Uncovering Temecula's Wine Identity

Does the SoCal region need a flagship varietal?

by Jane Firstenfeld
wine temecula hot air balloon
Temecula will host the Temecula Valley Balloon & Wine Festival June 2-4, 2017.

Temecula Valley, Calif.—Although the Temecula AVA is nestled among populous metropolitan hubs—an hour or so drive from Los Angeles, Orange County, Palm Springs and San Diego and their 22 million inhabitants—most of the region’s wineries are still small and rely on direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales to support themselves.

Despite the seeming geographic advantage of a nearby consumer base, regional marketers and some local winemakers feel overlooked by the wider wine world. Many wine lovers aren’t even aware that Southern California has its own attractive, rural wine country. The Temecula Valley AVA was established in 1984 as “Temecula AVA” and renamed in 2004 at the request of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association (TVWA). The entire AVA measures 33,000 acres, with 5,000 acres deemed a protected Citrus/Vineyard Zone. Rainfall is scant and very rare during the grapegrowing season.

But unlike Napa Cabernet or Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, even oenophiles don’t know what wines they may expect when visiting Temecula Valley. Because the wineries are small, few have any distribution outside the region, and wine clubs are the only national marketing tool available to them. Would establishing a signature flagship grape variety attract more wine tourism?

Donnell Brown recently was appointed president of the National Grape and Wine Initiative, and she previously worked at the TVWA. Prior to that, she’d spent time on the East Coast working with Long Island winegrowers, where Merlot has become the signature grape.

Brown believes that naming a flagship grape (or grapes) is a good way for the public and media to organize their thinking about a region, but growers in “emerging regions” are not always confident in choosing one. Brown told Wines & Vines that Mediterranean varieties may provide a good fit for Temecula Valley, given its climate and growing conditions.

Devin Parr now handles marketing for the TVWA and favors establishing a signature grape, but she isn’t yet sure what that might be. “We do a lot of things really well,” Parr said.

Long, warm sunny days followed by cool nights contribute to the Mediterranean climate, thanks to ocean breezes that flow through the “Rainbow Gap” in the coastal mountain ranges. Hence, an assortment of Italian, Southern Rhone and Spanish varieties are thriving in Temecula Valley, including Sangiovese, Syrah and Tempranillo. Other standouts include Mourvedre, Grenache, Montepulciano and some traditional Bordeaux varieties, Parr added.

Growers chime in
Founded in 1980, Hart Winery is one of the valley’s oldest. Jim Hart, son of the founder, now runs Hart, which remains very small with production of about 4,000 cases annually from 9 acres of vineyard. He, too, favors a signature grape for the region. DtC accounts for 99% of Hart’s sales.

“I think it would be nice to be known for something. The tasting room model doesn’t lend itself to that. A lot of our consumer base are novices, always looking for wines we don’t make,” he said. “I’d like to say we can make everything here, and we make a lot of good wines.”

Recently Hart has seen rising interest in Portuguese varieties. Although he’d appreciate a narrower focus from a marketing standpoint, he acknowledged that settling on a signature grape is a struggle. He and his neighbors have been discussing their regional identity for 15 years, he said, but with no distribution, “It’s hard to develop one,” and they have yet to reach a consensus.

“I know what I like to make,” he concluded.

Robert Renzoni, proprietor of Robert Renzoni Vineyards, suggests a dual resolution: Sangiovese and Syrah. Established in 2006 and recently upping production to about 18,000 cases, Renzoni sells about 95% of his wines DtC, but he also regularly visits and serves some 50 regional restaurants.

He thinks regional branding is a wise direction and wants people to think Sangiovese and Syrah. “We as winemakers have been experimenting. Certain varieties thrive here,” he said.

Although some Bordeaux varieties do well, and Renzoni grows some Cabernet Sauvignon for blending, he feels the Bordeaux require a lot of attention. Sangiovese, Syrah and Tempranillo, on the other hand, grow well and easily. Mediterranean varieties don’t attract, he said, but Sangiovese and Syrah are among his top sellers.

Renzoni is a progressive guy, with the first solar-powered winery in Southern California and the only rainwater-harvesting operation. He and his winemaking staff “taste the competition” by visiting Northern California wineries after the Unified Symposium each January.

So, is a flagship grape a good idea? Is it necessary for a relatively unknown winegrowing region? Or is it better for drinkers to taste around? Perhaps wine writer Eric Asimov of The New York Times had the answer in a recent column: “It’s the unknown that makes fine wine, not the elimination of flaws or the popularity of flavors.”

Posted on 08.12.2017 - 21:32:02 PST
Yes! Tempranillo!!!