Last Updated on December 4, 2023
Scrolling through photos from my last Italy trip to the Tuscan countryside, rolling hills with perfectly striped lines of vines alternating with rich mahogany soil and cream-colored villas bookended by commanding cypress trees fill my reel.
With every swipe left, I reminisce about the serenity of this pastoral region and yearn to return. Little did I expect that visiting Temecula, CA would temper that yearning without crossing the ocean. I found a fix of “Bella Italia” only an hour north of San Diego on the I-15.
Nestled between valleys of the Coastal Mountain Range, fruits and flowers rejoice in the Mediterranean climate thanks to the Rainbow Gap, a dip in the Santa Margarita Mountain range which allows cooling breezes from the Pacific Ocean to nurture the area.
Ancestrally inhabited by the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, highly respected for their basket weaving and stone-tool manufacturing, Temecula was later established as part of the United States’ mailing route of the Butterfield Overland Mail Coach when the post office was built in 1859.
Thanks to warmer days and cooler nights making happy grapes, today, this area is known as Southern California’s prime wine country with over 50 wineries and plans for 50 more in the next decade. Choosing to visit for its sunshine and wineries, I was pleasantly surprised to walk into an almost mirror image of the Tuscan hillside in this piccolo (little) Californian countryside.
My South Coast Winery Villa
I stepped out of my car and into a painting of undulating hills rowed with gnarled grapevines dotted by purple bunches, wisteria pods dripping from pergola ceilings, and bougainvillea cascading over trellises leading up to Mediterranean style villas at the South Coast Winery.
After check-in with a complimentary glass of cucumber-mint water, my luggage and I were whisked away on a golf cart and escorted to a cluster of guest villas. Brick-paved stairs surrounded by low stone walls led to a charming, manicured garden entrance complete with bubbling fountain. Tall oak doors opened to a spacious guestroom designed with elegantly upholstered furniture, a welcoming fireplace, plush bathrobes hanging in a roomy closet, a large spa tub surrounded in stones, and all wood trimmings.
When I peeled back the curtains, my private patio invited me to sit at the petite iron table, breathe, and linger to watch the sun kissing the soon-to-be harvested grapes only footsteps away.
No passport was required for transportation into Temecula’s Tuscan-like hills for locally sourced wines.
At Danza del Sol Winery, Director of Hospitality Walter Carter engaged me in cheerful conversation and high cascading pours as I began my wine-tasting journey with subtle notes of fig and nutmeg of the Sangiovese. I ended with the velvety smooth finish of sun-ripened cherry tomatoes and dark chocolate of the Super Tuscan. Danza del Sol Winery’s tasting room has a variety of sweet wines, whites, reds, and sparkling, created by winemaker Justin Knight, including many Europe favorites with a California twist like an Estate Sauvignon Blanc made from 51-year-old grapes.
While I didn’t have the opportunity to visit the renowned Robert Renzoni Vineyards on this visit, I discovered that it pays homage to Italian immigrant winemakers Federico, Romeo, and Domenic, who journeyed from Fano, Italy to Temecula with family stock dating back to Florence. Robert Renzoni, the fourth generation of Renzoni’s, established this picturesque wine estate, the region’s 100% solar-powered winery.
In my research, I learned about violet and strawberry rhubarb notes in the Montepulciano, rich cherry and dried herbs of their Barbera, and strawberry mingled with leather, mocha, and clove in the Fiore Di Fano. I’m definitely here the next time!
“Sweet or sparkling, or both?” asked our tasting room attendant as she poured a glass of the Sparkling Pinot Grigio at South Coast Winery. It reminded me of the fruits of the harvest, a swirling combination of sweet pears and crisp tart apples. The honey-kissed Spumante Diamante would be perfect for eliciting equally bubbly giggles celebrating “the dolce vita” on a girls’ trip.
Slow Food and Easy Conversation
Aside from wine and scenery, Temecula also excels at the Italian tradition of “slow food” and great conversation. Italians are noted for their passion for food. It’s part of their daily culture. When they aren’t cooking, eating, making reservations, or shopping at the markets, they talk about food to anyone willing to spend 20 minutes or more on what they ate, where, and who makes the best.
At E.A.T. Marketplace, founder Leah Di Bernardo makes flavor and authenticity come to life with her belief in knowing where their food comes from and what is in it. With her sunny yellow glasses and vibrant “let’s eat well” attitude, Di Bernardo talked about the ingredients she uses for no-guilt, grain-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, or egg-free sweets that can be made without sacrificing comfort and taste.
Utilizing ingredients such as monk fruit, almond flour, and vegan butter, Leah said, “we are going to blow up donuts.”
Her menu features Italian inspirations such as a bread sub made with pesto scrambled eggs, fontina cheese, balsamic reduction, and a mighty green salad with a blood orange vinegarette. Patrons indulged in an Italian-style breakfast of sweets such as lemon poppy donuts, coffee cake of the day, and seasonal bread puddings paired with classic cappuccino or lattes made from locally farmed lavender.
Chef Ben Diaz is a master dream-weaver of culinary flavors at Cork Fire Kitchen. His garden of pesticide-free organic produce can be found in the property’s backyard.
I noted towers of green stalks stacked with globes of Brussel sprouts and petite bushes dripping with grenades of pomegranate. Images of Tuscany flashed through my mind once again with the rows and rows of sunflowers serving as master pollinators flanking the gardens turnips, radishes, beets, artichokes, carrots, and herbs.
Chef Diaz happily admits that he figures out the menu from what pops up in the seasonally organized garden.
“Each produce adds as well as takes away, so we strategically know what to plant, when, and near to which pollinator plants to grow our food,” he told me.
Similar to Italian traditions of community foraging, this garden is also shared with locals to plant, pick, and eat well. Seasonal dishes transporting guests to harvest time in Tuscany may include stuffed squash blossoms, wild mushroom risotto with toasted pinenuts, succulent oxtail pasta, and fall-off-the-bone lamb shank in a red wine reduction. Bella plate presentations sprinkled with colorful petite edible flowers drew me in while forkfuls of tender meats and nourishing vegetables warmed my belly.
Upon visiting Europa Village’s Spanish-inspired winery and tapas restaurant, Bolero, I had the pleasure of touring what’s to become the latest edition to the campus, Vienza, scheduled to open in 2024.
This Italian venue will include Italian varietal wine tastings, a grand ballroom with an Old World wooden beamed ceiling, a garden complete with an architectural colonnade, and most intriguingly, an authentic delicatessen and market for shopping your favorite Italian goods. On my next visit I’ll be signing up for the pasta and pizza-making classes.
Temecula Olive Oil
Like many small towns in Tuscany, Old Town Temecula is a mini-version of a centro storico where locals and tourists go for restaurants, bars, and boutique shopping. Finding Italy on Old Town Front Street couldn’t have been easier. It had me at olive oil.
The flagship corner store of the Temecula Olive Oil Company invites patrons to join in on oil and vinegar pair tastings that start with a story of two friends, Nancy and Catherine, and an idea from Thom (Nancy’s spouse) to make their olive oil from grove to bottle.
The olive grove estate showcases over 30 varieties of olives. Sampling the Fresh Mediterranean Herbs variety, my nose was greeted with basil, oregano, and rosemary – staple flavors of the Mediterranean. The Fresh Blood Orange olive oil had me racing to the register to re-stock my pantry!
The Temecula Landscape
There’s no better way to experience the tranquility and beauty of this land than leaning into the gentle sway atop a magnificent horse at CDC Ranch. Its guided horseback tour made for a perfect, lazily paced morning passing through vines heavy with late-harvest purple bundles.
Maria, our tour guide and a local college zoology and anatomy professor with an anatomically correct skull arm tattoo, assured my group that the horses are trained to confidently ascend and descend the narrow paths safely. She was right, and the views were amazing!
Florence is known to be the Italian city of artistic expression. While Michaelangelo and Raphael never set foot in California, Temecula’s local artists are revered in galleries, festivals, museums, and wineries.
While strolling through Old Town, I found art treasures in artisanal shops and vibrant murals, statues, and bracketing archways. From a local, I learned about the annual Ralph Love Plein Air Competition, where artists display their canvases throughout the town. The winner takes home a “best in show” prize and the honor of judging next year’s competition.
Temecula had just celebrated its 24th annual outdoor quilt show sponsored by the Valley of the Mist Quilters Guild when I visited in fall. Artists can also find inspiration in joining the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony. The secluded natural setting near Temecula Valley Wine Country hosts retreats for artists, writers, musicians, and composers to find solace and create.
From picturesque landscapes to rich wines and flavors that comfort and nourish, finding Tuscany in Temecula was a welcoming surprise for this Italophile. When dreams of Italy beckon, but time to travel across the pond for an extended vacation does not permit, rest assured I’ll be booking my ticket to return to Temecula.