A hot air balloon ride provided by D & D Hot Air Balloon Adventure was on the schedule for 5:30 Tuesday morning. Mother nature had other ideas. We slept in, grabbed a bite of breakfast and took for for Aguanga for a visit to the Temecula Valley Olive Oil Company Ranch. Owners Thom Curry and Catherine Pepe were on hand to welcome us and gave us great insights into the hows and whats of olive oil. Thom started as a winemaker and winery owner, and after several visits to Europe began developing a palate and appreciation for olive oil. He says he discovered that there, “wine was their business, olive oil was their heart.” He and Catherine found the 27 acre parcel where their farm is located about ten years ago. It was in such disrepair they turned around halfway up the driveway. After being persuaded to take a good look, they decided it was worth a shot. They spent two years cleaning up piles of old appliances and various rubbish and found a gem underneath it all.
Olives are a fruit and are closely related to cherries. They’re the only fruit that produces oil. After exhaustive research he realized the equipment he wanted to press his fruit didn’t exist, so he had it built. Thom is now certified as a master taster by the International Olive Oil Council and is on the Taste Panel of the California Olive Oil Council. There are forty different varieties of olives on the ranch and the Temecula Valley Olive Oil Company offers several oils including some infused with citrus, garlic, peppers and more. Future plans include Olive View Vineyards & Winery featuring Italian varietals Negro Amaro and Aglianico. A visit to their Old Town Temecula tasting room will be well worth your while.
Next on the itinerary was a stop at Ponte Winery to tour the property, meet the new Chef and new Winemaker and taste some wine and have lunch. Ponte’s property is simply beautiful. The American and Italian flags that fly each day pay tribute to owners’ Claudio and Roberto Ponte’s heritage. We visited with Winemaker Mark Schabel, who comes to Ponte by way of Scheid Vineyards, Pahlmeyer, La Sirena and others and studies at the Viticulture and Enology departments at UC Davis. He grabbed his wine thief and poured us samples of the ’09 Merlot in the barrel room. Our table was set and waiting for us, so it was time to sit down, have lunch and meet new Executive Chef Clay Blake.
Chef Clay took a whimsical approach to lunch, presenting a “What happens when…” menu. Course 1 – What happens when Peanut Butter and Jelly meets Grilled Cheese, with Petite Brie on Melba Sandwiches with Hazelnut Butter paired with Pinot Grigio. Other courses were Fish & Chips meets B.L.T., Fried Chicken meets Pepperoni Pizza, Steak & Eggs meets Sweet Potato Pie and Pastry Chef meets one too many Red Bulls. With each dish we sampled various Ponte wines: their Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Meritage and Zinfandel Port. Chef Clay begun his culinary education at the Cincinnati Culinary Arts Academy and honed his craft at two of Seattle’s top restaurants. Several writers took a few minutes to do some shopping in the tasting room before it was time to get ready for dinner.
Jim & Christine Hart were on hand to greet us when we arrived at Hart Winery. After making sure we had wine in our glasses, Jim led us out into the vineyards. The fruit was just starting to set on some of the vines. He showed us the tiny flowers that will turn into grapes. Jim also explained various methods of managing vines, including different types of trellising and head training. We walked back to the barrel room where a bountiful table was set for us.
Tasting room manager Kelly’s husband Brian had prepared Bruschetta, a beautiful garden salad, grilled tri-tip with mushrooms and chocolate mousse with fresh strawberries. Dinner was accompanied by several of Hart’s outstanding wines including my favorite, the 2006 Volcanic Ridge Cabernet. Patriarch Joe Hart wasn’t able to join us, but it’s clear his legacy is in good hands with son Jim and dughter-in-law Christine.
This wonderful trip exploring the place I call home had almost come to an end. After one last night at the Temecula Creek Inn, we would start the next day with breakfat at Journey at Pechanga and then wrap it all up with stops at Tesoro Winery, Temecula Valley Olive Oil Company‘s tasting room, Lorimar Winery and Soro’s Mediterranean Grill in Old Town Temecula.