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California and the West | CAIFORNIA ALBUM Temecula

Temecula Winery Goes Coastal

Neighboring vintners feel betrayed by Callaway's decision to buy grapes elsewhere, fearing that the region's hard-won reputation may wither.


TEMECULA — Grit from arid hillsides clung to the grapes like peach fuzz as Vincenzo Cilurzo, owner of a winery that carries his name, walked along tidy rows of his precious fruit. Here in the heart of Temecula's wine country, among the crags and persnickety rattlesnakes, it sure doesn't feel very coastal.

But that's what they'd have you believe down the road at the more industrial headquarters of Callaway Vineyard & Winery, the largest and best-known of Temecula's wineries.

This summer, Callaway has retooled its image--and left behind virtually all its tieswith Temecula. From bottle labels to gift-shop ties, Callaway is now a "coastal" wine. By next fall, it will buy half its grapes from outside Temecula, mostly in Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Luis Obispo--which will allow it to use the new coastal label.

California's wine industry has weathered a tumultuous season of mergers and deals and, in the business, Callaway's coastal shift was not seen as a particularly seismic one.

But in Temecula, it is seen in some corners as nothing less than betrayal--a rejection of what has become a family name and a threat to one of Southern California's few wine regions.

Although Callaway's shift could mean the company will buy fewer grapes in Temecula Valley, the concern in neighboring vineyards goes beyond the immediate economic effect. Specifically, other winemakers worry that the Temecula name will lose its luster.

These are precarious times in Temecula Valley. Bugs are infecting acres of vines with a crippling disease, and this month's harvest has revealed a statewide grape glut that could mean unusually low wholesale prices. For small growers such as Cilurzo, who opened Temecula's first commercial vineyard in 1967, the timing could not have been worse.

"It's taken us a lot of years" to overcome perceptions that good wine cannot be made so far from the coast, said Cilurzo, a quirky and amiable 76-year-old who wears a Greek fishing cap adorned with a peacock feather. "We have built an image. And all of a sudden, it's being shot down by a big corporation that doesn't care at all about Temecula."

Meanwhile, Temecula itself, a well-groomed suburban city of about 55,000, has flourished largely on the coattails of the vineyards. With private schools and planned communities with names like Chardonnay Hills and the Temecula Valley International Film Festival, the town has developed a more upscale image than those of its dusty cousins in southwest Riverside County.

While no one is sounding Temecula's death knell, some feel the town's image could be tarnished.

"The wineries are a heavy, main resource of how we get our tourism," said Tony Turski, owner of two Temecula restaurants and chairman of the Chamber of Commerce. "People come for Callaway, and the name recognition is great for Temecula."

Some also are concerned that Callaway's bid for a national image will detract from its long-standing support of local nonprofit organizations and arts groups.

Many of Temecula's wineries support the arts, and Callaway is no exception. The company regularly donates wine to local fund-raisers, such as the Mayor's Ball for the Arts, said Martha Minkler, executive director of the Arts Council of Temecula.

"One of the reasons people are so apprehensive about it is that Callaway has been a tremendous supporter," she said. "We'd really like to see it stay as a Temecula wine."

John Falcone, Callaway's general manager and a former Napa winemaker, says the response has become a bit hysterical.

"It's typical wine politics," reflecting a gulf between small wineries and a large one, Falcone said. "We're trying to be fair" in considering the interests of the region, he said.

Callaway, the only winery in Temecula run by a large corporation, is owned by Allied Dome, the second-largest liquor company in the world.

Allied wants the winery to become a 1-million case-a-year operation within eight years--more than double what Callaway expects to produce this year. There's only one way pull it off, Falcone says--and it's not relying on the Temecula name, which is largely unknown outside Southern California and often dismissed as bourgeois by the few industry insiders who know it.

Callaway, Falcone said, must go "coastal" to appeal to wine drinkers nationwide.

The move is part of a larger trend within the industry. Rising popularity of California wines and consolidation, such as the Wine Group's $300-million purchase earlier this summer of six brands owned by Sonoma's Sebastiani Vineyards, has forced many companies to look globally for markets.

Even when Callaway starts buying more grapes from northern vineyards, Falcone pointed out, it will remain the largest buyer of Temecula grapes.

"It's become a little difficult for some growers to find a home for their grapes. But are we obligated to buy all the grapes in Temecula just because we're here? We think we've helped out a lot of people here. But sometimes people have short memories."

Some vintners in the area don't think that's the issue.

From the beginning, Temecula has prided itself as being something of an anti-Napa.

The owners of the wineries are friends, and they routinely loan their equipment to neighboring farms. They stay up late munching on barbecued chicken and swapping wine tips--what type of yeast works best with syrah grapes, when to stop watering a zinfandel. By contrast, many Napa wineries won't even share weather information with one another.

Temecula vintners are something of a brotherhood, and that, more than anything, is what has some of them upset.

"It is a disappointment," said Joe Hart, owner and winemaker at Hart Winery, which is next door to Callaway.

"Some people are really upset, as if [Callaway] is abandoning the area and, by implication, suggesting that we are not a quality region. But I will continue to use the Temecula name--and use it with pride."

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