While Napa Valley tends to steal California’s vino spotlight, there’s another wine country you need to put on your travel bucket list: Temecula Valley.
Sitting just about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, Temecula is home to dozens of under-the-radar wineries that offer all the vineyard tours and wine tastings you could ask for, minus the pretension.
And for first-time wine country visitors like Marco and myself, it’s nice to feel like you’re in a safe space when you ask the inevitable silly wine question.
Last month, we were guests of Callaway Winery while I was on assignment. It’s said their 1974 white riesling, served to Queen Elizabeth II during a luncheon in New York City, was the only wine to ever prompt the Queen to ask for a second glass. So, it was safe to assume the bar was going to be quite high for this winery! Overall, we were pleasantly surprised with this laid-back and intimate winery in the heart of Temecula’s wine country.
Rows and rows of various wine grapes surround you as you drive up to Callaway Winery. It’s a quiet estate, and it’s easy to see why so many choose to get married here: hills filled with lush vines, hawks soaring overhead and an ever-present light breeze blowing through the tranquil air.
Tours run about an hour, taking you through the impressive cellars and the rustic barrel room, which practically begs to host a wine-themed wedding. Along the way, you’ll get to taste chardonnays and cabernets drawn directly from the fermentation tanks, developing your palette for finished and unfinished wines.
If you’re coming to Callaway (and I highly recommend you do), you need to get yourself to Meritage’s patio. This onsite restaurant overlooks Callaway’s rolling vineyards through glass enclosures. And the menu is impressive. Farm fresh fare like a roasted half-chicken with market vegetables or pear and goat cheese salad are all listed on the menu with the perfect wine pairing, making it easy for the novices like us to not completely ruin our meal with the wrong wine.
The absolute must-try is the Ceviche Mixto. I’ve had my share of Mexican-style ceviches (and I’m a big, big fan) but this Peruvian-inspired dish is one that General Manager Jozef Juck says is a crowd-favorite. Generous chunks of tuna are served with octopus, clams, wild shrimp and blue crab, all marinated in a citrus juice that “cooks” the seafood. Paired with their house made chips, the ceviche here is a winner.
Chef Mike Henry creates daily specials, too, so be sure to look for the blackboard on the wall. If the black cod (also known as butterfish) happens to be on the day’s menu, go for it. Buttery and light, you won’t be disappointed – or too full to enjoy the wines.
What I love about Callaway’s tasting room is the options: you can go automatic or full-service. They have a wall of self-serve tasting machines where you can buy a preloaded card and have at that dozens of wines – or, you can opt for that personal service at the bar. Tastings run $10 for 4 or $15 for 6 of your choice.
Marco and I are complete opposites when it comes to wine. He loves heavy reds that pack a punch, I’m a sucker for sweet dessert wines. But Callaway had plenty to please us both. And here’s where I would really recommend tasting at the bar, especially if you’re a first-timer: your server can design a progressive tasting menu for you based on your tastes, helping you to better enjoy the wines and their subtleties. While Marco was ready for a heavy red from the get-go, our guide was able to design a tasting flight of various reds that helped him build up to that big heavy finish – and boy, did he enjoy it.
If you fall in love with Callaway’s wines (and really, it wouldn’t be surprising), you can become a wine club member and have bottles shipped to your door each month. But one of the neatest perks of membership? If you’re within driving distance, you can come to Callaway and enjoy the member’s-only lounge, which offers nearly 360-degree views of Temecula Valley. Gorgeous for sunsets with a glass of wine in hand.
Callaway Winery is one of my faves in Temecula for romance or a laid-back girls’ weekend. What about you? Have you visited Temecula’s Wine Country?