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By Miriam Raftery

November 25, 2011 (Warner Springs) – Avoiding crowded malls on this Friday after Thanksgiving, I headed east instead with a friend for a day of wine tasting and fall foliage viewing. Savoring the spectacular scenery and wide open spaces—along with some fine wines—reaffirmed what all East County residents can  be thankful for – the beauty of our backcountry on a resplendent autumn afternoon.

Our first stop was at Dudley’s Bakery in Santa Ysabel, famous for its wonderful array of baked goods.  We picked up a loaf of pecan maple bread fresh from the oven, along with a slice of apple pie. Jenny, my friend and former sister-in-law visiting from Virginia, did her part to support our local economy by shopping for holiday gifts in the bakery’s gift store.  It has a colorful selection of local gemstones, jewelry, and Native American crafts. 

Behind the bakery, a pair of towering trees wore splendid coats of vermillion red-orange and gold, offering tantalizing previews of the spectacular scenery yet to come. 

Next we headed out Highway 79 toward Warner Springs.  Brilliant golden leaves fluttered in the breeze on oaks, sycamores, and the occasional aspen tree.  Glider planes wafted aloft, soaring with the wind against an azure sky.  Near the glider port, stands of gold trees stood like sentinels guarding the base of dusky-hued mountains. 

We headed up a short, rutted road to Hawk Watch Winery (www.hawkwatchwinery.com), poised atop a hill with spectacular views.  Harvest time is over; now is the season when the vineyard leaves transform into a sea of reds and golds.  The vista is much like the scenery in Napa Valley at this time of year.

Outside the tasting room, couples sipped wine and, perhaps, toasted thanks for a vintage autumn day.  Inside, we sampled a variety of wines at Hawk Watch, which has won numerous national and international awards. 

From sweet white dessert wines to a heavenly and hearty reserve cabernet, we found most to be divine. We purchased a wine-infused cheese and some crackers, which we enjoyed at a table outside, and picked up a couple of our favorite wines as holiday gifts.  (This sure beats camping out at a big-box store on black Friday!)

On the drive to and from the aptly-named  Hawk Watch, we spotted several birds of prey. The area is home to hawks, owls and eagles, and I’ve yet to take a trip here without seeing at least one of these magnificent raptors.

Next, we called ahead to La Serenissima Winery in Warner Springs (www.vinotiso.com), which offers tastings by appointment only.  We drove up a dirt road, then through an open gate leading to a country estate home flanked by fields of gold—the vineyards aglow in the late afternoon sun. 

Vintner Tony Tiso, descended from a proud Italian wine-making family, gave us the tour.  He makes his wines in the Old World style—unfiltered, with organically grown grapes.  The 3,500 feet elevation and soil conditions here are similar to Italy, producing some satisfying wines.  

Tony offered us barrel tastings; the ony challenge proved choosing which wines to leave behind.  I chose a merlot and a cabernet-merlot blend to bring home, though the cabernet franc was also very tempting.

We asked Tony for a recommendation on a good place to have a late lunch.  He recommended a brand new establishment, the County Line Barbecue Café. 

As the name implies, the restaurant is located right at the boundary of San Diego and Riverside Counties, about five miles east of La Serenissima. You can't miss it--just watch for the bright red building on the right, along with a large sign. (Follow the highway farther north, and you’ll emerge in Temecula—another wine-tasting center in neighboring Riverside County.)

Stepping out of our car, we were greeted by the fragrant aroma of barbecue smoke wafting our way. We learned that the propietors of the County Line Barbecue Cafe cook up all of their fare in an outdoor smoker. 

The café itself is simple and rustic, with a bear’s head mounted on a wall inside. We opted to eat in a leather booth outdoors, enjoying the fresh air and sunshine along with some tasty food.

I ordered a tri-tip sandwich served with a smoky barbecue sauce. Jenny had a salmon burger and we shared a side dish of surprisingly savory potatoes.  For the more adventurous at heart, it’s worth a trip here since the menu features a variety of unusual entrees including many varieties of game.  Where else in San Diego County can you order up an elk steak, wild boar bratwurst, pheasant, quail, or rabbit? Plus vegans can order up black bean burgers.

Heading home, the colors of the fall foliage intensified under the last rays of the late afternoon sun. Violet shadows fell across the mountains and valleys, where herds of cattle grazed on golden grasses. 

Rounding a curve, we were startled to see an SUV on its roof—a rollover accident that had just occurred.  We called 911 and waited until emergency vehicles arrived before continuing our journey home, mindful of the importance of using caution when driving on these otherwise idyllic country roads.

Heading home through downtown Ramona, we watched the sky transform into deepening hues of orange and scarlet, melting into the distant mountains beyond—a colorful ending to a beautiful day.


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