The Mystery Wino
Hello again from Temecula Wine Country!
In my inaugural column, I tried to make the case that Temecula is one of the most compelling places in America to visit if you’re a grape nut. The majority of our wines are artisanal, interesting, and delicious, made by passionate farmers and winemakers who generally value quality over quantity.
Today, I’ll explain my criteria when it comes to choosing a winery. I’ll also provide a few tips on how to enjoy yourself once you get there.
First, a few rhetorical questions. Isn’t wine the key when it comes to enjoying a winery? Doesn’t a blockbuster wine make up for any and all unpleasantness you might endure? So what if your server didn’t know the difference between Malbec and Manischewitz. Or that it took 30 minutes to get a spot at the bar. Or that they charged you $35 for five 2-ounce pours. All those annoyances melted away when you tasted that mouthwatering Sangiovese your friends told you about.
Wrong. As much as we like to imagine that fine wine is all we need to enjoy ourselves at a winery, it’s simply not true. Other considerations are just as important — the company you’re with; the competence and kindness of your server; the view from your table; the food you’re eating; the affordability; the weather; the birds in the trees and the music on the veranda. For most of us, these aspects of visiting a winery are, collectively, at least as important as the wine.
Don’t get me wrong. Wine quality is essential. Without it, wine country is simply a nice place to get married or watch a Kenny G concert. My point is simply that great wine is not usually enough. That’s why it is only one of several factors I’ll take into account in my reviews.
One problem is that wine preferences are wildly subjective. One man’s elixir is another man’s vinegar. Some people like beefy reds with 15% alcohol, while others are looking for more balance and finesse. Some like crisp, refreshing whites with an acidic tang, while others crave residual sugar and a charming shade of pink. Some enjoy slushies, sangrias, and wine coolers, while others are, well, not in their mid-20s. Fruit versus earth, flowers versus leather, complex versus approachable. When it comes to wine, the list of legitimate aesthetic choices is endless.
For example, I prefer medium-bodied reds like Grenache, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, and certain GSMs. I’ve also learned to relish rosés and aromatic whites such as Sauvignon Blanc, Vermentino, Arneis, and Albariño. When it comes to full-bodied reds, I’m a sucker for medium acids, dark fruit flavors, and lower alcohol.
One of the advantages of Temecula is the diversity of our varietal offerings. Whether you enjoy Bordeaux blends or Rhone blends, Italian or Spanish wines, sparklers or dessert wines, you can find all of them in wine country.
Tips for your next trip to wine country.
Decide what kind of winery experience you want to have. Choose your wineries carefully. It’s not usually about “good” versus “bad.” Every winery has its pros and cons. Are you looking to party or for tranquility and pretty views? Do you want a full-service resort or a mom-and-pop boutique? Are you a wine snob or a foodie? Do you want a casual country vibe or a sophisticated resort feel? Whatever you’re after, I guarantee there’s a winery out there for you.
Get Over the Sticker Shock. To put it bluntly, Temecula wine is really expensive for what it is. Over the last decade, bottle prices have skyrocketed. Recently, tastings have gone up, too, with wineries routinely charging $25, $30 or even $40 for five or six tastings. This is mostly thanks to good old-fashioned supply and demand. It turns out that lots of people want to buy what Temecula is selling. An owner once told me that if he priced his wine more cheaply than he does, he’d sell out halfway through the tourist season — a feat he accomplished more than once.
Of course, making wine is much more expensive for the artisanal producers in Temecula than it is for mega-wineries like Rodney Strong, Ste. Michelle, or J. Lohr, with their 100,000-gallon tanks and massive distribution. The economies of scale for handcrafted, small-lot wineries are unforgiving. I grow grapes on my property and sometimes make wine. If I were to sell a bottle, I’d have to charge $75 to breakeven.
Expand your wine palate. You say you only drink Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay? Wake up and smell the rosés. Most Americans consume only five or six different wine varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc. In an average year, these account for about 80% of wine sales in America. When it comes to Temecula, this poses a problem, because these so-called “international varietals” don’t always express themselves well in our terroir; that is, our soils, weather conditions, and topography.
Does that mean that there aren’t wonderful examples of these wines in Temecula? Of course not. It does mean, however, that average ones outnumber outstanding ones.
Thankfully, other varietals thrive in the valley. They tend to be grapes grown in hot regions of the wine-growing world, such as Spain, Italy, and southern France. Increasingly, Temecula wineries are planting these lesser known grapes, even if the usual suspects still appear on their menus. As a result, the region’s Rhone varietals (e.g., Viognier, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Roussanne, Grenache) and blends, as well as our Italian and Spanish varietals, are quickly gaining a reputation for excellence.
In no particular order, here are the first three wineries I’ll review: Hart Winery, Leoness Cellars, and Akash Winery.
The Mystery Wino is a local wine geek, vineyard owner, winemaker, and writer in Temecula.
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 Valley News.