I’m just not ready to give up on Temecula yet—but if my last two visits are any indication of what Temecula wants to be, then its destiny might already be written.
Twelve years ago, I ventured to Temecula for a work trip that slightly masqueraded as a girls’ trip. We all had a great time: The weather was perfect; the food was good; and the hospitality was on point. But one distinct part of the trip does not spark fond memories: We visited about seven wineries over two days, none of which were memorable enough to cite all these years later.
I would like to point out that I’m not a “day-drinker,” and when I’m working, I spit all wine. Always have, always will. So the lack of poignant experiences was not because I had over-imbibed, but because they were simply forgettable, at best. What I remember vividly was staying at a well-known resort, in one of their villas, and thinking at the time that it was a lovely property, despite the somewhat tacky faux-Tuscan decor.
Fast-forward 12 years later, and I found myself back at the same resort. The tacky faux-Tuscan decor remains … only now it’s 12 years older, and in sad, sad, shape. I think it’s safe to assume the decade-plus of bachelorette parties and drunken wedding guests have taken their toll. The carpet was crunchy. There were dead bugs in the bathtub. A pair of old, muddy work boots sat outside the room door. And when the staff wasn’t calling me “sweetie,” “love” and “honey,” they were downright rude.
This was not a work-related trip. I was there celebrating my dearest girlfriend’s 40th birthday. She graciously hosted us on a wine tour with a light dinner in a vineyard. The evening spent with friends and loved ones was sublime. However, I am a sommelier, which makes it impossible for me not to notice the wine and service standards around me. Granted, we did not visit the crème de la crème of wineries (if there is such a thing in Temecula), but instead what appeared to be fun and lively venues where the wine flowed freely. And frankly, I was horrified.
Our first stop was at a high-profile, more-commercial winery. I know, I know … how could I possibly judge an entire wine region by a winery that’s known for golf clubs?! Because it was packed—wall-to-wall people. And those people were having the exact same experience I was. Wine-savvy or not, all the guests visiting that day left there with a perception of what Temecula wine country is, based, at least in part, on that particular winery … which, as far as the tasting room is concerned, is not good. If the lack of quality wine didn’t turn you off, the terrible wine being poured by the un-dead was the clincher. Everyone working behind the bar looked like they would rather have something hot and sharp poked in their eye than pour one more “taste” to a wine-coupon-holding bride-to-be. At one point, I gave all my wine coupons to the zombie so I could put her, and me, out of our misery.
Ironically, once we were outside, the whole vibe changed. We could relax and sip the wine, and chat, in truly beautiful surroundings. There was a musician playing the keyboard and singing to a content crowd, complete with adorable little girls in fluffy dresses dancing along. Atmosphere: 1; Wine: 0.
On to the next winery! By far, it was the most pleasant of the three on the tour. It was a small, family-owned establishment. We ate at long picnic tables in the vineyards as the sun began to set, surrounded by a couple of other groups. The service was more attentive and focused, but I couldn’t help but notice that no one was explaining the wine. At most, we were told what was available to taste, with no further detail given. It was a little head-scratching to me, given I had moved to the Coachella Valley from a place where most people can’t shut up about wine. Then I realized … maybe there isn’t anything to say about it.
By this point of the night, we were all laughing and enjoying being out in our “backyard wine country.” All was going well until they started blaring songs like “Funky Cold Medina” and “Mambo No. 5.” OK … time to go.
Atmosphere: 2; Wine: 0.
The last winery we visited wasn’t really a winery at all. Or maybe it was. Who could tell? In any case, I’ve been to college keggers less rowdy. It could not have been further from a traditional winery experience; instead, it was a happening bar and dance scene. The wine was doled out like shots of whiskey. There were easily a thousand people “out back” where the band was. Apparently there was a guy, who may or may not have been high on ecstasy, doing backflips on the dance floor next to a woman who was 80 years old doing ballet moves … weird. My husband and I missed it all, because by this point, we’d had enough. The sun was casting its final shadows, and the rolling hills were gorgeous. We needed a moment of wine-country solitude. Yes, sometimes we miss Napa. So we sat out front, on old Adirondack chairs, and sipped our terrible wine by an unlit fire pit as we watched the sunset. It was perhaps the highlight of the night. This is when my husband, who grew up in Napa, said to me: “Ya know why this place will never be taken seriously? Because here, it’s not about the wine. They’ve simply substituted tasting rooms for bars. The employees can’t tell you anything about the wine, because they don’t care about it. The guests can’t tell you anything about the wine, because they don’t care, either. These are just venues to have a good time and get drunk. Instead of raising the bar to educate people about wine and the region, Temecula lowered the bar to keep everybody drunk and happy.”
Whoa. Now there’s some harsh truth, Temecula.
Now, let me set the record straight: I said I wasn’t ready to give up on Temecula. I’m happy to take suggestions and recommendations for wineries that will change my mind. I know there have to be dedicated producers out there who are crafting thoughtful wine. I promise to go back again, with an open mind. But hear me when I say that if my experience is by design, and this is what Temecula is putting out there as a tourist destination, then nothing is going to change. You can’t be taken seriously as a wine region if you don’t have respect for the industry, the product, the land and the people.
If Temecula wants to be serious about wine, it needs to grow up.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at email@example.com.