Every now and then, wonderful things come out of not-so-wonderful experiences. This fact has never been truer for me than the outcome that resulted from a snarky but well-intentioned article I wrote regarding my brief encounters in Temecula wine country.
The purpose of the original piece was not to lambaste the entire region, but to shine a light on the Temecula “wineries” that somehow receive the most visitor attention … without themselves actually paying any attention to the wines.
I really wanted to get a chance to do the “Temecula, Part 2: The Redemption” story, but truthfully, I was nervous that it might not happen. Even though I was serious when I said I hadn’t given up on Temecula, I feared there was a possibility that Temecula wasn’t worth saving, wine-wise.
Thankfully, my fears were unfounded.
What followed was an email from a winery in Temecula that invited me to come out for a visit so I could see that there is, in fact, a winery of substance there taking this business seriously. Through a series of friendly and professional emails, it was arranged that my husband and I would venture over the mountain to give Temecula another shot.
The rugged, rocky terrain slowly gave way to gently sloping hills, and we found ourselves back in Southern California Wine Country. We turned down a little gravel road, surrounded by hillside vineyards—and a quaint, unassuming terraced patio was in front of us. We had arrived at Vindemia Winery.
There is something charming and relaxing about this place—a familiarity that resembles the comfort of stopping by a friend’s place for a glass of wine and a chat. You can imagine, quite easily, that this is what Napa felt like 45 years ago, when wine-tastings happened at dining room-tables or on the back patios of winemakers’ homes. Before mega-mansions and egos. It felt good—and real.
Walking up the flagstone steps to the outdoor tasting bar, I finally got to meet the enigmatic young lady who orchestrated this meeting. With genuine warmth and graciousness, Katie Zuber, the tasting-room manager, escorted us up to the shaded patio. The lack of pretension was disarming and refreshing. In fact, one of my favorite moments was when Katie assured my husband that the bathrooms were clean … because she had cleaned them herself that morning. There was no such thing as a job that was beneath her. But even considering how down-to-earth everything seemed, I had no idea just how elevated and professional this tasting was going to be.
Over the course of two hours, we tasted 12 wines. We learned how owner David Bradley transitioned from being a commercial hot-air balloon pilot into being a winemaker—it’s not as far-fetched as you would imagine—and how he’s had the same vineyard manager since day one, some 14 years ago.
As we nibbled on fresh bread and local olive oil, there were several pieces of information Katie shared with us as the tasting progressed that I found fascinating. The first was the full disclosure regarding where the grapes come from, and all the technical information regarding the winemaking chemistry on the back label. Katie explained that they strive for “absolute transparency” with their wines. They want you to know exactly which grapes they grow; which wines feature grapes from other Temecula vineyards; and which feature grapes they source from Santa Ynez. In case you’re curious, they are about 70 percent estate grown, with six different varietals planted.
On the back label of their wines, you’ll see an actual ingredient list—all the elements that went into making that particular wine, everything from tartaric acid, sulfur dioxide and bentonite, to cultivated yeast. “Why?” you might ask—and I’d be inclined to agree with you. I’ve never seen another winery offer up those kinds of specifics, and at first, I thought giving the general consumer so much information that they won’t understand could be a detriment. But as it was explained to me: It’s all part of Vindemia’s objective to educate wine-lovers and create an environment of transparency and trust. The idea: Arming the buyer with as much information as possible is a positive thing that can spark thoughtful questions and conversations about winemaking.
Whoa. My inner wine geek was doing cartwheels!
Once we were on our third red wine, I noticed that the wines were cool—not cold, and not chilled to the point where you couldn’t smell aromas, but at that enjoyable red-wine sweet spot where they’re cool enough to still be refreshing without the flavors being dulled. I leaned over and asked Katie if she was chilling the reds, and a huge smile washed over her face. Just behind me, facing the other side of the tasting bar, was a large chalkboard that prominently featured the temperatures for both the whites and reds being poured that day. Wait … what? You temperature-control your wines at a rustic outdoor tasting bar?
As we continued our tasting, another small group arrived. Ah-ha! Now I’ll get to see how an unplanned tasting is conducted! Who’s gonna break out the bachelorette penis straws? When do the rowdy hay-bail rides start while “Baby Got Back” plays over the loudspeaker?
Nope. Karen—the other consummate professional behind the bar, with a keen palate, warm smile and laid-back demeanor—delivered to that group the same educational, hospitality-focused experience I was getting.
Yep: Vindemia Winery is the real deal.
As we continued our tasting—with an aged cabernet franc, a few zinfandel-based blends, a traditional “Bordeaux style” cabernet sauvignon-based blend, an estate petite sirah, a cabernet, a merlot, and a GSM blend—I realized how all these wines are so varietally correct. They didn’t taste like wines from a region fumbling through its infancy. They didn’t taste like wines that are trying to be something they’re not. They weren’t over-extracted or over-manipulated. They were balanced, and the flavors were seamless and integrated. They were mature yet full of life.
I’ve always maintained that it takes a long time for a region to figure out what to grow, and then even longer to figure out how to grow it well. It’s an exercise in patience, passion, fortitude and skill. No great wine region is born overnight, and it takes a village of masterful and forward-thinking individuals to not only see the potential of a region, but harness its ability to produce great wine.
I now understand Temecula’s potential. And I can’t wait to go back for more.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.