Text and Photos by Corey Noelle

 

W

ith the holiday season in the rear view mirror, it is time to find something to look forward to for the new year. If you are among those still working remotely, like me, the living room has become your new office and the line between week and weekend has been a bit blurry, to say the least. Without an “end of the week” marker, time seems to be going both painfully slow and alarmingly fast! Although many of California’s most popular destinations have been temporarily closed to visitors, looking forward to their reopening and a weekend getaway may be just what you need to start off 2021.

In September, my now fiance and I took a short trip to Temecula — Southern California’s hidden wine country, located about 250 miles south of Tulare County. Our mini vacation started with an early morning, 3.5-hour drive from Porterville to the hotel where we would spend the night in Temecula.

When it came to choosing a place to stay, we found several wineries with accommodation options, but due to the minimum stay restrictions, we opted for a chain hotel near the wineries on our list. There is a long list of wineries to visit in Temecula and, fortunately, most of them are within a short drive of one another. If you want to avoid driving yourself, ride sharing is available through companies like Lyft and Uber, but it’s not immensely popular, so be prepared to wait 15-20 minutes for your driver to arrive. Rather than drawing straws for a designated driver, we chose to check into our hotel and catch a Lyft to visit our first winery.

Our first stop was Vitagliano Winery. It has been open to the public for about four years, but it has been hosting private events for more than 15 and it is no surprise why someone would choose this for a party venue. There are plenty of places for a larger party of 8-10 to gather, but there are also ample spots to find an intimate setting among the grapevines. If you are visiting on a particularly hot day, you will appreciate the shaded seats lined with misting sprinklers and a glass of sparkling rose. Another summer-weather favorite is the wine slushie.

If you are looking to explore the tastes of Vitagliano Winery before you settle into a full glass, it offers a tasting flight of five two-ounce pours for under $20. Be prepared to order a bite to eat and keep your tab open. For this and all of the winery locations we visited, every alcohol sale must be accompanied by food during the COVID-19 state-mandated restrictions. Luckily, there is a menu of small dishes available to purchase; I recommend the carne asada street tacos.

Photos left to right. Good vibes from a smiley face on the ceiling of the balloon. The castle-like exterior of Vitagliano Winery. Exterior of Bottaia Winery. A wine flight on the terrace of Bottaia Winery. 

Once we were ready to move on, we made our way to Bottaia Winery, a rather new addition to the Temecula wine scene that opened to the public in 2018. It is an understatement to say that this winery is beautiful, and you would be hard-pressed to find a bad seat in the house because the views are fantastic from every angle. The décor is modern and clean. In this Instagram-worthy venue, I half expected to bump elbows with someone famous. The flagship wine is the Montepulciano, a red wine with notes of cedar, tobacco and black currant. As a red wine lover, I highly recommend you give it a try. If red wine is not your thing, there is a long list of options, and you can purchase a flight with wines of your choice for under $20. In addition to the tasting spaces at Bottaia Winery, you can also grab day passes to enjoy the pool. While taking the opportunity to cool off at the pool, you can enjoy a glass of wine and even upgrade your day pass to include a private cabin for changing and storing your belongings. It’s important to note that although the pool is advertised as family-friendly, it’s not exactly your local community pool. The atmosphere is still an upscale winery rather than a jumping and splashing zone that your kiddos may hope for.

After our time at Bottaia Winery, we were ready for dinner, so we headed to Goat & Vine in old town Temecula. This restaurant was a great choice for us because of our different tastes. The broad menu here will satisfy diners from the classic to the more daring palette.

If you belong to the latter group, do yourself a favor and try the Jalapeño Lime Carnitas pizza. The ingredients are so fresh, and you might just realize that everything could taste better topped with their jalapeno lime crema — it is phenomenal. Once we were stuffed with pizza and a few delicious well-crafted cocktails, we chose to call it a night before an early morning wake-up for our concluding adventure in Temecula — a hot air balloon ride!

For this night-owl, 5 a.m, came way too quickly, but we made it on time for the 6 a.m. check-in with Magical Adventures Balloon Rides. Piloting a hot air balloon in Southern California requires apt timing because you cannot safely fly before sunrise, but you want to fly before the weather gets too hot, which is why we were asked to arrive so early. Until this experience, I had only seen these balloons from a distance, and I was very surprised by their massive size. To add to that surprise, these giant balloons inflated in about 20 minutes … of course, that was with the help of a well-organized team of professionals moving the fabric, controlling the fans, and instructing the passengers where to stand and when to move.

Once the balloon is inflated, it’s time to quickly jump into the passenger basket. We were separated into groups of 16 passengers per balloon, which made for a tight squeeze, so if social-distancing is part of your COVID-safety precautions, you may need to sit this one out. One last piece of advice for those considering a hot air balloon ride — dress appropriately! Because of the constant need to burn propane to control the vessel, it can get very hot during the ride. There is no way to steer a hot air balloon, but the seasoned pilots use the heat from burning propane to increase elevation or slow decent. Since you are relying on wind currents to move as opposed to an engine, the ride is quiet and peaceful — if you closed your eyes, you may not even know that you have left the ground!

For our brief vacation, Temecula did not disappoint! With a resume of more than thirty wineries and an adorable downtown, Temecula makes for an accessible, affordable and romantic destination. If you are considering a trip, every season brings its own spin to the region – from grape stomping in the fall harvest season, to admiring the blooming flowers in the spring. No matter when you plan your trip, you are sure to find a fun weekend in southern California’s wine country.

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