,During the early morning hours of April 18th, 2014, a freak propane explosion disturbed the wine country solitude of the Temecula Valley. The kitchens and part of the tasting room of one of the region’s oldest wineries were badly affected, yet Mount Palomar Winery was open for business a few days later and rose from the ashes in true wine-pioneer spirit.
Luckily for us, the vineyards and production area were spared, the kitchen was rebuilt and a new restaurant appeared. Annata (which is Italian for ‘vintage) is a bright, light and airy space – modern yet comfy – with indoor and patio seating. The menu, crafted by Chef Ronnie Chavez is all about fresh, local, seasonal, and made-from-scratch with a focus that's mainly Mediterranean; think Hummus in regular and red pepper with house-made pita chips, locally sourced marinated olives, classic kebabs and mouthwatering flatbreads. There’s also a nod to comfort fare, like steak and fries or burgers. Chef refers to it as ‘”a bit daring and different” and “cheeky fun”!
And speaking of fun, Annata Bistro & Bar excels at the art of the cocktail, continuing with the fresh, local and seasonal theme. Bar Manager Kevin Adam and his staff dedicate hours of research to come up with new and exciting mix-ups on the classics; ‘Pomegranate Martinis’ use estate fruit for example. If you love ginger, you’ll adore the refreshingly spicy ‘Ginger Crush’ with zippy Italian blood orange soda.
But let’s not forget that Mount Palomar, despite the great food, crafty cocktails, and panoramic views, is and has been since 1969, one of the founding wineries of the Temecula Valley wine region, with 315 acres and vineyards growing over 25 different grape varieties. They were the first in the area to plant the Italian variety Sangiovese and one of the few to grow Cortese; a white grape from the Piedmonte region and there are new plantings of Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Mourvedre and Aglianico.
Winemaker James Rutherford is no slouch when it comes to history – wine history that is. If his surname rings a bell, that’s because his family was one of the early settlers and wine producers in Napa Valley, way back when the area was still part of Mexico. His roots run deep and he was attracted to Temecula because he feels the region “still welcomes the pioneering spirit and is flexible to creativity”.
One of Mount Palomar’s claims to fame has to be their Sherry Solera. Begun in 1974, they produce this famous, fortified sweet cream sherry using the classic grapes, Palomino and Pedro Ximénx and utilize the centuries old tradition of the ‘Solera’. Their outdoor solera is the last one in the state and here, in the warm Southern California sun, the wine ages in barrel for a minimum of 5 years. The process causes the wine to oxidize, creating the delicious and distinctive toffee and nut flavors. The barrels are arranged in rows, each holding a different vintage. Once a year, before bottling, the winemaker will take wine from the oldest barrels and then ‘top up’ from the second oldest. Those barrels, in turn, will be filled with wine from the third oldest row, and so it goes.
While Mount Palomar may boast of being one of the oldest vineyard/wineries in the valley, not far down Rancho California Road, you'll find a younger upstart that takes its cue from Old World traditions.
Europa Village Winery was originally conceived as exactly that; a village – complete with shops, restaurants, hotels and vineyard estates, all linked together with wines influenced by the old world: France, Spain and Italy.
When construction began in late 2010, the worldwide economic downturn caused the founding partners to rethink their immediate plans and they decided to create a ‘Prelude to Europa Village’. This downsized version was an instant hit as it blended great wines, relaxing gardens, and traditional hospitality with an Old World ambiance.
A great addition, sitting atop the hill next to Prelude, is the delightful ‘Inn at Europa Village’. Chef Dean and his wife Nicole are the perfect hosts who will pamper you with inviting accommodation and one of the best breakfasts in town.
Today, plans are full speed ahead on the ‘big’ project. In a few more years visitors will be able to enjoy the wines of Europa Village as they stroll from a French Chateau to a Spanish Bodega or while soaking in a vineyard view from the patio of a Tuscan villa. And all without jet-lag!
While you wait, enjoy the following suggestions from their wine list, which currently features 37 offerings:
2012 Annabel Brut: a light and delicious way to start the celebration, this bubbly is crafted in the traditional ‘champenoise’ method.
2015 C’est La Vie Viognier – silky and fresh, with typical varietal notes of apricot, honey and white flower blossoms
2014 Vienza Vendetta – A blend of 70% Sangiovese and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, this ‘Super Tuscan’ style wine is deep and delicious with dark cherry, woodsy, ‘forest floor’ notes and milk chocolate.
2014 Bolero Cellars Tempranillo – black juicy berries, toasted smoky walnut and sweet cherry.
Disclaimer: The author was hosted at both Mount Palomar and Europa Village as part of a group from the International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association. She was also a consultant for the opening of Europa Village in 2011. All opinions, views and descriptions are the writer’s own.
Hilarie Larson is a wine writer, and educator, who loves nothing more than traveling to vineyard and food destinations. Join her as she shares some of her experiences on the wine roads.