Written by { Beth Weitzman

A mere 60-minute drive from San Diego, Orange County and Palm Springs, and a 90-minute drive from L.A., picturesque Temecula Valley Southern California Wine Country welcomes nearly 3 million visitors each year. With rolling hills, high mountains and a geography perfect for growing grapes, the viticultural region’s more than 40 wineries—including small artisan and limited-production cellars as well as large producing estates—are thriving.

Many Temecula Valley wineries have on-site restaurants in which to experience the pleasures of food and wine with inspiring vineyard views. From open-air casual to white-tablecloth fine dining, and from farm-to-table to classic fare, the restaurants are as appealing as the wine producers in this quickly growing area.

Aged and elegant estate varietals, as well as fresh and fruit-forward young wines, are produced here. Meanwhile, impressive blends consist of the complex, the harmonious, the proprietary and the avant-garde. Sparkling wines range from the classic methode champenoise to easily drinkable fruit- or nut-spiked bubbles. It all adds up to some seriously good juice. Vineyard and winery tours, and seated and vertical tastings, emphasize wine education.

Aside from wineries, the area is home to the Historic Old Town Temecula Foodie District, as well as natural landmarks, such as the Temecula Creek, one of the last free-flowing rivers in Southern California. The Pacific Ocean lies just 22 miles over the Coastal Mountain Range west of Temecula Valley. The valley’s unique microclimate makes for a general pattern of morning mist, warm midday sun, cooling afternoon breezes and cooler nights. In fact, the name Temecula is derived from the area’s largest Native American ancestral village; it has come to mean “land where the sun shines through the mist.”  A hot-air balloon ride or a horseback ride through the vineyards is a great experience. Tip: The annual Temecula Valley Balloon and Wine Festival (May 29-31) attracts 40,000 attendees over three days to enjoy balloon glows, liftoffs, wine tasting and live entertainment.

During a recent two-night visit, I stayed in Pechanga Resort and Casino’s newly renovated resort tower, in a deluxe room with a large outdoor terrace. The hotel is the largest resort casino in California and one of the largest in the U.S. Conveniently located on 400 acres between Old Town and the wineries, it provides easy access to all Temecula attractions. All 1,090 guest rooms and suites boast luxurious appointments including grand master baths. A 200,000-square-foot casino, 20 dining venues and bars, including the AAA Four Diamond-awarded Great Oak Steakhouse (renowned for 100-percent prime black Angus beef and a 900-plus bottle wine list),  Journey at Pechanga championship golf course with a pro shop and a restaurant, and a full-service Spa Pechanga with a salon, sundeck and swimming pool all add to the resort’s allure. Meanwhile, the 1,200-seat Pechanga Theater features A-list performers, while the 270-seat Comedy Club at Pechanga hosts stand-up comedians. The Casino Cabaret features nightly live music and dancing, and the Eagle’s Nest nightclub (located on the rooftop) provides panoramic views of the Temecula Valley skyline. Silk, also at Pechanga, is Southern California’s largest megaclub.

My friend and I kicked off our weekend getaway with dinner at Pechanga Resort and Casino’s fine-dining restaurant, Umi Sushi & Oyster Bar. Umi, which means “sea” in Japanese, serves up super-fresh sushi, sashimi, nigiri, rolls, oysters on the half shell, seafood platters and specialty cocktails. Our dining experience started with poke tacos made with raw ahi tuna, cucumber, avocado, wakame, red onion, sesame oil and wasabi tobiko in crispy wonton shells with pineapple relish. Other shared appetizers included salmon carpaccio and hamachi crudo. Everything was delicious. While an array of entrees, like crispy whole fish and steamed Alaskan king crab leg, were alluring, I opted for the sushi rolls. The Temecula Fire Roll—made with spicy tuna, crab, avocado, cucumber, spicy aioli, eel sauce and shishito pepper tempura—was especially tasty. And since I couldn’t stop thinking about the crab, I ordered the spicy king crab roll. The king crab came fully dressed with cucumber, avocado, hamachi, masago, togarashi, eel sauce, chipotle aioli and micro greens. Really impressive.

Since neither of us gamble, we turned in after dinner so we’d be fully rested for a full day of exploring. The next morning came quickly and began with breakfast at the hotel’s Journey’s End. Overlooking the gold course and surrounding Temecula Valley, the casual American eatery is open for breakfast and lunch. The huevos rancheros were super satisfying with two eggs, beans, crisp tortillas, cumin crème, roasted jalapeño, chicken, ranchero sauce, and a cilantro and onion mix. Satiated, we headed out for a taste of Temecula.

First stop: an olive oil ranch tour with Temecula Olive Oil Company owner Thom Curry, a family-owned and operated company founded in 2001. The sustainable agriculture ranch features a wide variety of olives with which it produces unique blends of hand-pressed California olive oils. The tour included learning about how the olives are harvested and how the oil is made. I found it interesting that the zero-waste company runs all of its farm equipment on olive oil. Any oil not extracted during the first pressing is used to make soaps, chocolates and other products. The tour concluded with an extraordinary olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting experience. An array of varieties are available for sale here, as well as at the Old Town location, online and at tasting rooms throughout SoCal, including the newest location at The Original Farmer’s Market in L.A.

Next up, we headed to BOTTAIA Winery for a wine and cheese pairing. The modern tasting room, restaurant and pool club is gorgeously designed to enhance the appreciation of wine in an elegant space. Inspired by professional tasting rooms in Italy, luxury hotels and high-end dining rooms, the tasting areas provide exclusive access for a limited number of guests in small groups. We indulged in the seated tasting and charcuterie pairing ($55 per person), which included a guided tasting of five preselected, high-quality estate wines paired with a charcuterie plate. The wine was excellent, as was the food and service. Truly top-notch. A really cool feature: the Pool at BOTTAIA features private cabins and chaise lounges, a poolside cafe and full-service cocktail bar, loungeside service and shaded tables. 

After such a decadent afternoon, we decided to chill out and relax at the Spa at Pechanga. The oasis of Zen boasts 10 therapy rooms, steam/sauna, a state-of-the-art gym, and a full-service nail and hair salon. Body treatments, massage therapy, skincare and salon services are all on offer here. I booked the Great Oak Purification Treatment. This purification ritual starts with grounding aromas, followed by a dry-brush exfoliation, and a warm sage and lavender-infused clay wrap. A scalp massage with chia seed extracts and jojoba oil lends further tranquility to the experience. It concludes with a full-body Himalayan salt stone massage using warm oil infused with native white sage, and topped off with a specialty tea made with rosehip. It was the perfect topper to the day.

After relaxing for a while in the spa’s spacious relaxation room, we decided to check out Old Town Temecula. Exuding authenticity at every turn, with majestic gateway arches, vintage boardwalks, iconic lampposts and historic structures, reminiscent of Old Town Scottsdale, the eclectic foodie district boasts a wide array of upscale white-tablecloth restaurants, contemporary and industrial bistros, and cafes—plus artisanal food emporiums, wine tasting rooms, and unique specialty stores and boutiques, all clustered in a compact, 12-block, pedestrian-friendly community.

For dinner, we headed to The Nightingale in Old Town—so named after Aesop’s fable, The Nightingale and The Sparrow. As in the story, the restaurant takes a humble approach to growing and constantly improving. The made-from-scratch menu and thoughtfully curated wine list were anything but humble, however, and we indulged in curried hummus (house naan, tomato, cucumber and Kalamata olives); Margherita pizza (fresh mozzarella, marinara and basil); halibut (fennel, roasted leeks, mushrooms and kumquat); and seared pork chop (with cauliflower puree, maple bacon jus and romesco). The restaurant is beautifully designed with an open kitchen, large bar and wine room as focal points. A truly memorable dining experience is found here.

Just when I thought I couldn’t eat another thing on this trip, E.A.T. Marketplace in Old Town, known for yummy vegan doughnuts and other delectable bakery items, beckoned for breakfast. I opted for the plant-based rancheros made with roasted yam and seasonal greens, wheat chorizo, black beans, Sonora sauce, organic corn tortilla, avocado and housemate cashew crema. Yet again, another fabulous meal.

To round out our stay, we stopped by a few more wineries before heading back to the city. The first stop was Doffo Winery, a family-run winery with roots in Argentina and Italy. After decades of building the winery to what it is today—by planting vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc—founder Marcelo Doffo has now entrusted his life’s work to his three children, Damian, Brigitte and Samantha. Damian took us on a personalized tour, and it’s clear he and his sisters are passionate about producing quality wine and entertaining visitors. A motorcycle collection can be admired while sipping MottoDoffo Royal Tinto—a proprietary red wine blend with a one-of-a-kind hand-painted artwork by Makoto Endo on every label. 

Next, we popped over to the Palumbo Family Vineyards & Winery. This family-run vineyard is committed to small-batch, handcrafted wines made from estate grapes. The 13-acre winery is home to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Sangiovese varietals. Nicholas Palumbo, along with his wife Cindy and their four children, produce 2,500 cases per year, and the boutique feel and artisanal quality can be tasted in every bottle. Expect full-bodied reds in both single-variety bottles as well as a few special blends, such as the popular Meritage, dubbed Tre Fratelli.

Finally, we ended our tour with lunch and wine pairing at Leoness Cellars. Rated as the No. 1 Winery Restaurant by USA Today’s 10 Best Reader’s Choice and Best Restaurant of the IE for four consecutive years, The Restaurant at Leoness Cellars provides an exceptional alfresco dining experience. The welcoming design, including a palette of beige and black, provided the perfect backdrop for the seasonal menu of salads, seafood, pastas, flatbreads and luscious desserts. Here, we enjoyed a special tasting menu, which included oysters with caviar and Champagne; scallops with radish and an Asian-inspired sauce; tuna tartare; halibut with black beans, corn and tomato topped with crispy onion rings; bacon and Grana Padano duck fat fries (for which the restaurant is known); and filet mignon with mushrooms and asparagus. For dessert, amazing strawberry meringue. The wine, meanwhile, was on par with some of the best I’ve had. All around, a truly impressive experience. On our way out, we browsed the wine accessories and fun homewares in the gift shop. 

As we embarked on our road trip back to L.A., all I could think was how lucky we are to have a place like Temecula so close to home! We’re already planning a return visit to check out the bevy of places we didn’t get to see over our quick weekend.