Temecula Wine Country Faces Future

Wineries, residents and horses all want a piece of choice Southern California terroir

by Jane Firstenfeld
temecula wine country
The task force Wine Country 2020 Vision predicts that by 2035, Temecula Valley areas coded green will be home to wineries. Small wineries are shaded light green, medium-size wineries neon green and large wineries dark green.
Temecula Valley, Calif.—A decade ago, Temecula’s winegrowing future looked dim: An epidemic of Pierce’s disease (PD) had decimated vineyards, spread by glassy-winged sharpshooters (GWSS) from another of Riverside County’s top crops, citrus. Prompt reaction from the industry and government agencies caused growers to pull infected vines; and launched the ongoing, statewide PD/GWSS board. Largely funded by grapegrowers’ self- assessments, ongoing research has limited the potential threat and continues to seek control—if not full eradication—of the disease, which is lethal to grapevines.

Temecula’s reconstructed wine business now faces another threat: development.

“After the early 2000s, we not only survived, but got better after PD,” according to Bill Wilson, who owns 35,000-case Wilson Creek Winery & Vineyards with his family. Wilson Creek is one of Temecula’s older wineries; its 86 acres of vineyards were planted originally in 1969 and 1970.

After the PD scourge, many of these and other Temecula vineyards were pulled and replanted, utilizing better rootstock and updated planning. Wilson compared the process with Napa’s phylloxera panic during the early 1990s: “We’re the beneficiaries of some pretty nice stuff,” he conceded.

Where are we now?
Wilson, a board member of Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association, told Wines & Vines that the scenic valley now has 35 brick-and-mortar wineries and another 10 virtual wineries strewn among 35,000 acres of rolling countryside, an hour’s drive from the vast population centers of Orange County, San Diego and Palm Springs.

Flashback to 2005: Callaway Vineyard & Winery, the region’s largest, purchased by Hiram Walker in the 1980s and then owned by international drinks giant Allied Domecq was purchasing grapes from elsewhere in California and planned to shut down its Temecula operations. Although it was acquired in 2005 by San Diego’s Lin family, which still operates the 25,000-case brand with 70 vineyard acres in Temecula, Callaway’s devolution left many locals without a market for their grapes.

As Wilson recalled, “They decided that farming’s for the birds,” leaving some 750 valuable acres sitting idle and ripe for developers. During that period, Wilson quipped, “Clay tile roofs were our biggest crop.”

Invasion of the NIMBYs
As described in the June 2006 edition of Wines & Vines, like other wine regions in suburban California, a classic NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) situation took root. In Temecula, subdivisions pitted McMansion mini-estates against not just vineyards and wineries, but long-established equestrian interests as well.

Although by that time, many regional residents were at least marginally aware of Temecula Valley Wine Country (TVWC), “about 22 million were not,” Wilson said. Even Temecula’s U.S. congressional representative, Palm Springs-based Republican Mary Bono Mack, seemed not to realize that many of her constituents were invested in the wine industry.

Last year, Mack signed on as a sponsor of HR 5034, the distributor-backed bill considered by much of the industry as an attempt to thwart direct-to-consumer wine shipment. She was the only California representative to sponsor the bill. According to Wilson, when confronted with this unpopular position, Mack told district voters that she could not withdraw her sponsorship, but could work against HR 5034’s passage. Mack’s office e-mailed Wines & Vines today: “This legislation has not been reintroduced in the 112th Congress and, if it is, Congresswoman Bono Mack will not be a cosponsor.”

Fortunately, TVWC’s long-time Riverside County supervisor, Jeff Stone, is well aware of the wine industry’s importance in his territory. Following the PD disaster and Callaway meltdown, the five-member Board of Supervisors had passed new zoning regulations allowing subdivision of vineyards into 10-acre minimum parcels; these were further divisible into five acres, provided that 50% of these smaller units be planted to vineyards.

Meanwhile, Wilson said, “Wineries were buying 10-acre parcels and building wineries, restaurants, resorts and concert arenas.” (In addition to its production facilities and tasting room, Wilson Creek currently operates a restaurant and hosts events such as weddings.)

Concerned about his wine country’s future, supervisor Stone took a fact-finding trip to Napa Valley. Wilson summarized the goal: “We are where you were 40 years ago: What would you do in our position?”

Part of the answer? To achieve an optimal concentration of wineries to build tourism and recognition, aim for a goal of 125 wineries. “I about fell out of my chair,” Wilson said. In retrospect, though, “If we actually had added all the potential future wineries that would have been funded, started and built without the recession, we’d have 69 already.”

Given the pressures of residential development, entrenched equestrian facilities and trail networks, and potential ag/tourism growth for wine country, the supervisors called a time out, forming a 17-member task force dubbed Wine Country 2020 Vision.

Members were charged with honing an ideal solution to satisfy the conflicting interests. “We can’t just live for today,” said Wilson, who chairs the ad hoc advisory committee. “We have to plan for tomorrow.”

During the past year, the task force, representing diverse niches, researched options and assembled a plan, “Arm wrestling through different agendas to determine how we can work, live and prosper together,” Wilson reported. “It took a year and six drafts to get it right.”

The basic plan, now awaiting an environmental impact report and public review, breaks the area into equine, residential and winery zones within the larger Wine Country zone. “Whoever is in a particular zone would reign supreme,” Wilson described it.

After countless meetings of committees and subcommittees, “Everyone’s put their two cents in. Now it’s just nit picking. We don’t want to do it again,” said Wilson, adding his personal philosophy: “If you can’t finish a meeting in two hours, we’re going to start drinking wine.”

This coming weekend, March 5-6, Temecula Valley World of Wine (WoW) will host its 20th annual winter barrel tasting, with 30-plus participating wineries. For details click here.

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