De Luz group seeks AVA designation for grapes and wine

These pinot noir grape vines in the De Luz Highlands produce a gold medal in an international competition for Woodworth Vineyards that stunned the wine world in 2011. Paul Bandong photo


Over 40 residents, farmers and growers gathered at a private residence in De Luz, Sept. 21, to discuss plans to apply for an American Viticulture Area designation for the De Luz area. Many brought samples of their locally grown wines.

“Our goal is to elevate and separate,” Heather Petersen, organizer for the gathering and owner of the property, said.

Petersen, founder and CEO of National Merchants Association, has plans to open the Sol de Luz winery.

“Just driving up here, you can tell this is a really special place, rolling plush green hills, sunny weather,” Petersen said. “It is very different than the Temecula Valley floor, and our grapes have their own unique flavor profile and we want to have that recognized.”

AVA is an official term used to designate “different grape-growing regions throughout the United States, distinguishable by geographic features.” Geographic features can include climate, soil, elevation, physical features and historical precedent. Applications are made through and approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The bureau defines AVAs at the request of wineries and other petitioners. As of September 2016, there are 236 AVAs in the United States.

Similar to the Appellation of Origin, the designated AVA describes a geographic pedigree often reflected in the characteristics of the grapes grown in that area. Once an AVA is established, at least 85 percent of the grapes used to make a wine must be grown in the specified area if the AVA is referenced on the label. It is not a grade or measure of quality, but allows producers and consumers to differentiate and authenticate growing areas.

For consumers, this designation means that wines they enjoy from a specific area may have the same characteristics as wines from other producers in that area, and they can look for those by AVA.

For winemakers, the AVA designation allows them to more accurately describe their grape-growing region, and they can use the reputation of the area to market their wines, much like “Cotes du Rhone” in Europe or Napa Valley AVA in California. Regions build reputations based on their wines, which influences consumers to purchase wines with that designation.

Napa Valley was California’s first recognized AVA. There are 400 wineries in that area that can use the Napa Valley AVA. Within that geographic region, there are 14 other nested AVAs with distinct microclimates and terrains, like Stag’s Leap and others. The Napa Valley AVA itself is also part of the larger North Coast American Viticultural Area that covers more than 3 million acres, including Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties and parts of Marin and Solano counties. Producers using the larger AVA are not limited to using grapes from the smaller AVA.

De Luz is distinctively different from the Temecula Valley wine region. De Luz enjoys a more temperate climate of approximately10-15 degrees cooler with a long growing season of coastal morning fog, warm and sunny days, rapidly cooled off in the late afternoon and evenings by Pacific Ocean breezes. The De Luz hills receive twice as much rainfall as the valley floor, 14 inches this last year.

The varied topographical configuration of hills and valleys provide a variety of exposures and elevations lending itself to a diversity of grapes. The rocky red volcanic soil with more sedimentary rock is another contrast to the sandy soil of the Temecula Valley floor.

Santa Barbara winemaker Mark Horvath, designated winemaker for the fledgling Sol de Luz winery, described the De Luz area as ideal for growing a variety of grapes.

“The longer growing period will increase the color, concentration, intensity of the grapes,” Horvath said. “Growing grapes on the hillsides make them sturdier, more athletic and the diurnal shift of nutrients – sugars by day and acids by night – makes for more dynamic wines. We are looking at growing 22 different varietals. Finding the unique places to grow fruit is part of the adventure.”

Southern California is generally considered too hot to grow pinot noir, considered the “most romantic of wines.” However, the 2008 Woodworth Vineyards pinot noir, which is grown on the same property that the meeting was held, was ranked among the very best, winning a gold medal at the 2011 Pinot Noir Summit in San Francisco. It achieved scores of 93 and 94 from a distinguished panel of judges who tasted more than 360 competing wines from the United States, France, Italy, Australia and New Zealand. The award-winning wine was produced exclusively from 3 acres of pinot noir grapes grown on the 45-acre De Luz property. Woodworth has also won numerous medals for many of its other wines, including whites and blends, giving testament to the area’s suitability for growing a diversity of grapes.

Petersen had grown up farming in Ohio and has planted vines over 100 acres in De Luz over the past year. She sees this meeting as a collaborative opportunity to educate through the AVA about farming techniques, consistency in the growing experience and maximizing yield.

“This will grow and elevate the level of winemaking in this area,” Petersen said.

Petersen has hired Lisa Sumner as chief operating officer for the proposed winery, Sol de Luz. Sumner has 15 years experience in the wine industry at Bel Vino, Callaway and Wilson Creek wineries, is a second-level sommelier and loves the business side of wines.

“This AVA designation will put De Luz on the map and opens the door to be globally recognized as a region,” Sumner said.

Jason Altepeter is the operator of the Sol de Luz winery.

The group hopes to see road improvements and increased property values as a result of the AVA and the subsequent recognition and growth.

Los Angeles winemaker, Justin Chang, principle of the “Good Luck, Have Fun” Winery, is in full support of the AVA proposal. He has planted malbec grapes on his family’s assemblage of acres near Cross Creek Golf Course.

“I saw a real dedication to farming up here – avocados, citrus and grapes – and thought this is a beautiful place to grow grapes,” Chang said, adding that he plans to utilize large parcels with a reduced scope of project, basing his winemaking on malbec, building toward a classic Bordeaux in later years.

De Luz resident Terrence Connolly has planted 350 syrah vines and 250 grenache vines on his property. His first year’s harvest went to Palumbo Family Vineyards & Winery, who sourced out the best of the lot to see what they could make of it.

“This is not a new idea,” Nick Palumbo, who has been involved in the industry since 1998 and has vineyards on both sides of the freeway, said. “This area is currently under the Temecula Valley AVA; it should be considered for identification as a unique area as a separate or sub-AVA.”

However, he advised “any ‘new’ idea needs a heavy dose of caution and thought before being implemented.” He also said that 50-100 tons of grapes went unsold in the area this year.

Coincidentally, Rancho California Water District announced its “CropSWAP” program in December 2016, providing financial assistance to their agricultural and “ag/residential” customers for crop conversion projects “that save water through replacement of existing crops with those with lower irrigation water demands.”

Maximum assistance amount is $15,000 per acre converted when swapping from avocados to wine grapes or $10,000 per acre converted when swapping from citrus to wine grapes and subject to certain requirements and restrictions. This program is expected to spur additional wine grape plantings in the proposed De Luz AVA.

“We would have an interest in managing the conversions, harvesting and purchasing those grapes,” Peterson said. “We are constantly looking for properties up here.”

The proposed boundaries of the separate AVA contain 50 square miles from Rancho California Road on the east, to the escarpment on La Cresta to the north and potentially along the drainage lines toward Camp Pendleton. The name for the AVA is still undecided, with De Luz Hills and De Luz Highlands being suggested.

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