than the “100-point scale” reviewer ratings.

Wine Country Gift Baskets will ship the Kiarna wines to Kentucky, as well as baskets containing their other “house” wines, which is why I’m mentioning them on my Kentucky wine blog.  (Baskets containing wines from larger wineries are ineligible for shipment here.)

So if you happen to get one of these baskets as a gift, you can rest easy knowing the wines are perfectly drinkable, if not even enjoyable!