Vol. 8 No.2. Feb '00
Tasting Notes / Scores: Brief tasting impressions are included following the winery write-up. An "n/n" indicates that no notes were taken.
Fri, Feb 25, 2000
Although I've been winetasting in Temecula a couple of times in the past few years, I haven't reviewed the wines nor done a trip report since Temecula '95. So, a new visit was in definitely in order. Since that time, there have been a couple of new winery openings, as well the onslaught of a major vineyard pest. I'll get deeper into the Pierce's Disease situation at the end of the report. Left Irvine about 9:00am for points South.
Arrived at Hart Winery about 10:45am. Although there were no other tasters around, the place was humming. Led by Bill Hart, the bottling crew of part-time and volunteer help was hard at work bottling the '99 Grenache Rose. At 5,500 cases, hand-bottling is a lot of hard work. We're told that Hart will be buying or otherwise getting into a mechanised bottling line for next year. Pouring any 5 wines from a list of 10 for $3. I've been impressed in past visits with the results from Hart's concentration on Rhone varietals rather than Bordeaux varietals. The current lineup, however, seems to have swung back a bit to include two Merlots, and no Grenache, Mourvedre, etc. It appears to me that the winery's approach may be one of geographic diversification, with some of the wines on their list coming from Cucamonga (Zin) and San Diego County (Merlot). Not only was the fruit from these locations surprisingly good (the San Diego Merlot was quite nice), but they may be hedging their bets on the local fruit's exposure to Pierce's Disease. Chatted with Michelle about the wines for awhile, and headed out about 11:15.
Tasted at Hart:
Arrived at Stuart Cellars at 11:20 to a quiet room. Tasting fee was $3 for 4 wines from the list of 7 (logo glass not included), with an additional $2 charge for the Zinfandel Port. Stuart Cellars is relatively new to the valley (est.1998), and has built a very attractive tasting room off the front of the winery atop a hill overlooking much of the valley. Production is currently about 6,000 cases, of mostly non-Rhone wines. Some white Rhone varieties are grown, but the reds remain to be planted. The ambience here is very nice, and the well-appointed room has many tapestries and wine accessories for sale. Our pourer, Phyllis, was both friendly and knowledgeable about the wines. The wines were generally good to very good, if a bit on the pricey side. Stuart Cellars is apparently seeking to establishing themselves as the premier vintner in the valley, and this often equates directly to price. At $42, the Zinfandel Port seems like ample illustration of this. Out at Noon, and tailgated with some bread and cheese.
Tasted at Stuart Cellars:
On to Maurice Car'rie. Arrived at 12:15 to just a few people in the tasting room. Pouring was no charge for 6 wines from list of 7. Our pourer, Kim, had been working there for only one week, but was eager, quick and friendly. Though she was frequently called over by the room manager who was conducting her training, we were never left high and dry, so to speak. In the past, this place has been cooking - both in terms of customers and in terms of baked bread. One of the draws on the weekends is the brie-baked-in-bread. They carry the loaf all week long, but the weekend offer to heat up a loaf of fresh cheese-filled bread just makes people want to picnic. And, the front of the place is a picnic haven, with tables and chairs all around. Clever folks here - it seems everybody needs something to wash down this delicious bread. Out at 12:50.
Tasted at Maurice Car'rie:
From here we headed up the road to Keyways. Arrived at 1:05 to just a couple of people standing outside. As it turns out, they were the proprietor, Carl Key, and our pourer Debbie, killing time until the next pair of drinkers, er tasters, came along. With sort of a rustic stage-stop exterior, the inside of this tasting room is filled with eclectic novelties and a few wine accessories. An LGB train circles part of the room overhead. Tasting fee $3 for 4 wines. Chatted with Debbie and Carl a bit, and out at 1:35.
Tasted at Keyways:
Arrived at Wilson Creek about 1:45. This is the self-styled "...new kid on the block." Despite the fact that they've been here 3-1/2 yrs, they're actually not even open yet. It seems a series of administrative red-tape and construction snafus have conspired to substantially slow down progress of this winery's opening (Grand Opening is scheduled for August). But, you couldn't tell it from proprietor Gerry Wilson's attitude. After retiring from the business world, he decided to open Wilson Creek as a family enterprise. Enlisting son Bill as winemaker, and another as a minister, they plan to offer wine country weddings. The property is a result of a subdivision of the former Miramonte parcel. The vines are 30 yrs old, and the first vintages were made at Thornton and Maurice Car'rie. Nice two story building with large deck over the entrance. As with several places in town, this should end up being a limo stop delight. Prices listed are all "pre-opening" prices. $4 for all 5 wines on the list, and as a bonus, they were throwing in a taste of an almond flavored champagne! Almond what? Seemed really easy to turn one's nose up at, but it was quite good! Sales were so good in fact, that Gerry Wilson said they had to reorder from their Lodi supplier. I can believe it. This stuff must walk out the door. I am sooo ashamed! Out at 2:35.
Tasted at Wilson Creek:
On to Mt. Palomar. Arrived at 2:40 to a lively place. Tasting fee was $3 for 6 from the list of 15 wines. Just when I think I have the lineup from this place figured out, they throw me a curve. I'd always thought the Castelletto label was Italian-only, the Rey Sol label was Rhone-only, and the Mt. Palomar label was for Bordeaux varietals. But, now they have a Castelletto Trovato using Bordeaux varietals. Go figure! Last time here, tasters were given a number and called in turn when a tasting "guide" was available. Fairly conceived concept, but poorly executed. (Reminded me of Peju Provence (link) This isn't a film or an amusement ride - I don't like to wait. Now they have apparently switched to a ticket system, where they issue each taster a card with tear-off stubs. With each taste, the pourer tears off stub. I'm not so sure that there's any connection, but these methods appear to be following just a few steps behind Callaway's tasting systems. Out at 3:25.
Tasted at Mt. Palomar:
Doubled back to Temecula Crest. Arrived about 3:30 to just two other people in the room. Tasting was 5 wines for $4. Gus was pouring and chatting about the state of things in the valley. The wines here seemed uniformly weak. Generally thin and tart, they need to try some other varietals and get some extraction into their wines. Friendly guy, nice tasting room with great view. All they need is some wine. Out at 4:15 a
Tasted at Temecula Crest:
On to last stop at Thornton. We arrived about 4:25 and seated ourselves in their wine tasting lounge, a small cozy bar with a fireplace. Options for tasting included sparkling wines (Culbertson) by the glass, a mix of 4 sparkling and still wines, and 4 reds for $8, with 5-6 oz pours. Annamarie took our orders and brought some bread and creamy goat cheese spread for munching. I tried the red selection, which is set down on a tasting sheet with descriptions of the wines (similar to brewery samples). This was definitely a relaxing visit, with no hurried pace requiring me to move quickly through each wine. Usually, I've made this my first stop in visiting Temecula wineries. I'd grab a glass of Blanc de Noir and push on with the rest of the itinerary. But, I'd recommend saving it for last, when you can relax. Out at 5:10
Tasted at Thornton:
Wrap up: Off to the Texas Lil's for some "you da cook" steaks. Very satisfactory day. Totals for the day: 8 wineries, 43 wines. Everyone was very friendly and attentive. And, out of eight wineries, we never got a pitch to join any cellar clubs!
Ramblings: the use of Cucamonga fruit (from San Bernardino County) in Temecula Valley can only mean two things. Cucamonga fruit is better than ever, and Temecula is seeking to expand in the face of a devastating vineyard pest. Both appear to be true. Granted, Cucamonga is no Napa or Dry Creek Valley. And, the fruit does indeed smell and taste different. But, a few Central Coast wineries (Firestone, Curtis) have already started using the Cucamonga fruit - and they didn't have to do it. Temecula, on the other hand, is reaching out for new sources of fruit as they attempt to ramp-up production during a reduction in usable vineyards due to Pierce's Disease. In addition to the Cucamonga fruit, interesting sources are now being found in San Diego County. We just might be on the edge of history recycling itself, and getting fruit from sources that have seemingly been dormant for a century.
Tasting fees and stemware: just about all of the wineries in Temecula, with the possible exception of Maurice Car'rie, charges a tasting fee - and rightfully so. Some might argue that since he is looking to sell wine, a vintner should pour samples of the wines at no charge. However, I prefer to pay a fee in order to sample wines with no implied obligation to make a purchase. In most cases the fee included a logo glass. Since I don't need/want any more tasting glasses, I usually refuse them with a "...thanks, but...." However, in doing so I run the risk of alienating the pouring staff - because they then have to wash the glass. While the fees themselves were close in price, the number of wines and methods of obtaining those wines differed.
Red & Green: why do they do it? Why do Temecula wineries choose to make Cabernet Sauvignon, and to a lesser extent, Merlot and Cabernet Franc? Clearly these wines nearly all end up smelling and tasting of green vegetables. So why do it? It's now been several years since the first Rhone and/or Italian varieties of grapes have been planted and harvested and varietal wines made. The Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Sangiovese and to a lesser extent Viognier have all produced far better wines from this valley than has Cabernet Sauvignon. So why don't the local wineries drop the Bordeaux varietals and concentrate on the Rhone and/or Italian varietals? Unfortunately, it has come down to familiarity. It is far easier to sell the familiar names of Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot to visitors, than it is to sell these "foreign" varietals. I would guess that as long as Temecula's wine visitors ask for and buy Cabernet, Temecula vintners will continue to make and sell it.
Pierce's Disease: (Pierce's Disease is
a bacterial infection of the grapevine that causes the foliage, the fruit,
and finally the vine to die off. It was responsible for wiping out 40,000
acres of vineyards in Orange County a century ago, and there is currently
no cure. The
disease has had a rapid and devastating effect on the Temecula Valley
over the last two years, doing over $1.2M in damage. The widely planted
Chardonnay has been the most seriously affected, but it appears all varieties
may be susceptible. It is believed that an insect called the glassy-winged
sharpshooter is the biggest culprit in the quick spread of the disease
here. It is also thought that the proximity to large numbers of citrus
groves interspersed with the vineyards in the valley is providing a breeding
location for the insect.)