The Temecula Valley is trying to find a balance between its serious vintners seeking industry respect and the financial boon pop-wine-loving revellers bring in.
The most popular beverage in the Temecula Valley, the picturesque wine region not far from the urban sprawl of Orange and San Diego counties, is something called “almond champagne.”
It is a more or less naturally sparkling wine (the bubbles induced in pressurized tanks) with almond flavouring added. Smelling sweetly of cream soda and marzipan, the wine’s thick, cloying flavour wouldn’t seem out of place in an ice cream parlour if not for a modest alcohol kick and its bitter finish.
At Wilson Creek, the winery, restaurant, wedding and concert venue credited with popularising the stuff, it sells so well that at least a half-dozen other valley wineries have developed their own versions. But Wilson Creek supplies only a tiny fraction of the fruit used for its cuvée. In fact Wilson Creek doesn’t even make the wine; it’s made in Lodi, 450 miles away.
To most of the 500,000 or so annual winery visitors, none of this matters. Rather than a wine destination, the Temecula Valley has become something of a wine playground, where play wines upstage real wines, where “wine country” is a carefully cultivated affair that has less to do with what vineyards produce than with how they look — all in the service of a tourist trade run slightly amok.
Local growers have nothing really against tourism and nothing, certainly, against sales. But they face a confounding dilemma: a wholesale indifference on the part of its patrons to the valley’s viticultural strengths. Growers would like nothing more than to reclaim their reputation as a legitimate winegrowing region and compete with other California appellations, but despite the best intentions, they find themselves capitulating to a clientele that’s just not that interested.
Less than a decade ago the region seemed poised for success with varieties like Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Tempranillo and Sangiovese. Then came “glassy wing”, a flying pest that spread rapidly across the region in the late ’90s and early 2000s, devouring vineyard vegetation and serving as a vector for Pierce’s disease, which attacks the plant’s vascular system. In Temecula, thousands of vineyard acres were affected.
Surviving the decade, there was a lot of pressure to stay afloat. It would take time to replant, still more time to prove that the valley had emerged from the devastation. That is one face of the dilemma that most serious growers have had to confront post-glassy wing: Given a do-over after the devastation, they had the chance to replant varietals more appropriate to the region, like Tempranillo, Zinfandel, Syrah and Sangiovese, only to watch their more wine-savvy clientele veer away, toward other wine regions such as Paso Robles and the south Central Coast.
In spite of these challenges, local wines are improving. The new vines and the new varietals are making their mark in the bottle. New winemaking blood, in the form of Matt Wiens, Joe Hart’s son Jim, Nick Palumbo and L.A.-based winemaker David Vergari, who took over winemaking at Thornton Winery, are enforcing strict new regimes in vineyard management and bottling reds that are nothing if not promising.
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