If asked to name a wine region in California, most people would reply “Napa!” “Sonoma!” or perhaps, “Paso Robles”.
Before those areas became famous, there was another part of the state that was the hub of wine production in the western US: Southern California.Today, the centerpiece of this somewhat undiscovered region is the….
Temecula Valley AVA.
Located a mere 60 miles north-east of San Diego and 90 miles south-east of Los Angeles, this sun drenched valley is quietly making award wining wines and welcomes over two million visitors each year. The first documented vineyard, in the western United States, was planted in the 1760’s near San Diego California by Father Junipero Serra.
Thanks to Italian immigrants, Southern California became a hub of wine production. In 1883, Secundo Guasti founded the Italian Vineyard Company in San Bernadino County, which became the largest grower/producer in the state (or if you are to believe Senor Guasti, ‘ the world!’) and even had their own cooperage.
With the coming of the Gold Rush and the railroad, the population of the San Francisco Bay area soared, and the Napa/Sonoma valleys along with it. After the devastating loses to the wine industry caused by Prohibition and post war urban sprawl things weren’t to rosy for Southern California’s wine growers.
The sleepy little town of Temecula was mostly known for cattle and most of the land surrounding the one main street belonged to the Vail Ranch Cattle Company. In the early 1960’s the Vail family decided to sell the land for development. The new owners hired experts to suggest what types of agriculture would be best suited to the arid land. ‘Wine grapes’ was the opinion.
During the mid 1960’s several small vineyards were planted, and the large Brookside Winery, from nearby Cucamonga, purchased 460 acres to supply their 36 retail wine shops throughout California, Arizona and Illinois.
The vineyards were thriving, with close to 26 wineries by the late 1990s. Then, what many considered disaster struck, in the form of Pierce’s Disease. This infection, spread by the Glassywinged Sharpshooter, wiped out almost one third of the vineyards, causing many wineries to purchase fruit from other regions in order to meet their production levels. The quality of the wines suffered and many growers did not survive.
In retrospect this blight was actually a blessing in disguise. When it came time to replant, many of the growers were more knowledgeable than their forbearers about what varieties were best suited to the soil and climate. Instead of Chenin Blanc, they planted Viognier. Rather than more Cabernet Sauvignon, why not Tempranillo or Syrah?
Things were about to change in this often overlooked AVA.
Today there are over 40 wineries varying in size from 60,000 cases to just a few thousand. Many are small, ‘boutique’ sized establishments where the winemaker or their spouse might be pouring in the tasting room. Some are complete resorts, with gourmet ‘farm to table’ restaurants, hotels, and wedding venues.
But it’s the wine that people are noticing – including Sommeliers! The AVA (American Viticultural Area) was created in October of 1984 as ‘Temecula AVA’. That was altered in June of 2005 to ‘Temecula Valley AVA” making it the only region to have been granted a change of name. The delineated area is 33,000 acres with just over 3,000 acres are currently planted to vine.
You might wonder how grapes do so well here, considering the blazing hot summers and minimal rainfall. The secret is in the mountains. Temecula is located in a graben, or rift, created by the Elsinore fault line with the Temescal Mountains to the east and the Santa Ana range to the west. Cold air from the high (up to 25,000 feet) mountains descends into the valley at night. This, combined with the moist, cool ocean breezes that travel through the ‘Rainbow Gap’ to the west, bring early morning and nightly relief from the hot summer days.
Combine this with almost unlimited sunshine and well draining, decomposed granite (DG) soil and you have a recipe for amazing wine grapes. There is a vast range of grape varieties to be found, from the traditional Bordeaux grapes; Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc to Muscat, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and a host of others.
New Focus in Temecula
Many wineries are now focusing on grapes found in the Rhone Valley, Spain and other parts of the Mediterranean. It’s not uncommon to find Viognier, Vermentino, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre or Tempranillo. Styles range from sweet sparklers to serious, small lot wines recognized in competitions such as the International Wines & Spirits (London), Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits, San Francisco Chronicle, and many more.