Los Angeles Weekender: Temecula

Looking for a wine-tasting weekend getaway without the time- and gas-consuming trek to Napa, Sonoma or points beyond? Take a look at Temecula.

In the last few years, Temecula's come a long way from being a mere fill-up spot off the 15 Freeway -- it's now home to the most impressive wine country south of Santa Barbara. The wine region has grown from a few sleepy wineries along a dusty road to more than 30 nestled on an easily drivable loop.

Here's some advice on where to stay, drink, eat and play on your Temecula weekender.

Where to Wine:
With so many wineries to choose from, where do you start? Let me recommend scenic South Coast Winery -- a picturesque locale in the heart of wine country that will spark envy among your Instagram acquaintances. The tasting room opens up bright and early at 10 a.m. and is spacious enough for large groups. They offer varietals grown in and around the Temecula Valley.

Literally right across the street is Carter Estate, which primarily offers varietals grown on the estate vineyards. Their Chardonnay is exceptional, particularly on a warm afternoon. They also offer a late-harvest wine so sweet and complex that, if you're like me, you'll want to cellar until Thanksgiving, then impress even the most jaded palates in your family or perhaps inspire your white Zinfandel-drinking kin into understanding that wine can be so much more than the stuff in the box.

2016-09-01-1472765885-6592633-IMG_2317.JPG
Sip and enjoy the view at the Carter Estate - Photo by Gina Hall

From there, make sure to head West to hit up Europa Village and Thornton Winery. The former is about as close as you can get to a European courtyard setting in SoCal. The estate has more than 30 acres of popular European-style varietal grapes. If you're planning on tasting any sparkling wines on your trip, Thornton is your spot. It's a great location to wrap up your tasting trip, as it also offers popular outdoor jazz concerts in the evenings.

If you don't have a designated driver, there are several guided tours with transportation by bus, jeep or even a limo if you're feeling fancy.

Where to Stay: Pechanga Resort and Casino
Just like the city, Pechanga has undergone a makeover in the past few years. I've lived in Southern California long enough to remember when the place was little more than a smoke-filled tent in a parking lot where you could play bingo. Now it's beginning to draw the L.A. crowds that would normally fly out to Vegas.

So, if you're looking for a little R&R, this is the place to add a little golf or some spa activities to your wine weekend.

Pechanga is owned and operated by the Pechanga band of Luiseño Indians, who take great care to honor the tribe's ancient history throughout the property. The reservation is home to a 1,000-year-old great oak, known as "Wi'áaşal" by the Pechanga tribe, and recognized as the largest naturally grown indigenous coast live oak in the Western U.S. Visits to the oak are by appointment only, but you'll notice its likeness incorporated into the art all over the resort.

2016-09-01-1472765384-8517882-FullSizeRender2.jpg
Known as Wi'áaşal to the Pechanga tribe - Photo by Gina Hall

Barely more than two decades ago, the tribe was on government assistance. As my cultural tour guide and tribe historian, Paul Macarro, explained, the Pechanga tribe struggled with various attempts to become self-sufficient, including grape-growing for the wine industry, planting citrus trees, sand mining, even a swap meet. But nothing seemed to work.

With the success of the casino and resort, the tribe is recovering its language and its culture. It's inspirational to witness the resurgence of an entire group of people, and the strides they've made so rapidly. I highly encourage a cultural tour with Mr. Macarro, who has near-encyclopedic knowledge of the region and the events that have transpired there.

Pechanga has one of the more unique 18-hole golf courses I've played. Each hole requires a strategy that rewards the bold but punishes the foolhardy. Knowing the difference is critical. The elevation changes enormously over amazing vistas. The 6th tee, for instance, has you climbing several switchbacks to attempt a 488-yard par 4 with a 175-foot drop from tee to fairway and another 100 feet drop to the green.

Since a weekend like this is all about pampering, the resort also offers a full-service spa. Go for the Ultimate Hydration Recovery to detox your skin from your latest wine tasting or grab a signature massage if you spent the afternoon chasing a ball all over the course and throwing your putter around.

If you're looking for nightlife, Pechanga has has the largest casino floor in California. There's also a state-of-the-art theater with stadium seating, yet feels as intimate as a coffee house. It attracts top-tier comedians, including Brian Regan, Amy Schumer and Jerry Seinfeld.

The property is undergoing a bit of construction during a $285 million expansion, but it didn't interfere at all with my stay. But by 2018, there will be a 568-room hotel wing, two-story spa and salon with 17 treatment rooms, eight pools and two new restaurants.

Where to Dine:
Temecula used to be little more than family-driven chain restaurants, but now boasts several destination dining spots. For your consideration...

Great Oak Steakhouse
The oak motif carries throughout the Pechanga property and into the decor of this upscale old-school steakhouse. This isn't your newfangled small-plates and dishrag napkins joint -- think white tablecloths and steak knives. This is carnivore fare at its finest. Whether you're in the mood for surf 'n' turf -- a juicy, steamed lobster tail and a petite filet Mignon -- or oven-roasted duck breast, this place will satisfy your desires as a meat lover. Try the garlicky mashed potatoes or the simple fresh asparagus on the side.

2016-09-01-1472766312-6899731-FullSizeRender4.jpg
The petite filet at Great Oak Steakhouse - Photo by Gina Hall

E.A.T Marketplace
A great little gem hidden in Old Town Temecula. A great spot to grab a morning cup of coffee and a pastry. Try the avocado toast, topped with local avocado that this area is famous for, and, in fact, this section of the freeway is named for. Looking for something more substantial? The A.T Original breakfast burrito should line your stomach for some more wine tasting (by the way, what they lack in proper grammar, they more than make up for in taste).

Umi Sushi and Oyster Bar
One of the fair criticisms of Temecula is the vast sprawl of chain restaurants. With that in mind, check out Umi. I recommend oysters and a martini to start. They have a large menu, with something for everyone. I'm partial to yellowtail, octopus and sea urchin -- but don't whine if they're out of uni that day, that's the nature of a good seafood joint (and, on the contrary, beware of any place that is always fully stocked). Self-taught chef Kiyokuni Ikeda, who's worked at Morimoto among other prestigious restaurants, has been making sushi since age 10.

2016-09-01-1472765275-5265763-FullSizeRender.jpg
Fresh and flavorful at Umi - Photo by Gina Hall