The Mystery Wino
Special to Valley News
Cheers, fellow friends of the vine! As your hardworking Mystery Wino, I spent much time thinking about which winery to feature first in my new column. Should I start with one of the many new ones or an old stand-by? Hip or traditional? Big or little?
Ultimately, all this careful cogitation confirmed me in my first instinct — Hart Winery.
I’ve been to all the wineries in the valley, most more than once. None is quite like Hart. This is largely thanks to its 89-year-old former winemaker and owner, Joe Hart. Joe doesn’t do weddings. He doesn’t serve food. He doesn’t host concerts. He just makes very good wine at reasonable prices, and he’s been doing it for a long, long time.
I chose Hart for other reasons, too. It is literally the first winery one encounters upon entering wine country on Rancho California Road. A hundred yards east of Butterfield Stage, the first vineyards on your left were planted by Joe and his wife in 1974. The original winery at the top of Avenida Biona is a kind of elegant looking barn that has been renovated several times. When it opened in 1980, the only other building in sight was Callaway Winery next door.
But Hart is not just geographically first, and chronologically among the first (it was fourth), it is also first in the hearts of many locals. With Phil and Carol Baily, Jon McPherson and a handful of others, Joe is one of the region’s few remaining founders. His calm demeanor, keen intelligence, and passion for winemaking inspired others to start their own ventures. With his wife Nancy and his children (especially Jim), Joe has made consistently good wine for four decades, winning awards year after year. Though most visitors now zip past on their way to bigger, newer establishments, Hart Winery continues to prosper.
I stopped by Hart on a recent Friday afternoon, armed with half a Cubano from Devilicious Eatery, one of the better sandwich shops in town. The winery consists of a modest parking lot at the top of gently sloping hill, with a cozy outdoor sitting area and an even cozier tasting room inside the big brown barn. Like nearly all Temecula wineries, Hart gets busy on weekends, but it’s not nearly as crowded as most. It is a tranquil oasis, despite its proximity to the sprawling housing tracts of Temecula. It’s not a place to see and be seen. It’s for wine lovers.
After I was served my first tasting (Sauvignon Blanc), I sat down at one of the 10 picnic tables scattered around the unpaved courtyard. Hart is well situated to take advantage of the striking views of the Palomar Mountains to the south. Despite being nearly 100 degrees, the afternoon wind blowing in from the Pacific Ocean through Temecula Canyon and the Rainbow Gap made it feel positively cool beneath the tall eucalyptus and oak trees.
Like its wines, the atmosphere at Hart is unassuming. The oversized windows in the tasting room that look directly into the barrel room seem to underscore Hart’s philosophy, which is about transparency in winemaking. Jim Hart — who took over as winemaker about five years ago — goes to great lengths to preserve varietal expression through small-batch production and old-school techniques. There is rarely turnover among the few staff members at Hart, which means that servers know their wines. Indeed, they probably helped harvest, crush and bottle them.
The number and diversity of offerings at Hart are astounding, particularly for a boutique winery. For me, having too many options on a tasting menu can be a sign of an owner who is trying too hard. I don’t think that is the case with Hart. Jim makes wines from more than 15 different varietals, but he does a good job with almost all of them. He is constantly experimenting. Wines include the major Bordeaux grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc), many Italians (Barbera, Arneis, Aglianico, Sangivese), Rhone varietals (Viognier, Syrah, Mourvèdre), and others. The winery produces only about 4,000 to 5,000 cases annually, which puts them at the lower range of the average winery’s output.
On my visit, I tasted nine wines — five reds, three whites and a rosé. Of the whites, my favorites were the 2019 Vermentino and the 2020 Albariño. Both were intensely aromatic, well-balanced, crisp and priced under $25, affordability rarely seen in Temecula these days. Of the reds, I most enjoyed the 2018 Tres Hermanos, which is Hart’s take on a traditional Southern Rhone blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. The 2018 Petite Syrah also stood out to me, with its flavors of concentrated fruit, black plum, black cherry, vanilla, graphite and forest floor. Most of the reds were north of 15% alcohol, which is common in the valley but less so at Hart, which strives for finesse and balance. The high temperatures of the 2018 growing season are likely to blame.
Go to Hart if… You like good-to-great red and white wines, smaller crowds, convenient location, views, dog-friendly grounds, excellent service, mellow vibe, affordable prices, boutique atmosphere.
Avoid Hart if… You like lots of amenities, food offerings, wine slushies, hip vibe, party atmosphere, people watching, live music, lots of elbow room.
Next week: Akash Winery
Address: 41300 Avenida Biona, Temecula, CA 92591
Telephone: (951) 676-6300
Owners: Joe and Nancy Hart
Winemaker: Jim Hart
Acres planted: +/- 9. Most wines are estate grown. All grapes are from Temecula Valley. Varietals offered: Albariño, Aleatico, Arneis, Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Malbec, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, Pinot Gris, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Tempranillo, Zinfandel, red blends, rosés, dessert wines.
Cases per year: +/- 5,000
Cost per bottle: $ (of $$$)
Cost for tasting: $20 for four two-ounce pours
Food & Entertainment: No food available, but off-site food is welcome with wine purchase. No entertainment.
- Open seven days per week, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed on major holidays.
- Wheelchair accessible.
- Groups of 10 or more must make reservations.
- Dogs on leashes are permitted.