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He's Making a First-Class Cabernet Sauvignon : TV Lighting Director Turns Small Area Winery Into One of Region's Best

July 09, 1987|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

Vincenzo Cilurzo, a television lighting director, is fast acquiring a glittering reputation as a starred wine maker. Overcoming the bum rap that Temecula's Southern California vineyards cannot produce fine red wines, Cilurzo is fashioning his tiny winery into one of the region's best.

Starting as an amateur home wine maker, Cilurzo is not academically trained, although he's taken a host of wine courses at the University of California at Davis, and the now-defunct Napa Valley School of Cellaring. For two decades he was a lighting director for ABC Television.

What bothers him the most about Temecula wine making is the oft-repeated comment that good reds, like Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, cannot be produced there because soils and climate are not appropriate. That is why he regards his currently released Cabernet Sauvignon, Proprietor's Reserve, 1983, as one of his, and the region's, most significant wines.

From his Miramonte vineyard, this unfiltered '83 makes a fine statement for Temecula Cabernet wine making. It has a subtle, cherry-like nose, with only hints of vegetal tones combined with excellent backbone, richness of flavor, and the beginning of an elegant style certain to lead to complexity. Not overdone with tannin, there is some hint of wood here from 18 months of American white oak aging, which is easily overcome by an intense, cherry-like taste and an easy-to-take, lean-in-form texture. Especially noteworthy are the layers of fruity berry-cherry flavors, in high extract, which should compete well with the best of Napa and Sonoma. A most attractive Temecula Cabernet at $12.

It Was Chancy

"For me, making a 'Cab' here was chancy, for there is no generation's worth of information on Cabernet wine making like up north," Cilurzo said. "But, frankly, it was as difficult to move from home to professional wine making, because I have had to do everything myself and without as much capital as I would like. My wife Audrey and I planted our first grapes in Temecula in 1968, in virtually the same way as if we were planting a home garden. We were both encouraged that after a year of climate, soil and water study, our pioneering had found a micro-climate we believed to be very much like the Napa Valley."

The Cilurzos are helped by their two children, Vinnie and Chenin. They do it all, from crushing to bottling. Today, the winery, which was started in 1978, is in a modern 15,000-square-foot, air-conditioned building, built into the side of a hill, near a shaded picnic area and a small lake, where visitors are encouraged to enjoy the view over lunch and a glass of Cilurzo. Along with vineyard and winery chores, Audrey creates special lunches and dinners for visiting guests and tasters, which must be prearranged by calling (714) 676-5250.

Cilurzo does not like to talk about his White Zinfandel, 1986, which he claims he makes only for cash-flow purposes. That did not prevent him from making a very pleasant, popular sweet-styled white Zinfandel with residual sugar at 4.2% and only 9.6% alcohol. "Actually, I am beginning to enjoy it, too, for its fresh, fruity, with a hint of strawberry, character," he said. "The more I drink it, I see why people like it. By no means am I a snob."

The winery is one of the few that still produces Petite Sirah. Despite the fact that it is a commercially fading varietal, Cilurzo holds onto five acres, from which he gets especially sound grapes and has managed a pleasing 1982, which is uncharacteristically round, rich and soft, in a silky, generous style. With only 11% alcohol because of early picking, and aged for 14 months in small American oak casks, its peppery flavors and berry character are a delight, particularly at the price of $8. Not a wine to age, its supple softness may be due to malolactic fermentation.

Excellent Floral Tones

As good is Sauvignon Blanc, 1984, made in a blend of 85% Sauvignon Blanc and a 15% combination of Semillon and Gewurztraminer grapes. A somewhat sweet, off-dry wine, it shows excellent floral tones and a rich-with-fruit, melon-like flavor. Fat in texture, the wine makes sense at $7.50 for those who enjoy a sweeter style.

Chardonnay, 1984, from Mt. Palomar Winery, Lawn Valley Vineyards, is a fat, heavier-styled wine without long aging ability. No crisp finish here. The wine shows a lot of apple and pineapple aromas with decent fruit and an attractive, slightly lemony taste, intruded by high alcohol at 13.5%. Flavor is enhanced by light barrel fermentation adding a bit of buttery richness and texture. It is available for $9.50.

A special treat is a botrytised, Late Harvest, Johannisberg Riesling, 1984, which shows a heavily concentrated candied and honeyed nose and opulent, syrupy apricot and honey flavors. At 12.5% residual sugar, this wine carries the sweetness intended for delicious dessert drinking. It also offers excellent summery, after-barbecue, luxuriant savoring, because the alcohol is at a gentle 8.9%. The 450-milliliter bottles are offered at $15.

"To pay the bills, I still must do television, although with each vintage, cash flow becomes stronger and stronger," Cilurzo commented. "But soon I intend to give up my weekly jaunts to Hollywood's TV studios. At that time I expect the stars to come to see me at Temecula for a good glass of my aged Cabernet, but if it is White Zin they want, I'll give them that, too."

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