From up here, this could easily be Napa. It could easily be Italy, or France. The sentiment is echoed by the other twelve people sharing a hot air balloon basket with me as we float lazily on the early morning breeze. Vineyards, orchards, and elegant chateaux beneath us, blue skies above broken up by the occasional cloud or balloon, the scene is serene. In a few hours, when the tasting rooms open for the day, the landscape will be crowded with cars full of eager wine tourists from nearby Los Angeles or San Diego, but for now, we seem to have the whole landscape to ourselves. Yes, this could be Napa, or any number of wine regions of Europe. But we are in Temecula, and it is amazing.
In 1976, the so-called Judgment of Paris, which pitted French wines and California wines from Napa against each other in a blind test, California officially became part of the “in” crowd when it came to wine making. Shocking everyone, wines from Napa beat their French counterparts. But California wine doesn’t come only from Napa, though that northern region certainly has more name recognition. Over the past few decades, other wine regions here in the Golden State have made significant progress against the heavyweight champion of the area, and today, incredible wines are just as likely to be found in Santa Barbara or Paso Robles. Or here in Temecula.
California Dreamin’ Balloon Adventures is one of a handful of companies taking people like me into the skies to see the region as the birds and clouds do. Our group met at Vindemia, a winery owned by the same family as the balloons, at 5am so that we could launch shortly after the sun. From up here, it is easy to see why Temecula makes such a great wine destination. The cool early morning mist and breeze offset the warm afternoons, creating a climate very similar to Spain, and perfect for so many Southern European wine varietals. Citrus orchards commingle with the vineyards – our expert pilot, Dylan, even guides our balloon within a few feet of skimming orange and grapefruit trees before taking us back up well over 1,500 feet – and give many of the wines here a lovely note that screams California.
Dylan points out some of the areas award-winning wineries from our vantage point. Temecula is home to around fifty wineries, drawing millions of visitors annually, featuring some truly elegant wines. The majority of wineries here only produce batches for local consumption, so while there are numerous wines rating out at 90+ points, you will recognize few of them. No, the best way to experience these gems is to explore.
Back on the ground after a glorious morning flight and a smooth landing I could barely feel, Dylan and the crew pour glasses of champagne from nearby South Coast Winery. He tells us that the very first hot air balloon flight in France featured champagne; the pilots didn’t know where they would land, and carried bottles from the king’s private label to prove they were civilized to whichever farmer happened across them and their new contraption. It feels wonderful to be able to continue that tradition.
It would be easy to spend a week or a month here in Temecula. With so many wineries to choose from, how can one narrow it down in a shorter time than that? For many visitors, hopping from one tasting room to the next is a way to try many different wines, and even different approaches to wine. For me, a comfortable tasting room or patio, a few good wines, and a sunny afternoon is bliss to spend in a single location, and for this trip, Wilson Creek Winery beckons.
I’m not the only person to have this idea, apparently. Wilson Creek features both indoor and outdoor tasting areas, and have added more space to allow for social distancing between parties, and all are full with smiling wine drinkers. Rhett, my sommelier for the day, introduces himself and asks my wine preferences. I relay that I don’t like oaky flavors or reds too heavy in tannins but that I will trust him beyond that, then settle in. We are on a covered patio just outside the main tasting room (and shop), surrounded on two sides by grape vines and rose bushes. A few moments later, I’m sipping on Wilson Creek’s famous almond sparkling wine (otherwise known as champagne), thoroughly enjoying my existence.
Wilson Creek makes amazing wines, but what brings people in for the first time is their flavored sparkling wine. There are several varieties, and before long I’ve tried the orange and peach in addition to the almond. All are lovely, but the almond and peach stand out. As Rhett says, people come for the almond, and come back for the peach. As he begins to serve me more traditional wines, my mind starts to tally the number of people in my life who need a bottle of flavored sparkling wine, and I wonder if the trunk of my car is big enough.
A couple hours later, I’ve indulged in three whites (including their incredible Golden Jubilee) and a couple magnificent reds (don’t miss the petit Syrah), plus a lovely conversation about wine with the parties on either side of me. I thank Rhett – people, please don’t forget to thank and tip your sommeliers – and take an afternoon stroll through the vineyards. Tiny bunches of grapes are just beginning to appear, and the smells of early summer are all around. It is relaxing, intoxicating, and luxurious all in one, as I slowly make my way down row after row of vines, smiling at the others who are delighting to spend their weekends doing the same. I close my eyes in the sun, take in the soft breeze, and allow the perfume of the day to pleasantly infiltrate my nostrils.
Back at the Wilson Creek shop, the only hard part is figuring out how to limit myself to a single case. I succeed, but I’m not happy about it, and will need to return for more.
Few things are as wonderful as a weekend away, and for those living in – or visiting – Southern California, Temecula makes an incredible destination. Whether you see it from a shaded tasting room, a sun-lit vineyard, or the basket of a hot air balloon, it is a place that will capture your heart, your senses, and your palate. Cheers to the next visit!
Thank you to California Dreamin’ Balloon Adventures and Wilson Creek Winery for generously sponsoring my hot air balloon and wine tasting experiences. I want to assure all my readers that my opinions are not influenced by that generosity in any way.
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