“A red rose is not selfish because it wants to be a red rose. It would be horribly selfish if it wanted all the other flowers in the garden to be both red and roses.”
-- Oscar Wilde
The Sweet Partner in Crime and I were ready for a getaway. My birthday was fortunately timed this year, so we decided to make a little California excursion to unwind, celebrate my entry into this world and, of course, try some tasty wines.
We started in San Diego with the SPinC's old roommate Melissa, her husband James, and their adorable kids Alex and Austin. We spent some time in Balboa Park, wandered through the San Diego Zoo, crashed someone else's 40th birthday party, hit Imperial Beach, and then set our sights about 80 miles north.
Turning east off "The 15" about an hour north of San Diego onto Rancho California Road leads you into the Temecula Viticultural Area -- one of the few relatively undiscovered wine regions left in California. A number of my wine biz compatriots either had never heard of the place or had never tried the wine from there. Heck, *I'd* never heard of the place until the SPinC suggested it.
After visits to Sonoma, Monterey, Santa Barbara, and Napa, heading into Temecula was a bit of a shock. Instead of driving down winding canyon roads to the wineries, we found ourselves on a dead-straight four-lane highway past strip malls and seemingly endless complexes of condos and planned Beazer Home developments with names like "Chardonnay Hills" and "Vintage View," undoubtedly reeling from the ailing real estate market. At the edge of town, the country opened straight up into vineyards and wineries, stretching far in each direction.
Temecula, as we learned, was largely a ranching town until about 25 years ago. Old Town Temecula is largely constructed and restored to give the ambience of what "used to be." What's there now is a lot of grapes. Temecula is a Pechanga word for "Sun shines through the mist." The city is allegedly the only one in California to retain its Native American name.
Temecula Valley is a desert. Seriously. The average rainfall there, we learned, was about eight inches a year. It's also brutally hot, especially in summer. The high heat causes many of the grapes to ripen more rapidly than in many areas. If I made generalizations -- I found many of the "standard" reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to be thinner, lighter bodied, and have a somewhat raisiny nose. The chardonnays tend to be extremely oaky -- which almost seemed like an attempt to cover the lack of inherent fruitiness in many of those grapes from their shorter ripening time.
Temecula is both blessed and cursed. As an “up and coming” wine region, there’s a rapidly growing market for these wines – partly out of curiosity, partly because there’s the potential for some really delicious wine. What did I find out there? The grapes in Temecula are all over the map. Some vineyards focus on growing Bordeaux varietals (in fact, many grow all five: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec). Some grow esoteric whites like Viognier and Gewurztraminer. There's a lot of Chardonnay, and much more sparkling wine than I thought I’d see. There’s plenty of Syrah and a few other Rhone varietals floating around.
It’s understandable that the growers would pepper the hillsides with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, etc. – because that’s what everyone was drinking when these wineries opened. Looking at other wine growing regions with similar climates around the world, places like Italy and Spain seem to match best. So does the Rhone, which has the hottest, driest growing season in France. Twenty years ago, however, the average American wine drinker would have said, “Tempranillo? Isn’t that a little armored hedgehog looking thing from Texas?”
Thankfully, the American palate is broadening. People are drinking more Sangiovese, more Spanish varietals, and French-styled syrah. The wineries in Temecula that had the foresight and the knowledge when the hillsides were planted to get some Italian, Rhone, and Spanish varietals in the ground are seeing real dividends. The best values – and, in most cases, the best wines I tasted out there were either those grapes or wines in those styles. If developed correctly, Temecula could easily become “America’s Little Tuscany.”
Here are some thoughts about some of the wineries we had the good fortune to check out. Temecula's price point is a little out of the range of the Vine, but hey -- it's a special occasion:
Palumbo Family Vineyards -- A small, family-run operation that we were told not to miss. Their tasting room, a cozy room overlooking the vineyard (and their daughter Sophia's minature pedal-powered tractor) was home to some extremely tasty selections. Their Viognier was light, fragrant, and crisp with a hint of mint on the finish. Their meritage -- while a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot -- tasted to me like an excellent Sangiovese (which is also grown on the property). A small winery with a big future.
Miramonte Winery -- Perched high atop a hill overlooking any number of wineries below, Miramonte treated us extremely well on our visit. The jovial, ruggedly handsome manager Joe introduced us to any number of excellent wines while skillfully handling at least two drunken birthday parties in the tasting room. Miramonte did a number of excellent wines. Our favorites were the Sangiovese -- full of fruit and balanced tannins; their "3 Block" Shiraz which was the best imitation of a top-end Aussie red with lots of vanilla and dark fruit; their "Opulente" -- a meritage of deep fruit and smokiness; and their Estate Syrah -- a smoky wine of mystery balancing dark fruit and floral aromas. Wonderful. We also appreciated the advice from Joe's sidekick Matt, who joined us on the Miramonte patio for an end-of-evening glass, and to the manager Christine, who left us set up well with a pack of cheese and fruit to enjoy as we watched the sunset.
Frangipani Winery -- A low-slung building with the tasting room set amidst the barrels -- a common setup for many of our favorite wineries in this valley. We spent a long time talking to Don, the owner and vintner -- who knew the entire history of winemaking in Temecula Valley and was goodly enough to take the time to chat with us. His late harvest zin was a wonderful dessert wine, and for me -- the real star of the show was his Cabernet Franc. I generally don't care for Cab Franc. I find it to be too tannic and heavy on its own. The climate in Temecula thinned the wine out a bit, leaving a lighter-styled, fruity, well-balanced wine that almost seemed like a tannic pinot noir. Great guy, too. Hope we didn't make him late for his tee time...
Cougar Vineyards & Winery -- Our tastress, Jamie, told us about the many visits the winery gets from "Cougar Clubs" on the prowl for young men. While there weren't many to be found at this winery -- there were some excellent, reasonably priced wines. Cougar is one of the wineries that focuses almost entirely on Italian varietals, and their wines are starting to shine as a result. They did a semi-sweet "Sparkling Cougar" of Muscat grapes that had a wonderful nose of honeysuckle and tasted wonderful. Their rose of Sangiovese was full of fruit, and both their Sangiovese and Primitivo were well on their way to being excellent wines -- probably needing a year or two. We also got a bag of kumquats and an avocado with our purchase. How can you argue?
Robert Renzoni Winery -- Another Italian-heavy winery with a fun vibe. The SPinC and I have long talked about "wood theory" -- a hypothesis that states that the more a winery spends on burnished wood in their tasting room, the lesser the wines. Renzoni, like Cougar, was in a large steel-sided "barn" with a tasting bar in the front and barrels filling the rest of the space. Unpretentious and easy to get to know. They had a nice list of offerings -- our favorites were the Concerto, an "oops" blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, and Merlot with a spicy, slightly minty flavor and a long finish that just tasted scrumptious; their Rose of Sangiovese called "La Rosa" which has nothing to do with the Cincinnati area pizzeria, but instead was a fruity, light, easy accompaniment to our lunchtime sandwiches; and their "Fiore de Fano" -- a "Super Tuscan" style blend of Sangiovese, Cab Franc, Cab Sav, and Merlot that blew us away with flavors of leather, cherry, and plums.
Some other good wines we had a chance to try were the Leonesse Cellars' Signature Selection Syrah -- one of the best wines we tried there -- I described it as "velvet and pepper", but overpriced by a fairly wide margin. This wine was $90, and I've had boutique Syrah from Sonoma (my pals at Amphora and Gopfrich, for instance) at a third of the cost that were at the very least the equal. We liked the Zinfandel at Stuart Cellars -- which actually tasted like a Zin that I was used to -- strong body, fruity, and peppery. The sparkling Gewurztraminer and methode champenoise Brut from South Coast Winery & Spa were very tasty -- this was where we were staying during our time in Temecula. Those wines were good, but the massages we got there were better! We also had a delicious dinner at Thornton's -- not corn dogs and fountain drinks, mind you -- delicious tapas appetizers and perfectly done halibut on a pea risotto washed down with their estate methode champenoise Brut bubbly. Wonderful.
I'll be interested to see the development in Temecula over the next several years. As you know, vines take a long time to produce really mature fruit, and Temecula's only been planted widely in the last 20 or so years. The next 5-10 years will probably tell the tale for the region, and we'll start seeing the full potential of what you can get from there. Until then -- it was a heck of a lot of fun learning about the place and was a fabulous getaway. I'd certainly go back -- especially if the early returns are any indication.