The tasting room is packed on a recent weekday afternoon at Wilson Creek… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
The most popular beverage in the Temecula Valley, the picturesque wine region not far from the urban sprawl of Orange and San Diego counties, is something called "almond champagne."
It is a more or less naturally sparkling wine (the bubbles induced in pressurized tanks) with almond flavoring added. Smelling sweetly of cream soda and marzipan, the wine's thick, cloying flavor wouldn't seem out of place in an ice cream parlor if not for a modest alcohol kick and its bitter finish.
At Wilson Creek, the winery, restaurant, wedding and concert venue credited with popularizing the stuff, it sells so well that at least a half-dozen other valley wineries have developed their own versions. But Wilson Creek supplies only a tiny fraction of the fruit used for its cuvée. In fact Wilson Creek doesn't even make the wine; it's made in Lodi, 450 miles away.
To most of the 500,000 or so annual winery visitors, none of this matters. Rather than a wine destination, the Temecula Valley has become something of a wine playground, where play wines upstage real wines, where "wine country" is a carefully cultivated affair that has less to do with what vineyards produce than with how they look — all in the service of a tourist trade run slightly amok.
On any given weekend, stretch limos and party vans stream down Rancho California Road filled with partygoers. Cruise ship patrons, on dry land for a few days in San Diego, are carted in by the busload. In winery tasting rooms, gewgaws outnumber corkscrews by impressive ratios. Wineries give up their crushpads for weddings, concerts, corporate retreats, barbecue bashes. It's said that women of a certain age spill out of white stretch Hummers to pose for pictures in front of the entrance sign at Cougar Winery — tops, evidently, are optional. More than any other wine region in California, Temecula is a place to party.
Local growers have nothing really against tourism and nothing, certainly, against sales. But having survived the scourge of the glassy winged sharpshooter, the insect pest that helps spread the withering devastation of Pierce's disease, they now face a much more confounding dilemma: a wholesale indifference on the part of its patrons to the valley's viticultural strengths. Growers would like nothing more than to reclaim their reputation as a legitimate winegrowing region and compete with other California appellations, but despite the best intentions, they find themselves capitulating to a clientele that's just not that interested.
"It's a real catch-22," says Jon McPherson of South Coast Winery, one of the region's largest. "I want to make Syrah and other varieties that work best here, but how can I sell the wines I want to make when everybody's wanting something else? How am I going to keep the cash flow going?"
Temecula is a warm, dry growing region with a fairly pronounced coastal influence (warm days, cool nights) and an affinity for warm-climate red grapes, such as those found in Spain, southern France and central Italy, including Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Tempranillo and Sangiovese.
Less than a decade ago the region seemed poised for success with these and other varieties. In fact, nearly half of all of the fruit produced in the region was purchased by "up north" wineries such as Fetzer and Glen Ellen. Temecula even had a homegrown mass-market brand, Callaway, which snatched up fruit the up-north wineries could not.
Then came "glassy wing." The flying pest hitchhiked to California in nursery plant shipments from the Southeast, spreading rapidly across the region in the late '90s and early 2000s, devouring vineyard vegetation and serving as a vector for Pierce's disease, which attacks the plant's vascular system. In Temecula, thousands of vineyard acres were affected. Callaway, the area's largest winery, was broken up and sold, and demand for local grapes vanished for several vintages.
Surviving the decade, says McPherson, was difficult. "There was a lot of economic pressure to stay afloat," he says. "We had to figure out, 'How do we regroup and show we're not a dead valley? How do we prove to people that we're still growing great fruit?'"
But it would take time to replant, still more time to prove that the valley had emerged from the devastation.
Into that void stepped entrepreneurs such as Bill Wilson, a former tax annuity expert who first came by limo bus to the valley with his wife, Jenifer, in 1990. Both fell in love with the region; before long he was looking at property, and they purchased existing vineyard land in 1995, building a new winery at the end of the decade.