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California Celebration Showcases Local Wines, Balloons

Communities often hold festivals to show what makes them special. In the West Coast state of California, farmers near Fresno celebrate their figs and those around Gilmore showcase their garlic. The wine-producing region of Temecula, 100 kilometers north of San Diego, offers local vintages in an annual festival, with hot-air balloons for added excitement.

One weekend each May, dozens of hot-air balloonists come to Temecula Valley. Windy conditions on Saturday restricted the altitude, but the sight of even tethered balloons hovering in the air was spectacular. For pilots,the ride is always exciting, yet relaxing, says balloonist Kim Lynch.

Up, up and away

"The appeal of ballooning is the ability to just leave all your worries on the ground," she said.

Balloonist Kim Lynch

Balloonist Kim Lynch

Balloons are unloaded from small trucks, then laid out and inflated with fans and propane burners. Once in the air, control is limited, said pilot Scott McClinton, who drove across the country from Louisville, Kentucky."We can go up and down, but we really are at the mercy of the wind," he said. Despite the lack of control, he says "it's just the most peaceful feeling in the world."

Volunteers inflate a balloon.

Volunteers inflate a balloon.

This festival, operated by a non-profit association, has grown in its 33 years of operation. Longtime volunteer Jeffrey Gaier says it offers hot air balloons in the morning, wine in the afternoon, and the evening glow of propane burners lighting up the sky.Throughout the weekend festival, there is music.

Temecula Valley, with more than 40 wineries, is the largest wine-producing region of Southern California. It cannot yet rival the wine-growing regions of in the northern part of the state, Napa and Mendocino, but some of its vintages earn praise from wine critics.

Visitor Jin Paek of Los Angeles is trying a sample. "I like weather and wine and balloons," he said, sipping a cabernet.

Wine and ballooning

The vintners range from large, like the long-established Calloway Vineyard,to the small three-year-old winery of a husband-and-wife team, the Lorenzis.

"Our Italian friend said I can show you how to make wine, so he [my husband, Don] made up one gallon, and the rest was history," she said.

Balloons lifting off.

Balloons lifting off.

Their winery produces just 2,400 cases of wine a year, with prices ranging from $20 a bottle to more than $400 for a bottle.

Local entrepreneurs show off their services. Anthony Oshinuga, a commercial pilot whose immigrant parents came from Nigeria, offers tours by airplane with stops at local wineries. He says tourists from Asia and Europe have discovered this valley, drawn by its wines, scenery, and a nearby casino run by the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians.

The local history and culture are all on display one weekend each year, with a stunning array of hot-air balloons as part of the attraction.