What’s with the castle on Interstate 15?

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Jamie Lee Pricer

Chateau Dragoo Castle serves as an event center for the Belle Marie Winery in Escondido.
Photo by Blake Pricer

Scenery on Interstate 15 heading to San Diego south of Temecula offers avocado groves,  hints of fog from the coast creeping up through the hills, Lawrence Welk’s sprawling time share resort … and castle turrets on a hilltop that show just enough to jar the imagination.

If you have a few minutes to spare or need a place to stretch your legs, this is your spot.

No dungeon here, but rather an underground wine cave at the Chateau Dragoo Castle, the thematic venue building at the 3 ½-acre Belle Marie Winery.

First, the wine.

A small winery, it produces 4,000 to 5,000 cases a year of about 30 different wines. Grapes grow in Northern, Southern and Baja California, including more than 74 varietals. Fermenting is done on site in 600-to 2,000-gallon tanks. Wine is aged in barrels made of oak from many countries. That’s for “additional complexity,” says owner Jeff Lazenby.

A set of linked one-story buildings across an inviting lawn from the castle hold production, a wine tasting room, offices and restrooms.

“We like to think we are less intimidating than the bigger wineries,” says Lazenby. Standing behind a wooden bar and pouring samples, he says “there are no stupid questions, ask anything.”

 A tasting of six wines runs $10. Full bottle choices of dry whites to off-dry whites to reds include sauvignon blanc, Riesling, pinot noir and blended varietals ($20-$28). A new release this season, the 2003 Belle Marie Chocolate Mocha, a tawny-style port for dessert, is priced at $40. 

Belle Marie’s wines are not distributed to stores. You can buy them at the winery or by mail order.

Then, the scene for relaxing.

Once a citrus grove, the winery property pays tribute to its past. When it was built in 2000 as many trees as possible were kept. Guests are welcome to pick fruit in season. In January, thousands of pale orange loquats were ripe for harvest.

Guests are also welcome to bring picnics and enjoy the shaded and sunny picnic tables and gazebos. You can buy non-alcoholic drinks in the wine tasting room. Children are welcome to scramble about on the lawns.

And, the castle.

 Chateau Dragon Castle holds four tasting rooms, a wine cave and serves principally as an event center for weddings, meetings and the like. It’s not usually open to the public. It does, however, provide a lovely backdrop to any experience at Belle Marie.

If you go

What: Belle Marie Winery

Where: 26-312 Mesa Rock Road,

Hours: Tasting room 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily

Directions: From the Coachella Valley heading to San Diego on Interstate 15 south, take the Deer Springs Road exit. Go west to Mesa Rock Road. Make a left at the first stoplight onto Mesa Rock Road. Follow for about ¼ mile. Entrance to the winery is on the right-hand side, just past entrance to Plant World Nursery.

Info: (760) 796-7577, www.bellemarie.com