By Susan Montgomery

It was a dark and stormy Saturday.  The rain was cold and steady, with only intermittent breaks. Temperatures hovered in the mid 40s.  But we still persevered as we pulled onto Highway 79 and headed east toward Warner Springs.  We weren’t going to miss our much-anticipated outing to experience Taste of the Summit.

“We” included our daughter, the Wine Wizard, visiting us from San Diego; our intrepid cocker spaniel, Catie, who is up for any adventure as long as she gets snacks and walks with her Dad; Todd, the Dad and our adventure’s photographer and designated driver; and me, the writer and dedicated wine drinker.  (Please note that after each winery is described in this article, the Wine Wizard will make her comments on the wines.)

Taste of the Summit was sponsored by three unique, family-owned wineries off the beaten track in the rolling, tranquil hills about 30 minutes east of Temecula.  The participating wineries were Shadow Mountain, Hawk Watch, and La Serenissima.  Between 11 and 4 on Saturday, each winery offered wine samples paired with food and live music.  At about a 3500-foot elevation, these wineries all grow their own grapes, which benefit from the area’s high altitude and distinctive microclimate with intense summer sun, cool nights, and frequent ocean breezes.

Shadow Mountain WineryWe had visited each of these wineries before and liked them, not just because of their excellent wines but also their remote, serene locations and the intimate wine tasting experiences they provide.  The drive toward Warner Springs is usually beautiful with the hills, boulders and ranchland bathed in southern California sunshine, but this Saturday’s drive had a different kind of haunting beauty, all shrouded in gray clouds and mist. We had dressed in layers and donned warm sweaters, sturdy boots, and raincoats. The umbrellas were also packed. We were glad to be so well prepared because the rain became increasingly heavier as we approached Shadow Mountain, our first intended stop of the day.

We turned off the highway onto a heavily rutted, muddy road for the ½ mile drive to the winery.  But even our usually reliable 4-wheel drive didn’t help us make it around the first curve where we almost slid right into another car coming from the other direction.  We carefully backed out of the drive, hoping to try the road again later in the day. This was an inauspicious beginning to our adventure, but we were not deterred.

La Serenissima WineryNext we headed to La Serenissima Vineyard, about a mile away where the road was in somewhat better shape. La Serenissima is a Tuscan-styled winery in a lovely hillside setting with covered outdoor tables and a small but charming tasting room with a wine bar, comfy sofas and a fireplace.  The rain had obviously not dampened the spirit of the day at this winery, where mellow music floated over the hills and a friendly group was enjoying good wine and food.

The first wine we sampled was a lovely 2009 Claret, which was paired with Polenta Pasticciata, a delicious Italian polenta dish.  The second wine was a full-bodied 2008 Cabernet Franc, which was paired with Brasato al Merlot, savory roast pork stewed in merlot sauce.  We squeezed into the cozy tasting room and warmed up by the fire as we enjoyed our food and wine.  We learned that La Serenissima grows its grapes without fertilizers in soil rich with minerals from volcanic deposits. All the wines are naturally filtered.

The Wine Wizard’s comments:  I loved both these wines, particularly the Claret, which is a hearty blend of four different grapes and has a nice smooth finish.  I appreciated this wine’s complex deep berry color and flavors. (I liked this wine so much I bought three bottles!)  I also enjoyed the fairly intense, dark red Cabernet Franc, which went so well with the pork stew.

Shadow Mountain Winery

Pam McGeary - Shadow Mountain owner

So after hearing from other wine tasters that the Shadow Mountain road had been graded since we were there, we headed back to try it one more time. This time the road was better. We made it around the muddy curve and we all agreed it was well worth our efforts to return.   The festivities took place in a nice warm tent with tables set up and lively music. We first tried their 2010 Tempranillo, which was paired with a scrumptious chunky tomato basil bisque—so perfect for a cold, rainy day. Next we tasted a 2009 Carignane, which accompanied a delicious artichoke, spinach and bean dip on pita chips.

The Wine Wizard’s comments:  These were both very pleasant and tasty wines.  I especially liked the Carignane, which had hints of blueberry, vanilla and smoke.  The Tempranillo had notes of red currant and cherry with a spicy finish and went well with the tomato bisque.

Hawk Watch WineryOur last winery stop was Hawk Watch Winery, one of our favorite wineries in the area. Hawk Watch’s setting is particularly idyllic on a nice day when you can sit outside at the top of a hill in Andirondack chairs and look over picturesque vineyards while sipping one of their delectable wines.  But Saturday was not that kind of day so all the wine tasters were cheerfully tucked into their small but charming tasting room.

We first tried a Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre blend along with flavorful barbequed pulled pork sliders with caramelized harvest apple coulis.  Then we really enjoyed the special experience of tasting a 2009 Syrah right from the barrel.  With this wine we were treated to roasted beef brisket topped with creamy horseradish on a toasted baguette.

The Wine Wizard’s comments:  The Grenache blend was a perfect match for the pork on a rainy day. It was bright and lively with good acid.  I also loved the Syrah barrel sample.  Its color was deep and its taste robust with distinct berry notes.  There is something wonderful about drinking wine right from the barrel and it was great that Hawk Watch provided this experience for all its wine tasters.

We left Hawk Watch about 4 p.m. after a wonderful day of wine and food tasting, although our car and our dog would need good baths when we returned. At the entry to Hawk Watch, we turned left onto Chihuahua Valley Road and drove about five miles to see the Buddhist retreat we had heard was down the road. We were surprised and impressed to see these majestic buddhas sitting serenely in the rainy mist of our southern California landscape.

County Line BBQ

Chef Jacques

On the way home we stopped at County Line BBQ and Cafe (about 20 miles from Temecula on 79), which is an unassuming red roadhouse where we had had a delicious lunch a few weeks ago. (Yes, after all the food we had just eaten—small portions we rationalized—somehow we still had appetites and we needed a break from the rain.)  Everyone we know who goes to this totally unpretentious place raves about the food, much of which is local and organic.  County Line is particularly known for its ribs and other barbecued meats grilled on a wood-burning, outdoor grill. They are also known for their lean, local bison, wild boar, elk and rabbit. Fresh fish is delivered daily. County Line is managed by Jacques and his wife, Deb, who are both very personable and provide outstanding food and service.  But the place is a total surprise.  Its ramshackle appearance gives no indication of how good its food is.

County Line has a small dining room and bar, but on a nice day you can sit outside in booths or at tables. All kinds of mismatched furniture and an eclectic décor provide a unique dining experience with lots of interesting character. (Some of the other guests are interesting characters too.)

After a day of wine drinking, Todd and the Wine Wizard switched to Sierra Nevada ale, but Todd noted that they also offer Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR)—cheap-o at $2.25 a bottle. And I enjoyed a crisp and floral 2009 Arneis from La Serenissima.  Our entrees included juicy, flavorful bison and lamb brats along with roasted country potatoes and succulent pork ribs that came with Jacque’s tasty special secret sauce. We were also impressed with the homemade vinaigrette served with the dinner salad. We ended the meal by sharing Deb’s delightful homemade apple crisp with vanilla ice cream.

We’ve also heard they have fabulous burgers at County Line BBQ.  And, by the way, they don’t have ketchup and they’re proud of it!

We continued our drive home in the relentless rain, but we were all glad we had braved the weather to have our Top of the Summit experience.  We congratulate all three wineries on also dealing so well with the wet, chilly day and creating a memorable wine tasting experience for their guests. We highly recommend a visit to all these wineries.

La Serenissima

Tasting at La Serenissima

If you want to visit:

La Serenissima is open only by appointment and for special events.  To find out about visiting, call 951-326-0205.

Shadow Mountain is open to the public Wednesdays through Sundays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on most holidays.  For more information, call  760-782-0778.

Hawk Watch is open Fridays from noon until 5 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.  For more information, call 951-326-4692.

County Line BBQ and Café is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. the rest of the week.  You might want reservations for dinner on weekends. Call ahead if you want rabbit. For more information, call 951-767-3040.

Photography by Todd Montgomery