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Going Gourmet in Temecula Valley <b></b>

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In the middle of Southern California's Temecula Valley there stands a solid granite monument bearing the names of dozens of early pioneers who traveled bravely through this unknown region in search of something new and exciting. The monument is titled "They Passed This Way." As this inland gem of California celebrates its 150th birthday this year, that pioneering spirit remains alive and well, as is evidenced along the Temecula Valley wine trail. Gourmet winery restaurants have popped up on nearly every bend and curve, celebrating the rich heritage of the land and offering epicurean delights that will make many wine tourers eager to pass this way again and again.

Meritage, Callaway Winery
Callaway Winery is the oldest winery in all of Temecula Valley. However, its restaurant, Meritage (pronounced like "heritage") is relatively new. The name Meritage is an appropriate portmanteau for a restaurant that boasts an intriguing combination of extremely high-quality, beautifully presented food; a breathtaking mountain view; and a mellow, stylistic setting. Executive Chef Michael Henry blends in seamlessly with this apparent facile à vivre and can often be seen coming out of his kitchen to hand-pick herbs from the restaurant's garden for use in his signature dishes. From the delicious flatbread to the ever-popular Kobe beef cheesesteak with peppercorn aioli, every dish on the menu is paired expertly with one of Callaway's acclaimed wines. callawaywinery.com, 951.587.8889

Café Champagne, Thornton Winery
Steve Pickell, the executive chef for Café Champagne, has won the Gold Award for Contemporary Cuisine from the Southern California Restaurant Writers for eight consecutive years and has twice in that span been voted Chef of the Year. Featuring live music every Friday night and 22 jazz concerts per year, Café Champagne is a must for music lovers. Sit-down tastings, replete with wine flights and gourmet food, are also available all day. Dine indoors next to the fireplace for a special romantic evening, or dine on the patio and enjoy the great music and wonderful scenery. "We feel very strongly that food, wine, and music go very well together," says owner John Thornton. thorntonwine.com, 951.699.0088

Carol's Restaurant, Baily Winery
Featuring a medieval motif complete with gargoyles, dragon statuettes, swords, battle axes, and a life-sized suit of plate armor in the center of the room, Carol's Restaurant treats guests like royalty. Opened in June 2000, Carol's features several wine pairings on its eclectic menu, offers indoor and outdoor seating, and promises the "best Reuben sandwich this side of New York." There is live acoustic music every Saturday and Sunday, and a private dining room can accommodate 24 to 48 people for special events. bailywinery.com, 951.676.9243

The Pinnacle Restaurant, Falkner Winery
Ray Falkner and his wife Loretta opened Falkner Winery in 2000, adding The Pinnacle Restaurant in September 2006. An apropos name, The Pinnacle was built on a 1,500-foot hilltop and has perhaps the best view of any restaurant in the area. Huge windows open up onto the outside patio, and every seat in the house can enjoy the wonderful panorama, accentuated by Mt. Palomar in the distance. Executive Chef Gianni Ciciliot recommends the seafood Portofino in a light white wine pomodoro sauce followed by The Pinnacle's decadent homemade ice-cream cookie sandwich. falknerwinery.com, 951.676.8231 x1

Vineyard Rose Restaurant, South Coast Winery & Resort
One of the only wineries on our list not named after its founder, South Coast Winery was named the California State Winery of the Year for 2008 and 2009 at the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition, the oldest wine competition in North America. Not to be outdone, the Vineyard Rose Restaurant is also undoubtedly a one-of-a-kind in the area. Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the restaurant's vaulted ceilings and maroon and gold décor complete the perfect setting for a wine-paired meal. For breakfast, indulge in moist banana-coconut pancakes with one of six South Coast sparkling wine varietals. In the evening, enjoy the delicious mushroom risotto with Merlot syrup. wineresort.com, 866.994.6379

The Smokehouse Restaurant, Ponte Family Estate
Opened in 2003, The Smokehouse Restaurant at Ponte Family Estate has a classical, rustic appeal that is befitting of this touchstone of Temecula Valley food and wine. The restaurant is surrounded on all sides by seemingly infinite rows of vines and overlooks the mountains, providing a picturesque eating environment. From this exquisite vantage point, guests are tantalized by the aromas emanating from the restaurant's wood-fired grill. Executive Chef Steve Strawinski keeps the menu simple and seasonal, serving traditional favorites with a twist, like the ultra-popular bacon-wrapped barbeque meatloaf with pickled onions. Stop in on Sunday for The Smokehouse Restaurant's all-inclusive champagne brunch, with a rotating menu of fresh buffet items. pontewinery.com, 951.252.1770

Creekside Grille, Wilson Creek Winery
The magnificent courtyard separating Wilson Creek Winery from its burgeoning Creekside Grille restaurant is reminiscent of the wedding scene at the beginning of the film The Godfather, though not nearly as foreboding! The new kid on the block in terms of local restaurants, the Creekside Grille opened its doors in October 2008 and has been building a great reputation ever since. Executive Chef Clay Blake does a wonderful job of creating a seasonal menu and works closely with the Wilson family to ensure that food and wine pairing is a top priority. The spirited melon appetizer, made with champagne-tossed melons, shaved prosciutto, gouda cheese, and toasted almonds, is a menu standout. wilsoncreekwinery.com, 951.699.9463

Small Bytes, Leonesse Cellars
De Portola Road feels like a winding, wooded, magical lane out of a children's story, providing the perfect juxtaposition to the expanse found on nearby Rancho California Road. Follow De Portola and you'll find Leonesse Cellars and Small Bytes. Its capricious, bandanna-clad executive chef, Leah DiBernardo, may very well be a wood-nymph herself... at least there is no doubt that her food is enchanting! Unfortunately, Small Bytes is currently only open Friday through Sunday. However, those who make a point to visit on the weekend to taste the Cajun jumbo prawns on buttered crostini smothered in decadent cream sauce are always glad they did. leonessecellars.com, 951.302.7601 x121

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