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Grape Escape: Temecula Wineries

Over the line in Riverside County, 60 miles north of San Diego via I-15, Temecula is known for its 30-plus wineries and the increasingly noteworthy vintages they produce. The town's very name (pronounced "ta-meck-you-la") provides the first clue to this valley's success in the volatile winemaking business/art. It translates (from a Native American language) as "where the sun shines through the mist," identifying two climatological factors necessary for viticulture. A third component is Rainbow Gap, an opening to the south through the Agua Tibia Mountains that funnels cool afternoon sea breezes to the valley, which sits at an elevation of 1,500 feet. Some believe Franciscan friars from Mission San Luis Rey planted the first grapevines here in the early 1800s, but this was cattle country -- the 87,000-acre Vail Ranch operated from 1904 until it was sold in 1964. Orange groves followed, but they gave way to grapevines; the first commercial vineyard was planted in 1968.

Most of the wineries are strung along Rancho California Road, and harvest time is generally from mid-August to September. But visitors are welcome year-round to tour, taste, and stock up. Among the more notable are Callaway Vineyard & Winery (tel. 800/472-2377 or 951/676-4001; www.callawaywinery.com), the biggest winery in the region and also the best known. In-depth tours are offered at 11am, 1pm, and 3pm (hourly 11am-4pm weekends), and they have a casual bistro. Across the street from Callaway stands another old-timer, Thornton Winery (tel. 951/699-0099; www.thorntonwine.com), which makes a good choice if you visit only one location -- Thornton provides an all-in-one overview of Temecula's wine country. It has a striking setting, fragrant herb garden, extensive gift shop, and award-winning restaurant, and tours are offered on weekends, between 11am and 4pm. Jazz concerts are also presented from April to October.

Mount Palomar Winery (tel. 800/854-5177 or 951/676-5047; www.mountpalomar.com) specializes in Bordeaux-style blends, as well as port and sherry; the tasting room and bistro are open daily. Perhaps the most welcoming tasting room is the yellow farmhouse of the Maurice Car'rie Winery (tel. 800/716-1711 or 951/676-1711; www.mauricecarriewinery.com), famous for its baked Brie and sourdough bread (made weekends only). A $15 passport will get you six tastings and a logo glass here and at Maurice Car'rie's sister winery, Van Roekel (tel. 951/699-6961); both wineries are open daily from 10am to 5pm, and each has gourmet deli items for composing a picnic to enjoy in Maurice Car'rie's rose-filled front garden and patio.

For more on Temecula wine touring, contact the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association (tel. 800/801-9463 or 951/699-6586; www.temeculawines.org); the website has details about individual wineries, offers discount coupons, and has lots of logistical info. The Temecula Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau, 26790 Ynez Court (tel. 888/363-2852 or 951/491-6085; www.temeculacvb.com), can fill you in on accommodations, recreation (golf, fishing), and the region's famous Temecula Balloon & Wine Festival, held in June. Your best call, though, might be to Grapeline (tel. 888/894-6379 or 951/693-5755; www.gogrape.com), which can pick you up from your hotel and shuttle you on a wine country tour.

Palomar Mountain

At an elevation of 5,600 feet, Palomar is a tiny mountain community 70 miles north of downtown San Diego. The village probably wouldn't be here today but for its famous observatory, which escaped unscathed from the severe scorching the mountain took from wildfires in 2007. From San Diego, take I-15 N. to Hwy. 76 E. and turn left onto County Hwy. S6 -- a serpentine road climbs to the summit. Even if you don't want to inch your way to the top, drive the 3 miles to the lookout or just beyond it to the campground, grocery store, restaurant, and post office.

Palomar Observatory (tel. 760/742-2119; www.astro.caltech.edu/palomar) has kept silent watch over the heavens since 1949. The telescope project was proposed and funded with $6 million from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1928, but it took another 2 decades to find a suitable site, build the 135-foot-high dome, perfect the massive mirror (made from the then-new glass blend Pyrex), and build a road to the summit. Owned by the California Institute of Technology, the Hale telescope's 200-inch mirror weighs 530 tons -- it took 2 days to haul it up the Palomar road. The Hale was for many years the world's largest telescope; now completely computerized, it is still actively searching the skies.

The visitors center is open daily, 9am to 3pm from early November through mid-March, till 4pm mid-March through October. The gift shop is open daily in summer, weekends only the rest of the year. Palomar is primarily a research facility, and you'll only be able to look at (not through) the mammoth telescope. Behind-the-scenes tours are offered Saturday and Sunday, April through October, at 11am, 1pm, and 2:30pm; tickets ($8) are available at the gift shop. Tour capacity is limited, and tickets are sold on a first-come, first-served basis; podcasts of a self-guided tour can be downloaded from the website. Evening tours are offered through the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center. Note: The interior of the dome is kept at nighttime temperature (as low as 30 to 40 degrees) -- dress accordingly. The tour is also not recommended for children under age 6.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.