Autumn and wine tasting are a natural paring.  Throw in a horseback ride through a sun-drenched vineyard, and you have a perfect day.

Wine Country Trails by Horseback is a new trail riding service owned by Diana LeFort, graciously hosted by Wilson Creek Winery & Vineyards and other wineries in the beautiful Temecula Valley of Southern California.  The ride takes you through vast fields of grapevines embraced by rolling hills and down fragrant meadow trails surrounding the vineyards.

Diana has a herd of 32 horses, kept at a stable a few miles away.  The horses are all rescues and are well-treated.  Each day, 16 horses are brought to the winery to do 3 trail rides for the day.  The next day, those horses get to rest while the other 16 horses go out on trail rides.  They have a nice life.

For safety, Wine Country Trails by Horseback keeps the groups small, no more than 6 in a riding party.  Reservations are a must.  They have various packages, including just the trail ride or the trail ride and wine tasting.  Check their website for more information.

My vineyard ride with three friends on Sunday afternoon was one of the most enjoyable days I’ve had in recent memory.  They pared me with a ten-year-old little buckskin mare named Pawnee, who was full of life but easy to handle.  We were a perfect match, since she likes to be in the front and so do I.

The trail ride is usually a walking ride, but Pawnee wanted to trot.  Since I’m an experienced rider, the guide didn’t mind.  Pawnee and I moved out ahead of the others in a sitting trot as smooth as butter.  No sense in fighting it; we both found joy in the sweet sunshine and light breeze as we moved along the undulating rows of grapevines.

Sometimes I urged Pawnee into a faster trot, so I could post.  Then we’d stop, and I’d let her eat some of the grapevines to give the others a chance to catch up.  No harm to the vines.  Harvest time had passed, and most of the grapes had been picked and pressed.  The few remaining grapes had dried in the sun and were now raisins, food for the birds.

Though the trail ride lasted 90 minutes, it ended way too soon.  There was still something to look forward to, however, since wine tasting was included in the price of our trail ride.

Just down the hill from the riding location, we found the tasting room for Wilson Creek Winery & Vineyards, a family-owned enterprise.  The place was packed.  We managed to find room at one of the several bars and began to explore the tasting menu.

The flights included red, white and sparkling wines.  I tried most of their red flight.

The first was a 2011 Merlot.  It was tight and tannic.  I’m not sure if it will ever open up enough to be palatable, for my taste.  I decided to jump down to the last red, a 2011 Syrah.  This was a lovely offering, not as dimensional as many Syrahs, but still very drinkable, with a wonderful black cherry nose.  I skipped the Cabernet that was listed and opted to try a Petite Syrah that was not on the menu.  Again, it did not have the dimension and personality usually exemplified in this old-world variety, but it was still worth trying.  I went back to the tasting menu and selected the 2011 Reserve Zinfandel.  Like many new-world styles, Zins tend to be rather alcohol forward, and this one was no different.  But it had personality and gentle tannins that were quite enjoyable.  I liked it enough to buy a bottle at $49.

Wilson Creek Winery & Vineyards made a name for itself with its unique almond champagne, which has won multiple awards over the years.  It’s a bit sweet by itself.  I think it would be wonderful as a base for a cocktail or even a punch.

In addition to horseback riding and wine tasting in Temecula, you can stay at the Wine Country Cottage just up the hill from the Wilson Creek Winery tasting room and take a ride in a hot air balloon.

The wineries in Temecula are not as well known as those in Santa Barbara or Napa, but they’re well worth exploring.  There are dozens of them in this beautiful area, most with estate-style buildings that might make you think you’ve gone back in time to “Falcon Crest.”