As the winter starts to close in around us… although temps on November 30th will be around 70F… we may turn our thoughts towards warm refuges around the Gulf or “California Dreamin”. This column is about the latter, since I enjoyed a fine afternoon in the Temecula American Viticultural Area in early November that I’d like to share with you.
It was just after the annual conference of the American Wine Society in Costa Mesa, Orange County. The quality of the speakers and sessions was outstanding, and it was fun to be in Southern California in early November for a wine event. However, I’m always a bit antsy when spending two whole days inside a convention center, especially in Southern California (where are the surfer girls?), and so as soon as it was over I rented a car and drove down the Pacific Coast towards San Diego just to see that ocean, then headed northeast into the hills towards Temecula, the fine wine region of the South Coast of California.
Twenty-five years ago, the Temecula wine region was devastated by Pierce’s Disease, a phytoplasm fatal to grapevines transmitted by the GWSS (glassy-winged sharp shooter), a leaf-hopping insect. As a result, the vineyards had to be pulled out and re-planted although there is no cure for PD and it could happen again.
Here we are 25 years later, and the renaissance the Temecula Valley has undergone is remarkable. Hart Winery, the oldest in the valley, is still in operation and is the first one you reach driving into the region on Rancho California, but it is also the most humble and least ostentatious. The landscaping and architectural funds spent on the area wineries is likely inversely proportional to the hours (actually) worked weekly by the hordes of Hollywood-esque crowds that mob the area. It was amusing to note that on a late Sunday afternoon, instead of thinning out, the tasting rooms actually got really mobbed with visitors apparently unconcerned with fighting freeway traffic to work in the morning (“Work?What are you talking about?”—Randy Newman, from “Land of Dreams”). To be bluntly fair, the hordes of ersatz bridesmaids cackling freely with their “sisters” in tasting rooms was really not so different from what you’d hear in Northern Virginia. Personally, I’d like to know who decided that a horde of shrieking women in winery tasting rooms was as acceptable as a “bromance” of drunken men with their hats on backwards shouting in bars. I recommend visiting on a weekday, early.
Ah, well, moving right along, I’d like to report the highlights of my compressed and intense tasting experience in Temecula Valley.
Robert Renzoni Vineyards is off the main road in Temecula but was mobbed on a Sunday afternoon (they also have a separate building for a restaurant/café). Their big favorite is the Montalcino clone Sangiovese but I preferred:
Robert Renzoni old vine Zinfandel Lopez Ranch, Cucamonga Valley, 2013: This was full of ripe black fruits, zesty and spicy, with oak and tannin to balance, full-bodied but also elegant and not too oaky. Drinking well now but will age another few years.
Hart Winery had a very simple, humble entry and building, and the small parking lot only held two vehicles. This would be either very good, I thought, or very bad. I walked in, and heard Neil Young and CCR playing on the sound system. I looked around and for décor only saw a glass window onto the barrel room. Both of these could also have been very bad or very good, but I was so relieved when I looked at the wine list, and started tasting the wines; it was very good!
I love that there are places like Hart Winery (especially in SoCAL) that dare to avoid the glitz and glamour and stay true to their roots regardless of trends, focusing just on making great wine, especially when they are surrounded by the opposite. If Neil Young had a winery, it would feel and look a lot like Hart.
This was the single most impressive winery in the area for a blind person with a good palate, or anyone else who cares more about substance than appearances or glitz. It’s kind of like the fairy tale of a princess kissing a toad; if you can trust what’s beneath the surface you’ll be rewarded. Or, from the Lord of the Rings, “All that is gold does not glitter.” Here are my favorites (most of the wines):
Hart Winery Tres Hermanos 2014, Temecula Valley: “Three brothers” for the three Hart brothers, Jim, Mike and Bill, styled like a traditional Rhone blend with 50% grenache, 33% syrah and 17% mourvedre. The nose is vibrant with spicy ripe red fruits and some pepper, juicy. On the palate, fine integration with vibrant, juicy red fruits, and judicious oak. Fresh lively finish, stylish and zesty!
Hart Winery Syrah Temecula Valley, Estate Vineyard 2014: vines were planted when I first was exposed to great wine over 40 years ago. This is a limited two-acre block and produced only 94 cases (basically two barrels). On the nose, subtle black fruits and some roasted herbs. On the palate—WOW! Large (I’m not saying “huge” anymore), dense concentrated tannins, no obvious oak flavors. 15.1% alc. but not hot, integrated and elegant. Fresh, lively finish.
Hart Winery Cabernet Franc, Temecula Valley, Estate Vineyard 2013: Nose: nice varietal typicity of red/black cherry with pepper and herbal notes, zesty. On the palate, another WOW! Rich, ripe black cherry and smooth fine tannins with mocha in the finish. Very stylish and true varietal character.
Hart Winery Zinfandel Old Vine Reserve 2014, Temecula Valley, Brookside Vineyard: The grapes for this wine came from a vineyard planted in 1967 by the “historic” Brookside winery. On the nose, impressively dark, like mourvedre; bass notes with mocha and dried black cherry. The palate is zesty/spicy, with ripe red and black fruits, incredibly smooth texture for 15.8% alcohol.
** Hart Winery Reserve Syrah 2013, Temecula Valley, Volcanic Ridge Vineyard: This was my favorite Hart wine despite how much I liked the others. The vineyard is located “on a sea breeze-swept 2400 elevation ridge virtually within view of the Pacific ocean.” On the nose, complex but typical varietal syrah markers; smoky red fruits, bacon fat and exotic spice. On the palate… WOW!! Amazing concentration of fruit, plush, smooth texture, lots of zesty exotic spices on the finish. I also like that it’s fruit and spice driven and I don’t even notice the oak. How does it get better than this? The alc. is 14.6% but the wine isn’t hot at all.
In the wine country understated boutiques like Hart are welcome, but so are spectacular views, and Calloway Vineyard & Winery nearby has one of the best, not just of the mountains to the east and west but of its own vineyards sweeping from the tasting room facing west all the way around the winery to the north.
Wines were better than average, and the terroir of Temecula seems to favor Rhone and Mediterranean varieties plus zinfandel more than the red Bordeaux grapes. I suppose my favorite wine there was Calloway Wild Yeast Syrah 2013. The tasting notes from the winery describe it best: “from warm and inviting aromas of dark berries and earthy Dutch licorice, all the way to flavors of boysenberries, dried mission figs, black currant and truffle, this wine is both fruity and savory, lush and fresh.” As with many wild yeast wines, I liked the depth and richness of the texture as well as the multi-dimensionality of flavors.
At South Coast Winery where I stayed in their resort lodgings, I enjoyed their tempranillo rosé 2014 which was vibrant with cranberry and strawberry aromas and flavors, with crisp acidity. I regret I can’t remember anything I had in their tasting room (late on a Sunday afternoon packed with bachelorettes. Due to the shrieking and high merriment, I couldn’t hear myself drink. I hope to return sometime when the crowds are either “working” or otherwise absent.