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A New Winery-Restaurant Puts the Inland Empire on the Wine World's Map : Vine Country

June 23, 1988|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

TEMECULA, Calif. — About a decade ago, they began calling this Southern California's own wine country, a place where wine lovers and tyros alike could learn about wine, sip some of the locally made product and have a picnic.

Yet since then it has been only sparsely traveled. Rancho California Road has had its visitors, but they averaged fewer than 1,000 per week, hardly the stuff of which legends are made. The Napa Valley, for example, draws seven times that number each day.

Indeed, some weeks the visitors to this southern Riverside County wine country numbered barely more than 100.

"I remember a few Saturdays when not a single person would come up to the winery," said Travis Hart, owner-wine maker-bottle washer at Hart Winery, the first winery you see after you drive 4 miles east of Interstate 15. "It was on those days when I started thinking about some other way to sell the wine."

Now, however, after a decade of slow growth, Temecula is busting its buttons over a handsome new winery-restaurant complex that by itself figures to draw enough interest to bump the number of tourists to major proportions. Some expect tourism here to double overnight. One local vintner even worried about whether expected tourist growth would be supported by the two-lane road that thus far has been adequate.

The new operation generating all this enthusiasm is Culbertson Winery, the premium sparkling wine house that has gained a national reputation in the last six years for quality bubbly made by the old French methode Champenoise, the procedure that makes the best Champagne.

Culbertson Winery was founded as a sparkling-wine-only winery in 1981 on John and Martha Culbertson's ranch, Regalo Del Mar, in Fallbrook at the northern tip of San Diego County. And there it was supposed to stay, a small, 12,000-case facility set into a hillside beneath fading avocado trees.

But Culbertson, then-president of a deep-sea diving company, had been commuting for a decade from Fallbrook to Houston and he wanted to sell his diving firm, Martech International. At the same time, his avocado trees weren't paying for themselves and his wine was gaining acceptance faster than expected.

Thus did wine become the No. 1 focus of Culbertson's attention. But increasing wine production at the small Fallbrook winery wasn't feasible. Nor was it logical, because it is in an area that could be charitably called remote--meaning visitors would get lost before finding the place.

So Culbertson needed to find a wine country in which to relocate, one with more visibility. Temecula was logical because "we were getting most of our grapes from there," he said. Moreover, it was an area that already had a reputation as a wine country and available land right on the highway could be had at less than $16,000 an acre.

But would the local wine community fight such a move? After all, in the Napa Valley 500 miles north, residents are fighting new winery development.

Culbertson drove half an hour north to Callaway to meet with John Moramarco, vice president at Callaway Vineyard, the largest and oldest winery in the region, which is now owned by Hiram Walker, a division of huge Allied Lyons PLC of England.

"John said, 'You oughta be out here with the rest of us,' and that was wonderful of him," said Culbertson. "He gave me more advice than I can tell you."

So Culbertson bought a prime 20-acre parcel across the road from Callaway. (A right turn out of the driveway of one property allows a left turn into the driveway of the other.)

When Culbertson told Temeculans he was moving there, "Everyone got excited. They (his neighbors) were amazing. They couldn't have been more helpful.

"And when it came time to meet with the (Riverside) County Planning Department, John was there, speaking on my behalf, along with people from Cilurzo, Baily, Maurice Carrie and Mt. Palomar. And Hart would have been there, but he was tied up."

Nor did county officials put up resistence. "They saw the benefits to the county," said Culbertson. "They were very cooperative. If we were trying to do this in San Diego County, we'd still be waiting for permits."

Four months ago, Culbertson completed the sale of his diving company, enabling him to devote his full time to this new project. Sixty days later, the first meal was served in the cafe, and bubbly was flowing in the tasting room.

The new Culbertson winery is an attractive addition to the once-struggling wine area. The dramatic 24,000-square-foot main building of French Mediterranean style and an adjoining restaurant face a huge courtyard with a fountain on a plateau 20 feet above Rancho California Road. Plans call for production of about 29,000 cases of wine this year, more than double the 1987 production, with a leap to 50,000 cases within three years.

Planned for next summer is a 60-room country inn in which tourists can stay overnight. At present, the six-room Loma Vista Bed and Breakfast is the only place to stay overnight in the wine area.

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