The unexpected pleasures of a Temecula Valley getaway
Since its earliest grape-growing days a little more than half a century ago, Temecula Valley has become the best kind of surprise: an award-winning official American Viticulture Area right in the heart of Southern California, with towering palms punctuating the local vineyards as if for emphasis.
But beyond the joys of a wine region so close to the area's beach and theme park standard-bearers, several other unexpected pleasures await you in this mountain-fringed enclave more or less midway between Los Angeles and San Diego along the I-15.
Read on for six of our favorites, then plan your own unique Temecula Valley getaway.
Modern makers in historic surroundings
Though Old Town Temecula is fun for the historic vibes alone, there’s something delicious about the juxtaposition of the modern maker movement against the sprawling, centuries-old backdrop you’ll find between the archways that read “Temecula, Est. 1859.”
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A few shops not to miss: the Temecula Olive Oil Company in the 1880s Welty building, home to everything from a hotel to a boxing ring until this award-winning local olive oil maker moved in; the Temecula Lavender Co., whose own local farms supply the heaven-scented shelves of this onetime cottage; and Old Town Spice and Tea Merchants, where the house-blended seasonings draw the town’s best chefs (and occasionally bear these esteemed names, as you’ll find on packets of Chef Dave’s BBQ Rub).
But it’s another subset of customers—local brewers and mead makers who integrate the shop’s tea blends into their drinks—that brings us to the next surprise.
Wine is just the start
Wineries reign supreme in Temecula Valley (more on that soon). But distillers, craft brewers, mead makers and even coffee roasters are emerging as worthy rivals in the drink-making department. Old Town Temecula alone is home to Galway Spirits, Garage Brewing Company, Ironfire Brewing and Stone Church Brewing, to name a few.
You'll also find excellent ways to slake your thirst in Vail Headquarters: the older-than-Old-Town enclave that dates to the Butterfield Stage Trail era. Set between a Kohl’s and Famous Footwear, the entrance feels like a secret portal in plain sight that leads to the 19th century.
Of course, you should see this living historic park (and home to the Temecula Valley Historical Society’s fascinating antique shop) regardless of how thirsty you are. But once you’ve taken some time to check out the artifacts and read up on the local history, fill up at Grazing Theory Lavish Charcuterie (another hallmark of the modern maker movement, with picnic-friendly cheese samplers, among other offerings).
Then check out the resident collection of cold brews, from the nitro brews on offer in the very adobe where the 1852 Treaty of Temecula was signed (now an outpost of The Press Espresso Coffee Roasters) to the craft brews on tap at the Temecula Brewing Company, in another Vail Headquarters historic site you can reach by walking segments of the old Butterfield Stage Trail.
The daily aerial show you can catch (or be part of)
Thrill-seekers have been ballooning around this region since the early 1900s, but the pursuit has become so popular that you now have your choice of daily departures in Temecula Valley. Cielo Balloons, California Dreamin’ Balloon Adventures, A Grape Escape Balloon Adventure and Magical Adventure Balloon Rides take off almost every morning, and almost always over the winelands, where you’ll float over idyllic vineyards and groves.
Whether you’re watching from the ground or from the basket of a balloon—the latter offering you a view onto the kaleidoscope of additional balloons rising, drifting or descending all around you—the show is surreal, and never more so when someone is skydiving from one of the baskets in question. If you want to be that person, check with the local operators about arrangements. You’ll be the talk—and toast–of your fellow ballooners that day.
The European escape you can have while you’re here
On the one hand, the Temecula Valley AVA is a distinctly Southern Californian wine-growing region, with grape-friendly conditions that could exist only here: the natural heating and cooling systems inherent to this confluence of Pacific and desert air, for starters. On the other hand, parts of the Temecula Valley make you feel almost like you’re on a little bonus getaway to Europe.
Chief among them, of course, is Europa Village, where the founder’s love of three particular European winemaking countries—Spain, Italy and France—forms the basis of this Med-evoking enclave. That influence starts with the wines themselves (which are doing quite well, gracias: the onsite Bolero’s Albariño recently debuted to a 91 from Wine Enthusiast, among the brand’s other 90+-rated wines)—but also extends to everything from the house cocktails (try the Tinto de Verano) to the lingua franca on the signage (Sala de Vino = tasting room).
Among other wineries that may well give you the sensation of having taken a side trip to Europe sans boarding pass or time zone change is Robert Renzoni Vineyards, whose founding family’s winemaking roots date back to the 1800s, when great-grandpa Federico was a vineyard worker and eventual winemaker alongside the Adriatic before moving to New York to join his brother Romeo in the wine and cordial business just before—alas—Prohibition. The family eventually returned to the wine business, and this molto Italiano spot in the Temecula Valley is the resulting and much heralded labor of love.
But another winery puts an entirely different (and literal) spin on its Italian heritage: Doffo Winery—the brainchild of Argentine-Italian winemaker Marcelo Doffo, whose great uncle used to make estate wine near Turin—houses a massive and stunning collection of vintage European racing motorcycles in addition to his award-winning wines, all in a meticulously converted old cattle farm and one-room schoolhouse. And as you’ll see in the next section, he’s not the only local with a fondness for vintage motorcycles.
The wheels whose vintage rivals the wines
Sidecar Tours is a modern take on those historic European motorcycles with adjacent, low-slung passenger seats. And though perhaps best known as a means of military mobilization from the early 20th century, “motorbike sidecars” turn out to be brilliantly suited to endlessly happier pursuits: touring Temecula Valley’s wine country being a prime example.
Starting with a ride through the vines of Akash Winery & Vineyard, the company’s bestselling Temecula Wine Tour takes you to a succession of local wineries for tastings, with lots of stunning scenery en route. But if you become enamored of the transport itself—as is likely to happen—know that you can also take sidecar tours of Temecula’s breweries, foodie hotspots, cocktail scene and more.
The sweetest of sweets
Never been to a chocolatier and petting zoo in one? The Temecula Valley would like to remedy that. At Sugarplum Zoo and Chocolates, you can sample house-made confections by the same woman who supplies some of Southern California’s highest-end hotels (don’t miss the coconut truffles) while you spend quality time with her rescue brood.
Among the cutest and most pet-able creatures in residence are an enormous pig, several goats and an alpaca, but the marquee menagerie members are without question the zebras and camel. Then, of course, there’s Hibou, the owl found by the vineyard manager of the esteemed Wilson Creek Winery, who at first thought the severely injured owl was just a napkin blowing in the breeze. Nursed back to the highest attainable degree of health, she now presides over the shop from her protected perch, taking the sweetness of your visit to a whole new level.