Article By: Donald Breed
As the last century wound down, Temecula, the Southern Californian wine region 6O miles north of San Diego, suffered a calamity. With one notable exception, Temecula's wineries picked themselves up and moved on.
The calamity was an outbreak of Pierce's Disease, caused by a bacterium called Xylella fastidiosa, that destroys vines in about a year. The bacterium is carried by various hosts, but the one that struck Temecula was the glassy-winged sharpshooter, which showed up in 1998 or 1999. This one is larger and more energetic than the blue-green sharpshooter, which was blamed for extensive damage earlier in Santa Cruz and other areas. The glassy-winged bug (hereafter GWSS), when feeding on the juices of grapevines, can consume 1O times its own weight within an hour. (Don't try this at home.)
By 2OO3, between 3O and 6O percent of Temecula's vines had been destroyed - the extent of the damage depending on who made the estimate. But the devastation speeded up a trend that had already begun: planting grape varieties that are more suited to Temecula's Region III, ie, relatively warm climate. Those varieties, mostly from southern France and Italy, happen to be more in vogue with consumers today, and judging from those I tasted in a very brief visit to Temecula last year, the results are extremely promising.
Also flourishing is what I call eno-tourism (a term I'm sure others have coined). All of the 24 wineries in Temecula have tasting rooms, where they can sell at retail, so much more profitable than selling at the bottom of the three-tier market. Some also sell food items, as well provide picnic areas and often sites for events like weddings. Four of the wineries have full restaurants (with restaurant markups for their wines). South Coast Winery goes a step further, and has a resort where people can not only taste and eat but stay overnight and engage in various sports.
All this benefits from the proximity to San Diego and Los Angeles. Those guys from Sideways could have driven fewer miles and gone to Temecula, but they wouldn't have found much Pinot Noir; it's one of the varieties most susceptible to Pierce's Disease.
Viticulture in California, as we know, started in the south, at San Diego, and worked its way north. Los Angeles had commercial wineries in the mid-19th century in places that are now paved or covered with buildings. Temecula's origins, however, are much more recent. It started with the 87,5OO acre cattle ranch, the Vail Ranch, that in 1965 was sold to a real estate conglomerate, Kaiser Aetna Corporation. Rancho California, as they named it, was developed for housing, light industry and agriculture, including avocados.
A demonstration vineyard was planted that year, too. Vincenzo and Audrey Cilurzo planted the first commercial vineyard in 1968. Their original vineyard was quickly sold, and the Cilurzos later planted another elsewhere. In 2OO4, they sold the winery, which is now called Bella Vista Cilurzo Vineyard and Winery.
The winery most identified with Temecula, however, is Callaway, named for its founder, Eli Callaway, a Georgian who bought 71O acres and planted 134 acres of grapevines in 1969, in anticipation of his retirement in 1973. He had taken note of the gap between the Santa Rosa and Santa Margarita Mountains, which brought in cool air from the Pacific Ocean, 24 miles away. (Callaway chose to call it "Rainbow Gap" after the Rainbow Pass, which was just south of the actual, larger Santa Margarita Gap.) Whatever you call it, the gap is important; the cool climates of western Santa Barbara show that it's not so much how far north or south you are in California, but how exposed you are to the cold, deep waters of the Pacific. Temecula's elevation is 12OO to 14OO feet. In the morning there is mist over the vineyards; in fact, the region derives from the Indian word Temeku, meaning "land where the sun shines through the white mist".
"In the late summer and early fall, when the grapes are coming into peak maturity," said Don Reha, winemaker at Thornton Winery, "the temperatures here can change as much as 5O degrees from daytime high to nightime low, although I would say the average is probably closer to 4O degrees difference. We get this effect from the coastal fog that blows over the Santa Rosa Mountains and into the valley most evenings during this time. We have the valley heat in the day and coastal effect cooling at night. This allows the fruit to become much more evenly mature, and experience a substantially longer hang time."
One of the features of Temecula is that its granitic soils are not hospitable to the root louse that causes phylloxera. Growers have been able to plant grapes on their own roots.
Callaway planted Chardonnay, of course, as well as Chenin Blanc and Riesling. His 1975 Riesling was served to Queen Elizabeth, who loved it. The winery was among the first to embrace unoaked Chardonnay, "Calla-lees", so named because it got its complexity from stirring the lees instead of wood, and it also pioneered with the Rhone variety, Viognier.
In 1981, Eli Callaway sold the property to Hiram Walker, and it was purchased by Allied Domecq. Callaway Coastal, as it's called now, is by far the biggest winery in Temecula - selling a quarter-million cases a year - but as a grower it hardly exists. In the early '9Os, Allied Domecq sold the vineyards but then leased and managed them. Callaway had been heavily committed to Chardonnay, which is one of the varieties most susceptible to Pierce's Disease. So when the vines were decimated, Callaway's parent declined to replant. There are six "sister wineries" around California that provide juice or finished wine to Callaway to bottle under its label. The winery also has been making tiny amounts of Viognier, Roussanne and Dolcetto from Temecula fruit. I managed to taste those wines when I was in California, and they are very good, especially the whites.
The two owners of the original Callaway vineyards recently sold the properties, and the new owners tore out the old vines (including the Dolcetto, which Callaway won't be able to make anymore). Because zoning requires the land be used for vines or citrus, at least part will probably be replanted to vines, but they won't be in production for a long time. Callaway got its small amounts of Viognier and Roussanne from other growers.
Except for Callaway, Temecula's wineries are generally committed to either raising their own grapes or purchasing from other growers within the 33,OOO acre AVA (American Viticultural Area). Among the exceptions is Zinfandel, which is often purchased from Cucamonga Valley not far away in Southern California (though slowly succumbing to development). As Joe Hart, of Hart Winery, put it, you can't replicate those 1OO-year-old vines.
When Temecula was first planted, it seemed that American consumers couldn't get enough Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, so those were the dominant plantings in their respective colors, but there was also considerable Sauvignon Blanc, plus Chenin Blanc and Riesling.
Peter Poole, the President and General Manager of Mount Palomar Winery, credits his father, John, who founded the winery in 1969, with planting Temecula's first Rhone grape, three acres of Syrah, in 1974. That was before Mediterranean varietals became chic. (Before that, they were planted in older wine regions, including Cucamonga, and were the basis of everyday wines. I am old enough to remember buying Grenache Rose by the gallon.) Peter Poole says the next move was in 1989, when he grafted some vines to Sangiovese.
I was impressed by Mount Palomar's Sangiovese in the tasting room, and even more by the bottle I brought back with me and opened a few months later. I have never tasted a California Sangiovese that reminded me so much of Tuscany. I suppose that in a blind tasting with Chiantis, Mount Palomar's Sangiovese could be picked out, but at least it doesn't taste like weak Zinfandel. It's not merely close to the obvious benchmark, it has a fruity quality that makes it superior to many Chiantis.
After the release of the first Sangiovese, Poole relates, interest in the Mediterranean varieties picked up. Most of the plantings today are in Syrah, Sangiovese and Viognier, but there is also Nebbiolo, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Grenache, Tempranillo, and Roussanne. Mount Palomar makes an excellent Cortese, the grape from which Gavi is made. In Temecula, Cortese ripens more fully than in the cooler Piedmont.
Thornton Winery, one of those with a fancy restaurant, makes a wide range of sparkling wines, as well as a lot of still wines. There I tasted a massive Nebbiolo, even more concentrated than Barolo, that should take years to mature. Thornton's Roussanne was also particularly memorable.
Despite the interest in Mediterranean grapes, especially as part of the replanting after Pierce's Disease, Poole said that traditional grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, "which truth be told, also like warmer climates," still represent more than half of the grapes growing in Temecula.
Possibly the most striking wine I tasted in Temecula, however, came from just outside the AVA. At South Coast Winery, where a full resort is under construction, winemaker Jon McPherson let me taste from barrel a Syrah from grapes grown on Wild Horse Peak Vineyard, which is in the larger South Coast appellation. South Coast's owner, Jim Carter bought the 4OO acre property in the early 199Os and has 16O acres under vine, with Syrah, Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Sirah.
Carter started out as a grower, selling his grapes to Temecula wineries. He saw his Wild Horse Peak grapes mixed in with the others, without any recognition of their special qualities. That irked him, and when he also lost a contract, he decided to start his own winery. Work began in 2OO1, and the first crush was in 2OO3. In addition to Wild Horse Peak, South Coast now has three sites in the Temecula AVA: a 1OO acre plot, of which 3O is planted; 26 acres all planted; and 4O acres around the winery, of which 15 is planted.
Right now, McPherson said, they buy all their white grapes, which represents 3O percent of what they crush. All comes from Temecula growers. By five years, South Coast expects to use estate grapes for nearly all their needs.
All this commitment to growing grapes in Temecula flies in the face of predictions that the arrival of the glassy-winged sharpshooter meant the region was finished. The owners of the Callaway vineyards may have felt that way, but others did not.
Pierce's Disease has a long history in California. It was named after a researcher who discovered it in Southern California in 1892. It was known for a while as Anaheim Disease, because of the damage it did to vineyards there. It also affects citrus trees, so it's not surprising that it's found in Florida, as well as other states including Texas and Virginia.
But growers are not defenseless. They watch the vines carefully and prune out sections that are affected. They can inject a pesticide called Admire into the vines, which makes the sharpshooter lose interest in them. There are also biological controls: tiny wasps that prey on the sharpshooters.
Growers received federal assistance to pull out diseased vines, and government researchers continue to work on better controls.
If you're in San Diego or Los Angeles, visit Temecula. It's still there.