New Wine Cave and More at Pala Casino Spa & Resort
Sniff. Swirl. Sip. I’m savoring the high-toned fruity richness of a 2011 Saxon Brown Sangiacomo Chardonnay from Sonoma, relaxing on a comfy couch in the dimly lit elegance of a subterranean wine cave. The rough-hewn arched ceiling lends an Old World ambiance, while the glowing wine bar sets a contemporary tone and the sweet sounds of a jazz combo keep the mood mellow.
I could easily be in Northern California or European wine country. But I’m not. This stylish new wine-tasting experience is right here in Southern California—in the first underground wine cave in San Diego County and one of the few in SoCal—at the AAA Four-diamond Pala Casino Spa & Resort, a little more than an hour south of Los Angeles in the green Palomar Mountains.
The subterranean hideaway is part of CAVE, Pala’s new multi-million dollar wine-and-dine experience, which opened in May and includes a chic new Italian restaurant, helmed by Milanese chef extraordinaire Luciano Cibelli. The wine cave is snuggled deep underneath Pala’s green event lawn, where tons of raw earth were excavated to bring a true vineyard cave experience to the rolling hills of North San Diego County and nearby Temecula wine country. Walking down the outdoor steps, decorative iron gates mark the entrance to this well-stocked, 2,400-square-foot tasting and entertainment cellar.
“This is the only underground entertainment venue of its kind in San Diego County,” Bill Bembenek, Pala CEO, said during the opening festivities on May 22, 2015. “We have dovetailed an already popular industry in our region—wine and wine tasting—with the gaming industry to create a place with a unique ambiance that is not available elsewhere. CAVE is a place where wine lovers and good friends can come to enjoy their favorite wine and relax to cool jazz in a comfortable, subterranean environment.”
The wine list is formidable. More than 480 domestic and imported wine labels including excellent vintages from California’s Napa and Sonoma valleys and France, Italy, and Australia are available in hefty four-pour flights ($25 to $80) and by the glass (from $7). The Wine Cave also offers a number of brands in large-format bottles. A charcuterie of delicious cheeses, prosciutto, porchetta, and other Italian savories (from $14) make a perfect pairing.
Entertainment in the Wine Cave features popular jazz and R&B solo artists, duos, and trios. Wine tasting begins at 11 a.m. daily.
Above ground, the palette-pleasers continue at the new sleekly styled CAVE Restaurant and Lounge, open daily for lunch and dinner. Just as chef Luc’s leadership and culinary skills led to his Mama’s Cucina Italiana restaurant (which CAVE replaces), the recipient of critical acclaim as one of Southern California’s finest Italian restaurants, so his delicious new CAVE creations—now paired with fine wines and hand-crafted cocktails—are sure to attract accolades.
Chef Luc told me he plans to use CAVE to build upon Mama’s success as he creates a unique menu filled with food and wine pairings inspired by the taste of the Mediterranean while maintaining his distinct “Italian flair.” And Mama’s fans need not worry; chef Luc says he will continue to serve many of the beloved authentic Italian dishes from Mama’s.
A sampling of the mains shows CAVE is worth experiencing—daily risotto specials, wild boar ragu, wild salmon, Cioppino, lamb, and steaks. I especially liked the small-plate gnocchi, the sausage with roasted potato, and the seared ahi appetizers. I loved the flatbread with sausage and caramelized onion and the burrata chicken liver Cognac pate. The Wagu beef burgers were also sizzling delicious.
As if CAVE weren’t enough news, Pala’s multi-million dollar renovation also includes the new Luis Rey’s, a breezy, on-trend indoor-outdoor patio bar and lounge that overlooks the leafy oak-dotted mountain views unique to Pala. With a hip bar and fashionable patio seating, Luis Rey’s serves a blend of domestic and Mexican appetizers, accompanied by a wide variety of local craft beers from San Diego and Mexico, craft cocktails, and tequila. Live bands perform on weekend evenings and holidays.
And there’s more! Pala’s A-list acts have a permanent new home: the Starlight Theater built above the Wine Cave facing the event lawn. Seating continues to be in chairs arranged on the lawn under the stars—and on the hotel balconies for guest with prime accommodations that face the theater stage.
At Pala Spa, each of the 14 treatment rooms (including two couples’ suites) feature a large, private garden patio with mountain views, so spa-goers can choose to enjoy their treatment indoors or outdoors. Between that and the top-of-the line services, it’s no surprise the spa at Pala Casino Spa & Resort is consistently ranked among North America’s Top 100 Spas and among the best in the gaming industry. In 2014, Spas of America named it one of the Top 10 Spas in California and one of the Top 10 Spas in the Casino Industry.
Effective services such as the Ko Bi Do lifting and plumping facial, body rituals including the aromatic sea salt scrub and Abhyanga-style massage, and creative packages for weddings and girls getaways result in a high number of repeat guests. There are options for guys, too, such as the Especially for Men package, which includes a deep-tissue massage, a hot towel gentleman’s facial, a haircut, and a pint of beer. And for shoppers, the Spa Boutique offers the latest beauty products, gifts, and resort wear with weekly specials of 40 to 70 percent off selected items.
My room was large, on the eighth floor, with sweeping views of the pool, poolside cabanas, Starlight Theater, and endless Palomar Mountains. Marble accents in the bathroom and a pale earthy color scheme created a relaxing contemporary vibe. Pala offers 507 rooms ranging from deluxe, which I enjoyed, to 1,039-square-foot Grand Suites.
In all, Pala Casino Spa & Resort includes a Las Vegas-style casino with more than 2,000 slots, 81 table games, and 15 poker tables, plus 11 restaurants, gift shops, a fitness center, and 40,000 square feet of convention space. Pala Casino Spa & Resort is an AAA Four-Diamond Award winner for 12 consecutive years.