“California has a climate which is not well suited for growing grapes to make the finest wines. There are rather too many years when the sun scorches the grapes, so that the wine lacks the finest flavor.”
—Excerpt from dog-eared copy of Wines and Spirits of the World (1958), read by Temecula winemaker Phil Baily.
The sunset sparkled rosé over the rolling fields of grapes west of Callaway Vineyard and Winery.
Matt Russell, offsite events manager for Lorimar Vineyards and Winery, poured me Lorimar’s 2010 Syrah. In the waning light, the wine appeared inky and luscious—a dark contrast to Frangipani Winery’s well-rounded 2010 Cabernet Franc, which I’d enjoyed at a nearby table.
Lorimar and Frangipani, relative newcomers to the Temecula Valley, were two of 35 wineries pouring at Crush 2013, the apex of California Wine Month festivities in Temecula, on Saturday, Sept. 14.
The valley had cooled since I’d arrived with Independent editor Jimmy Boegle to meet and drink with local winemakers before the larger taste-fest began. In the Coachella Valley, temps reached 108 on Saturday. In the lush green wine-growing region a mere 66-mile drive west—only 100.
Callaway’s patio was ringed with dim round lamps and flickering candles. Canadian singer-songwriter Michael LeClerc performed, silhouetted against the night sky.
The major attraction: bottles of reds on table after table. Whites and rosés chilled in bowls of ice. Sparkling wine. Sweet wine. Dry wine. Wine redolent with the Temecula terroir, flavor derived from the area’s earth, air and water.
Longtime Temecula winemakers have faced hard times. In the 1990s, area grapes were infested by the glassy-winged sharpshooter, which spread Pierce’s disease. Thousands of acres were lost.
Now, the area’s now been re-tooled into this—with several hundred wine-lovers swirling and sipping, contemplating what one earlier speaker had called “the world in the glass.”
Since I had a designated driver, I was in Sniff the Cap heaven.
Speaking of caps, corks and things related to closure, the topic of synthetics came up during the winemakers’ panel discussion.
Temecula wine pioneer Phil Baily, of Baily Vineyard and Winery, argued that synthetic corks give wines consistency and avoid any chance of cork taint.
He’d brought along Baily’s 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon (Estate Clone 7 Cab). The wine is a deep garnet color. No heavy tannins, which can be astringent.
“None of that puckering,” Baily said, “which I personally can’t stand.”
Baily read to the audience from a worn and politely condescending paperback book, Wines and Spirits of the World(1958): “The difficulty is merely that in the Californian climate the finest varieties do not give of their best.”
When Baily started growing grapes in Temecula, he encountered similar skepticism. By the 1980s, people were lauding Northern California wines. But Temecula? Never.
“Be careful what you read from the experts,” Baily said.
Callaway winemaker Craig Larson told us he was pleased to be living somewhere warmer than Washington state, where he began his career in wine.
“I had a passion to get south and make wine,” he said. “This is a dream come true.”
Larson said wine-clubbers and fans sometimes treat him, well, like a god. He actually seems quite soft-spoken.
“It’s just wine,” he understated.
Boegle and I both liked Callaway’s 2009 Calliope Red, a blend of syrah, mourvedre, grenache, cinsault and counoise. Boegle dug this wine so much that I had to finish his taste so he wouldn’t be tempted to drink more. (He had offered to drive in exchange for drinks later within walking distance of his home.)
“It’s just wine.”
Nick Palumbo, from the Palumbo Family Winery, served a 2010 Sangiovese, joking about its 15.6 percent of alcohol.
“I made this wine before I started going gray,” he said.
Palumbo credited grape-growing success to “pure luck” and a prescient dude named Catfish, who’d long ago planted cabernet franc and merlot on the acreage that Palumbo acquired.
“Those were just the right grapes for the site,” Palumbo said. The winery just released its 2010 Estate “Catfish Vineyard” Merlot.
Palumbo and his family live on the estate. This lets him micro-manage his micro-climates and introduce wine to his children at an early age.
One night, he said, his daughter had been watching the grown-ups do some blending and tasting.
“And I handed a glass to my daughter, who is 8, and I said, ‘What do you smell?’ With a real dead-serious look, she took the glass and swirled it.”
Then she looked up at her dad. “It smells like grapes,” she said.
Also on the panel was Ben Drake, a longtime Temecula wine consultant who runs a farm-management companythat oversees vineyards and avocado farms.
He said that his biggest challenge is finding enough workers to pick fruit. He called for the need to legalize labor. Hand-picked grapes are superior to those harvested by expensive machines, because people tend to differentiate between grapes, mice and lizards. Machines aren’t as picky.
Dave Fox, Saturday’s panel moderator and a partner at Touring and Tasting magazine, noted that he’s been impressed over the years with Temecula’s cooperative winemaking community. “There’s a camaraderie here,” he said, “a sense of pride in the region.”
The legendary Joe Hart of Hart Wineryplanted his first acre of grapes in Temecula back in 1974. On Saturday, he introduced us to his 2011 Mourvedre Cruz Way Vineyard, which smelled of ripe juicy raspberries glazed with caramels.
Hart said he’s pleased with the prospects of the 2013 vintage.
“It’s been a terrific year,” Hart said. “Expect outstanding wines.”
Because she enjoys the fruits of hard-working winemakers’ labor, Deidre Pike feels blissful and rested during crush season, aka September, aka California Wine Month, during which the Temecula Winegrowers’ Sip Passport gets you tasting flights at four area wineries for $35. Visit www.temeculawines.org/events for more information.