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Temecula is California’s Inland Slice of Italy

Photos By : Dustin Klemann

Floating four thousand feet above a patchwork of green crops and brown earth, those inside the basket of a hot air balloon watch as the sun creeps up through the valley of Temecula’s Mount Palomar. The gentle roll of fog in the distance begins to recede as the morning wears on. The sound of roosters crowing below signals the dawn of a new day in this beautiful corner of California.

Piloting this colorful floating bulb is Brian Marquez, who flies for California Dreamin’ Balloon Adventures. Part navigator, part tour guide, Brian has logged close to 200 rides over his eight years of flying. But this job is just for fun. “I enjoy flying and it’s a nice way to make some extra cash, but I’m really a winemaker,” he explains, as the balloon drifts across a citrus grove. “Winemaking is more controlled, but with flying balloons, I can’t control the direction, we just go with the wind.”

It’s a sentiment that can be applied across the various excursions on offer – from horseback riding to wine tasting by side car, karaoke in Old Town, and more. “When I moved here in 2019 from North Carolina, I came out here for a tour and I ended up knowing more about the vines than the guide,” says California Ranch Company (CRC) trail guide manager Maria Kurtzweil. “[The guide] said ‘you know what you’re talking about,’ and asked me if I wanted a job. Of course, I said ‘yes.’”


A veteran with a degree in biology and health sciences, Maria left the lab for the stable. On a hot August morning, she guides horses Paco – “Paco loves tacos,” she jokes –, Charlie Horse and Whisky out of their stable for a trail ride. “Many of the race horses you see competing in Santa Ana come from Temecula,” explains Maria as she and Whisky ascend a dusty hill on this 90-minute ride.

The horses round the corner, approaching a hillside of vines. The Temecula Valley boasts over 2,500 acres of vines and about 47 wineries, each with its own unique origin story. Fazeli Cellars Winery opened in 2015 and reflects the upbringing of Owner BJ Fazeli, a Persian entrepreneur who fled Iran in 1978. He takes pride in the Persian heritage demonstrated in menu items like walnut panaar, a name he coined for a dip made of cream cheese, walnut, pomegranate molasses and pomegranate seeds. A haven for celebrations and family gatherings, BJ designed the property first and foremost as an event space.

Nearby Somerset Vineyard and Winery was born of the minds of brothers Kurt and John Tiedt, and their close friends. In the spirit of achieving a “naked” wine uninfluenced by outside factors, the brothers created a line of wines that mature in terracotta pots in the old Italian style of aging. “There are no extra flavors or influences from oak or steel,” says tasting room attendant Nick Tiedt. “It interacts differently with the wine and absorbs tannins so you get more grape. We’re the only ones in Southern California doing this.” One such terracotta-matured wine is aptly called Caesar’s Ghost.

Neighboring Leoness Cellars offers what it calls the “perfect wine experience,” backed by 50 years of farming history. The wines produced here are made exclusively with Leoness-grown grapes. Among the wines produced at Leoness Cellars are Viognier, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, White Merlot, Muscat Canelli, and Cinsault Port, as well as small lots of other specially selected varietals.


A name that means “soaring to new heights,” close by Altisima Winery is the brainchild of nine different families. An ode to its Spanish roots, the likeness of the Imperial Eagle of Spain is emblazoned on the label of Altisima bottles. “The bird has nine points, just like the number of families that opened the winery,” shares Bradley Stuart, a tasting room attendant. As he pours a glass of the signature cabernet sauvignon, he nods to the future of this young winery. “They plan to build a 48-room hotel on the property, giving guests a very intimate experience with the wine.” 

Accompanying the multitude of meticulously crafted wines are exceptional restaurants like 1909 in Old Town and Bolero, which is folded into the vines. At 1909, a sidewalk facing patio allows diners to enjoy New American plates while taking in the sights and sounds of the town’s storied architecture and historic main street. Choose between a plate of lobster, rice and beans, or a yellow tofu curry – the menu is wide-ranging and accommodates any palate or diet. Finish the meal off with a sparkler speared root beer float.

When a plate of steaming olive-studded paella arrives to the table at Bolero in Europa Village, it’s impossible not to salivate. And if the fresh veggies and seafood don’t do the trick, perhaps the whole roasted Chilean sea bass or an appetizer of green chickpea dip will do the trick. Executive Chef Hany Ali comes to the table with a large grin, prepared to ask a question he already knows the answer to. “How is it?” he asks, fully aware that the plate of wild mushrooms could silence the noisiest of patrons. His focus on local produce and purveyors comes from the deep sense of community he found in Temecula after leaving home in Egypt several years ago. “I want to support others and the community,” he says. “Yes, it comes at a cost but you can sense the value. It’s about how many hearts, not dollars, can we reach.” The menu changes every 60 to 90 days, allowing seasonal produce to steer what’s served.

The end of a long day of wine, food and adventure calls for a comforting place to lay one’s head. In the picturesque 4-star mission style Ponte Vineyard Inn, the sounds of its many waterfalls and the gentle breeze through the estate vineyard make for a soothing send off to dreamland. Nestled among the property’s 300 acres of vines, the 60-room inn features an underground cellar bar and a dining room. After a good night’s rest, coffee and a sunrise can be enjoyed on the room’s private patio. With breathtaking views of the scenic Temecula hills, plans for the next day ahead are only limited to the imagination.

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