In the wee hours of a fog-bound dawn, we jounce along a ribbon of country road in a van, me and my fellow thrill seekers, the lot of us searching for clear skies. Actually David Bradley is doing the searching, appropriate given he's the one who has been piloting hot air balloons for 35 years. Owner and operator of California Dreamin' Balloon Adventures, David is also doing the driving, steering us through Temecula countryside currently short on horizons. It's true that now and again, in a morning slowly going burnt orange, we see a fence line or a clump of grazing horses, but with those exceptions Temecula squats behind a pea soup curtain.
Not prime conditions for flight, but David whistles merrily.
Viola, seated beside me, is slightly less nonchalant. Leaning forward, she speaks politely.
"David? Is this normal procedure?"
David continues whistling for just the right number of beats before smiling wide in the rear view mirror.
"Nothing's normal," he says, an answer appropriate to so many things.
Leaning close, Viola's daughter whispers to me.
"I talked her into this. She isn't sure she's going to survive. I just told her to clean her house really well before she left."
Perhaps because I am an optimist, perhaps because I am lazy, I left my house a mess.
I will tell you now that the fog burnt away like pessimism in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood and our balloon flight became a splendid adventure for everyone in our wicker and stainless steel basket -- mothers and daughters, honeymooners, vacationers and white-knuckled journalists -- because there are few things more glorious than rising at dawn in a hot air balloon to glissade quiet and real as a child's dream above a toy landscape of geometric vineyards and rough hills and glittering lakes with the last of the mist clinging to their edges.
As we rose high into the sky, a transformed Viola poked me in the ribs.
"Open your eyes," she said. "It's so beautiful. I feel like Geronimo!"
When David finally set our balloon down, gentle as a nudge, our hearts continued to soar. David has read a few faces.
"It's important to experience life from a different perspective."
Temecula forces you to adjust your perspective. For one thing, it's not every day you meet a balloonist who also makes award-winning wine. Vindemia Winery, which David owns with his wife Gail, recently received a gold medal from the "Sunset Magazine 2012 Wine Competition" for its 2009 Syrah.
Regarding surprise, Temecula is still evolving. Sixty miles northeast of San Diego, the Temecula Valley remains something of a mystery to many, a place where wineries and hypnotically rolling vineyards coexist with a town once known primarily as a bedroom community for San Diego and Orange County commuters. Maybe the Luiseno Indians who first lived here saw what was coming, for Temecula means "where the sun shines through the mist." Cooling mists, drawn in from the Pacific Ocean twenty-five miles away, often linger in the valley until mid-morning, and then things on the 1,500-foot plateau begin to heat up. Combine this with cool night temperatures, courtesy of the surrounding mountains, and presto, a nurturing grape growing combination.
No need to memorize this, unless you're starting up a winery yourself. Just know that the Temecula Valley vintners are happy to be where they are.
"The wine industry is flourishing here," vintner Robert Renzoni tells me when I meet him that afternoon at the wine portion of the annual summer Temecula Valley Balloon & Wine Festival. "Santa Barbara and Paso Robles had to fight for respect too. We as a region are starting to get the respect we deserve. Just wait. The secret is going to come out and the place is going to blow up."
Renzoni's family began making wine over 100 years ago along Italy's northern coast. Looking to start up a winery in California, Renzoni chose Temecula over Sonoma and Paso Robles. The grape growing conditions were good and, since someone needs to drink the grapes, it didn't hurt that San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles and Palm Springs were all less than 90 minutes away.
"I saw this flower waiting to bloom," Renzoni says. "I took a guess, and I guessed right."
Neither large nor fancy, Robert Renzoni Vineyards typifies Temecula's small town air. Pop into tasting rooms at wineries like Mount Palomar, South Coast and Baily, and you'll see that the winemakers are first class, but their attitude is down home. An easily accomplished wine-tasting ramble about the valley -- most of the wineries are clustered along Rancho California Road, about 4 miles east of Interstate 15 -- is more like a visit with friends than a haughty lecture on what you'll never know about wine. I don't know about you, but I can't describe the similarities between an excellent Sangiovese and an award-winning Cortese (they almost rhyme?). In Temecula, the non-oenophile finds the perfect climate.
When I meet Renzoni he is drinking beer, not wine, and he offers not apology, but reasoned explanation.
"It takes a lot of beer to make a good wine," he says.
Music lovers take note too. Yep, this year's lineup at the 30th annual Temecula Valley Balloon & Wine Festival included Scotty McCreery, The All-American Rejects, and Berlin, but it's okay that you missed it; Temecula has all manner of festivals year-round. Old Town Temecula's strollable 12-block downtown also hops with music (and tasting rooms), along with historic buildings and shopping; the Temecula Olive Oil Company is housed in the circa 1890 Welty Building, at one time a hotel with a boxing ring where heavyweights Jack Dempsey and Jack Sharkey purportedly sparred. It's possible Dempsey and Sharkey would have preferred sharing Sevillano olives stuffed with blue cheese.
Plain and simple, people seem happy to be here in this valley, visitors and residents alike. It's not every day you meet someone who commutes to work by horse, but that's precisely what Mark Matson was doing when I encountered him clip clopping down the road one soft evening, heading home after a day of touring folks around by horse drawn carriage for the Temecula Carriage Company.
"I just commute from over there," said Mark, nodding off toward some unseen point beyond the fields. "My neighbors think I'm Amish."
Like everyone else I met in Temecula, Mark had time to talk, although the horses snorted and fidgeted ("They're being bad because they want to go home."). Mark had lived in Temecula for a long time and he was happy to see the wineries taking root.
"I'm glad they're turning the land into vineyards and not into housing developments," he said.
We both stood quiet (well, Mark sat) as the world went gauzy gold about us.
"Yep," said Mark, "it's a special place," and with that he snapped the reins and headed into the setting sun.
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Visit the Temecula Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau's website, Facebook, and Twitter. The Temecula Valley Visitors Center in Downtown Old Town Temecula (Third Street and Mercedes, adjacent the free Old Town Temecula Parking Garage) is open 7 days. For info call 888/363-2852 or 951/491-6085.