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by Jerry D. Mead

It's one of California's premium wine regions, one of its wineries is a major national brand and its proximity to several major population centers makes it an ideal wine country day-trip.

    It is nowhere near Napa or Sonoma, and it isn't even close to San Francisco Bay. It is one of California's "other" wine regions, which like Lake County, Monterey, Paso Robles, Lodi-Woodbridge, Livermore and Santa Barbara-Santa Maria, is becoming more important with every vintage.

    Temecula is in Southern California, and is roughly an hour from both Orange County (do Temecula while the kids are doing Disneyland) and San Diego and roughly 90 minutes from downtown Los Angeles or Palm Springs. Access is via I-15.

    You can find out about Temecula by ordering the free color brochure, which includes maps, information on all 13 local wineries, plus information on accommodations and restaurants. Temecula Valley Vintners, Box 1601, Temecula, CA 92593 (800) 801-9463, E-mail: or website

    If your previous impression of the area is that of near-desert, you're not far off. Two major factors make it a premium grapegrowing region. One being good, well-drained soil, and the most important being "The Temecula Gap."

    Only a few miles in any direction, and the climate is too warm for growing fine wine grapes. The microclimate at Temecula is created by the aforementioned "Gap," a geographic reality that sucks cool marine air into the area, cooling it at night and frequently providing morning fogs.

    Callaway Vineyard & Winery is the major player in the area. Founded by Ely Callaway (the chap who sells golf clubs made out of hickory wood), it is now owned by the  corporation which also brings you Clos Du Bois, William Hill and Atlas Peak, premium North Coast brands all.

    The second most important brand in terms of national presence is Thornton Winery & Champagne Cellars, which won't be reviewed today because its Millennium Cuvee sparkling wine was a featured wine last week (96pts for quality).

    The only other winery with any national penetration to speak of is the Mount Palomar Winery, which is better known these days for its Castelletto brand of Italianate varieties and Rey Sol, its brand dedicated to Rhone-style wines.

    The rest of the wineries are pretty small, mostly selling out of their tasting rooms or in the immediate Southern California market. Considering their size, they win a disproportionate percentage of medals at major wine shows.

    Castelletto 1997 "Temecula" Cortese ($16) The first California winery to cultivate and vint this white Italian variety, it has inspired plantings by a number of famous California names who will no doubt soon release their own versions. This is the winery's fifth vintage from the grape which yields "Gavi di Gavi" in Italy, and every vintage has been a gold medalist. Where Gavi is usually a stainless steel wine, Castelletto is 100 percent barrel-fermented and bone dry. Nearly austere pear fruit with toasted vanilla overtones. Total production only 750 cases. Rating: 92/85

    Van Roekel 1997 "Temecula" Rose of Syrah ($10) Syrah is best known as the base for hearty red wines, but it also makes a dandy rose. Very fruity, in the strawberry-cherry range, with detectable but not offensive sweetness. Drink with brunch or picnic. Rating: 89/86

    Maurice Car'rie 1998 "Temecula" Chenin Blanc Soft ($7) I don't like the word "soft" on wine labels, as it always makes me think of flaccid and flabby, which this wine definitely is not. Really juicy melon with a hint of pineapple. It's the best off-dry (one percent residual sugar) Chenin I've tasted in years. Forget food. Chill it! Uncork it! Quaff it! Truly delicious. Rating: 96/100

    Stuart Cellars 1997 "South Coast" Viognier ($21) A pretty golden color makes it look so rich that it might be sweet, but it isn't. It's dry but fruity. An Orange County Fair gold medalist, it has ripe peach and pear fruit and should go nicely with Thai food. Rating: 90/84

    Callaway 1997 "Temecula" Dolcetta ($16) Another Italian variety, this one has ripe plum and blackberry fruit with a touch of black pepper spice in the background. Mouthfilling, but very user-friendly. Great with lots of foods: try blackened salmon or pasta wth spicy sausage. Rating: 90/88

    Cilurzo 1997 "Temecula Reserve" Merlot ($26) Earthy, somewhat complex nose with dark cherry fruit. Full bodied for a Merlot. Has some spine. Recently bottled, I suspect it's going through a "dumb" stage. It won a 4-Star Gold at Orange County. Rating: 89/82

    Filsinger 1997 "Temecula-Reserve" Cabernet Sauvignon ($19) Reminds me of the excesses of style from the early 70s. Too much of a good thing in every way. Too ripe, with plum flavors headed to prune. Too highly extracted and tannic. A touch high in alcohol. It may appeal to folks who grew up on grandpa's homemade wine. Rating: 80/79

    Hart 1996 "Temecula" Syrah ($18) Very ripe plum with pleasant spicy undertones and a little cassis. Big, bold and perfectly balanced. Plenty of spine but very round edges. Rating: 93/88

    Keyways 1997 "Temecula" Zinfandel ($17) Very ripe plum and berry fruit, with a very unusual cinnamon-clove kind of spiciness in the bouquet. A bit more of that quality shows up in the aftertaste. An easy drinking style. Rating: 87/84


    Callaway 1998 "Temecula" Chardonnay ($10) For years Callaway produced a no-oak Chardonnay called "Calla-Lees," which was quite popular and sold a lot of cases. This is the first Callaway oak-style Chardonnay and I like it better. What I don't understand is why they gave up the franchise on the popular style they've always made...some folks just don't like oak. They could have had two Chardonnays. Which doesn't stop this one from being a fun, delicious white wine, with tropical and ripe pineapple fruit, toasty oak vanillin notes and an implied sweetness. Rating: 87/93


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