By The Mystery Wino
Special to Valley News
Greetings, gentle readers and fellow Grape-Nuts! Thank you for joining me for what I hope will be the first of many entertaining columns about the wineries of Temecula Valley.
Two decades ago, my wife and I moved here from Washington, D.C. Slowly but surely, I morphed into a hopeless wine nerd. I read dozens of books, watched every documentary, took a class or two, and spent too much time at the local wineries. In 2012, we relocated to wine country, where I doubled down on my passion for the vine. Ultimately, I planted 3 acres of Syrah and Sangiovese, selling the fruit to local wineries when not harvesting it myself. I made wine from my grapes in 2016, 2017, and 2020.
While Temecula was my introduction to “bottled poetry,” I now enjoy wines from around the world. I’ve been fortunate enough to do tastings in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Mexico and elsewhere. Still, some of my favorite wines—and my favorite places to drink them—are right here in Temecula. In my opinion, there are few places on the planet that provide a better winery experience than Southern California wine country.
Skeptical? I don’t blame you. Compared to other regions around the state, Temecula is a small fish in a very big pond. That’s why critics and wine lovers alike have overlooked us for so long.
In 1999, the late Vick Knight wrote Toasting Temecula Wines. Although only 15 wineries existed at the time (several of which have since changed hands or closed), Knight’s book was the first real exploration of wine country by an informed insider. A decade later, Rebecca Farnbach wrote Temecula Wine Country, a historical account of the first 40 years of winemaking in the region. It’s a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the local wine industry.
Since then, there have been a handful of mostly superficial treatments by writers unfamiliar with the area or its wine.
To remedy this, I decided to write my own wine book in 2015. I interviewed 25 winemakers and owners, toured facilities and tasted, tasted, tasted. I developed a growing admiration (bordering on awe) of the men and women who have dedicated their lives to the strange profession of making wine. When I finally pitched my idea to publishers, they promptly informed me that there was no market for such a book. Apparently, they felt that Temecula was too much like Gertrude Stein’s Oakland. There was no “there” there.
At the time, their attitude made some sense to me. California is home to 4,200 or so wineries. Napa, Sonoma, and the surrounding counties that make up the North Coast wine region account for more than 1,000 of them. The Central Coast region has upward of 300, along with dozens of different American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). There are hundreds more wineries in the Central Valley (think Lodi), where the bulk of California grapes are grown. By contrast, Temecula—the only semi-recognizable AVA within the South Coast wine region—has only 50 wineries. They are all within 10 minutes of one another and make roughly 500,000 cases per year. To put this in perspective, 30 wineries in California produce at least 500,000 cases annually by themselves. Francis Ford Coppola Winery puts out almost 2 million cases, and its not even in the top 10.
A related issue is that our wineries don’t sell their products outside the city limits. They don’t need to. Unlike wineries in Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles, Temecula doesn’t depend on the three-tier distribution system (producer to distributer to retailer to consumer). They can sell all their wine directly through their front doors. That’s because we are 90 minutes from 20 million people in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. According to the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association (a great resource for your next trip, by the way), the wineries hosted almost 2 million visits in 2018, contributing $78 million to the regional economy and supporting 4,800 jobs.
While our geographical advantage boosts profits, it doesn’t help boost our national, or even statewide, recognition. Hence, the tendency of critics to dismiss Temecula as a serious wine region.
That was then, this is now. Temecula is the real deal, and people around the state are finally taking notice.
Every month, it seems that a new winery is being built, each more elaborate, innovative, and ambitious than the one before. Meanwhile, older wineries have stepped up their game—or sold out to new owners. As a result, the quality of Temecula’s wines has improved dramatically, as I’ve rediscovered firsthand over the past year. Winemakers are doing incredibly creative work with traditional Bordeaux varietals as well as lesser-known grapes from Italy and Spain. Many of our Rhone blends, Syrahs, and Italian and Spanish whites and reds rival those of any winery in the U.S. Finally, Temecula is figuring out its own style and its unique terroirs.
All this success has meant a steep rise in traffic, crowds, prices and (occasionally) complacency. For some places in the valley, weddings and other events take priority over winemaking. But that’s a subject for another column.
Over the next year, my goal is to provide brief, honest reviews of the wineries, including the quality of their service, food, ambience, and, yes, their wine. I’ll celebrate the owners, winemakers, growers, chefs, servers, and all the other people who make the wineries such uniquely wonderful places. I’ll give the pros and cons of each winery so that readers can make informed decisions on which wineries they may want to visit or avoid. There won’t be any puff pieces, but I won’t be using a poison pen either.
Next week I’ll discuss what I think makes a winery experience enjoyable, and give tips on how you can get the most out of your next visit. I’ll also list the first three wineries I plan to review.
The Mystery Wino is a local wine geek, vineyard owner, winemaker and writer in Temecula, California.
Editor’s Note; The views and opinions expressed in the Temecula Winery Report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Reeder Media, Valley News or any of its employees and subsidiaries.