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Temecula - Little known California wine country demystifies winespeak

Special to Kalamalama by Susan Hwang


Have you ever been handed a wine menu at a restaurant only to find yourself sheepishly gazing at the list and finally pointing to the name of a wine that sounds good but not knowing what you had ordered?

Wine tasting actually isn’t all that mysterious or even an activity for the upper crust anymore, and Temecula, Calif., while not as well known as Napa or Sonoma is a great place to demystify wine tasting and learn how to “winespeak.”

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Temecula, just 90 miles southeast of Los Angeles and 60 miles north of San Diego, has expansive views of rolling hills covered with vineyards that reach up the slopes of four of the highest mountains in southern California. The 1,100-foot elevation makes for moderate daytime temperature and cool summer nights, ideal micro-climatic conditions for excellent wines.


Similar to other wine-producing regions like those along California’s central coast or on the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas east of Sacramento, Temecula also has that unique, well-drained, decomposed granite soil that the finest vineyards seem to share.

Most of Temecula wine country lies within a large plateau surrounded by mountains. The underlying geology forms a huge basin that stores water runoff and creates tremendous groundwater resources — very rare in a dry region, and

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very important for continuing vinicultural success. The morning mist curtails the number of hours of direct sunlight and often creates ideal conditions for late-harvest botrytized wine types similar to the Bordeaux region of France. The harvest season is rarely affected by rain, which contributes to both the flavor and consistency of Temeucla wines.


The region produces 15 award-winning premium wines. Most vineyards have tasting rooms, so visitors can sample their wines after a tour of the grounds. “My very first wine taste was at the Thorton winery,” said Vivan Frankel, a frequent visitor of the Temecula region, where local wineries produce excellent Chardonnay, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc, and more recently Viognier, Syrah, and Pinot Gris.

“I was intimidated at first because I didn’t know the etiquette of wine tasting, but the people in the tasting rooms were very warm, and they showed me where to start and what to look for. I think it’s the only place people are allowed to spit. As matter of fact, it is encouraged,” Frankel said.

Frankel breaks wine tasting into three simple steps. “Wine tasting consists mostly of ‘look, taste, and smell.’” She continued, “You can tell much about a wine simply by studying its appearance. The wine should be poured into a clear glass and held in front of a white background, so that you can examine the color.

“The next thing is to smell the wine. The two main techniques that wine tasters use are first, to take a quick whiff and formulate an initial impression, then take a second deeper whiff.

“The third step is to taste the wine.” Frankel explained that the initial taste (or first impression) is where the wine awakens your senses and your taste buds respond to sensations. Next the taster should slosh the wine around and draw in some air. This allows a perception of the body—the fullness or heaviness of the wine and its texture—rough or smooth or in between. The final experience is the aftertaste: “The taste that remains in your mouth after you have swallowed the wine.” Each of these separate experiences are difficult for a novice to distinguish said Frankel. However, she reassures that after trying many wines, one will become able to notice similarities and differences in the wines.

The Temecula Vinicultural Region was first discovered by the legendary wine genius Jean Louis Vignes and saw its first commercial plantings in 1843. Prior to Prohibition, this region produced an estimated 10,000 gallons annually. Prohibition shut it down, but in the 1960s the grape-growing and winemaking industry was reborn and it is thriving today.

Temecula then has just been “rediscovered” as an ideal climate and soil zone for wine. Nonetheless, Temecula wineries, although youthful in comparison to their Napa Valley counterparts, use their technical skill and unique growing conditions to make outstanding wines. While many of the wineries use traditional barrel aging to create classically styled wines, many showcase the Temecula fruit, with less focus on barrel flavors. 

In 1999, Temecula was devastated by Pierce’s Disease and its carrier, the glassy-winged sharpshooter, an insect native to the southeastern United States. The sharpshooters spread a bacterium responsible for the fatal vine malady. The problem was first identified in 1997, and by 1999, the insects and the disease were rampant. To date, about 840 acres of vines have died or been ripped out.

Temecula was not the only area affected by Pierce’s disease. There are now six “generally infested” counties in southern California, and another nine “partially infested” counties, including Santa Clara and San Jose. Since 1999, Temecula growers have applied the techniques that have benefited vintners in the rest of California. They have embarked on an aggressive campaign of spraying pesticides and insecticides, ripping out nearby citrus groves where the insects winter and lay their eggs, removing infected vines on which the insects feed and then further spread the disease, and replanted with more resistant varieties. The end result has been a significant reduction in the number of glassy-winged sharpshooters and cases of Pierce’s Disease.

“After I bought the winery in June of 2000, I saw 20 percent of my vineyard collapse,” said Ray Falkner, owner of Falkner Winery. As if that weren’t bad enough, he added, “there was a rumor that our region was finished.” Although Temecula is ground zero for Pierce’s Disease, most of the region’s growers are now expressing guarded or wholehearted optimism about the valley’s future.

As a matter of fact, Falkner is expanding annual production from 6,000 cases to 15,000 cases and building a new 10,000-square-foot facility

Some vintners, however, started buying additional grapes from other regions such as the central coast of California (Santa Barbara and Monterey counties). Callaway was particularly hard hit—close to 40 percent of its vines were gone—because its vineyards are heavily planted with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, highly susceptible to Pierce’s Disease. Last summer, the company changed its brand name to Callaway Coastal, reflecting the change in grape sources. That move has been interpreted by some in Temecula as Callaway’s attempt to disassociate itself from the region’s problems. But a Callaway spokeswoman said that the winery is purchasing grapes from outside Temecula so it can expand production to one million cases.

No one seems to be certain of Temecula’s future. In August of 2000, a survey of the area found that on average, more than half of the vines were infected. However, most vintners are not ready to give up. Falkner said, “We’re finding ways to cope with the disease and we remain optimistic.” And he cited the 2002 edition of The U.S. Wine Market: Impact Databank Review and Forecast, which reported that total wine consumption in the United States increased 1 percent in 2001, to 231 million cases. “If there is a demand for our wines, we will continue to meet that demand,” Falkner said. “Many times, adversity and opportunity are flip sides of the same coin.”



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