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Rethinking Temecula

Robert Whitley on

In the southwest corner of California's Riverside County, a scant one-hour drive from San Diego, the Temecula Valley wine country enjoys a surging popularity among day-trippers from densely populated Southern California.

The rolling hills of Temecula Valley, east of Old Town Temecula, are home to more than 30 wineries. Many of them have excellent restaurants. In fact, in 2016, Leoness Cellars was voted best winery restaurant in the nation by USA Today.

From April through October there are weddings galore, the vineyards and surrounding mountains providing an enchanting backdrop. By all accounts, virtually every winery sells every drop of wine it produces. Therein lies the problem: Temecula wines rarely make it into national distribution because it is far more lucrative to sell wine out the tasting-room door.

On the one hand, winery owners can take a bow for having such a successful business plan. On the other hand, convincing a skeptical public that Temecula Valley wines can be world-class is a bridge too far when most of the country hasn't seen, let alone tasted, a wine of the valley's origin.

For what it's worth, the smart money in Temecula has invested heavily in cultivating Mediterranean grape varieties. Because of the climate -- hot and dry during the day, with a cooling evening influence from the nearby Pacific Ocean -- Mediterranean grapes such as syrah, sangiovese, tempranillo, touriga nacional, pinot grigio and vermentino make sense and have become the backbone of Temecula Valley wine quality over the past 10 years.

Winemaker Jon McPherson of South Coast Winery and Carter Estate has gone big on tempranillo, the money grape of Spain, and touriga nacional, the money grape of Portugal. While still cultivating traditional international varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, McPherson has turned heads by thrice winning the coveted winery of the year award at the California State Fair. For good measure, McPherson also produces exceptional sparkling wines.

Next door to South Coast, Ponte Winery has earned a reputation with grapes that are indigenous to Italy, particularly sangiovese and vermentino.

Leoness Cellars produces one of California's finest, most elegant syrahs. Jim Hart at Hart Winery is also a master of syrah and other Rhone grape varieties, and his dry rose is one of the finest around. Thornton Winery, under winemaker David Vergari, has rebounded from a bad patch several years and is now a force with award-winning chardonnay and cabernet franc, and a portfolio of excellent sparkling wines.

To be sure, there are a few mom-and-pop wineries with spotty wines from time to time, but the best of Temecula can play on the world stage. But hardly anyone outside of Southern California knows it. And that's a shame.

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