CVIndependent

Mon10142019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Every now and then, wonderful things come out of not-so-wonderful experiences. This fact has never been truer for me than the outcome that resulted from a snarky but well-intentioned article I wrote regarding my brief encounters in Temecula wine country

The purpose of the original piece was not to lambaste the entire region, but to shine a light on the Temecula “wineries” that somehow receive the most visitor attention … without themselves actually paying any attention to the wines.

I really wanted to get a chance to do the “Temecula, Part 2: The Redemption” story, but truthfully, I was nervous that it might not happen. Even though I was serious when I said I hadn’t given up on Temecula, I feared there was a possibility that Temecula wasn’t worth saving, wine-wise.

Thankfully, my fears were unfounded.

What followed was an email from a winery in Temecula that invited me to come out for a visit so I could see that there is, in fact, a winery of substance there taking this business seriously. Through a series of friendly and professional emails, it was arranged that my husband and I would venture over the mountain to give Temecula another shot.

The rugged, rocky terrain slowly gave way to gently sloping hills, and we found ourselves back in Southern California Wine Country. We turned down a little gravel road, surrounded by hillside vineyards—and a quaint, unassuming terraced patio was in front of us. We had arrived at Vindemia Winery.

There is something charming and relaxing about this place—a familiarity that resembles the comfort of stopping by a friend’s place for a glass of wine and a chat. You can imagine, quite easily, that this is what Napa felt like 45 years ago, when wine-tastings happened at dining room-tables or on the back patios of winemakers’ homes. Before mega-mansions and egos. It felt good—and real.

Walking up the flagstone steps to the outdoor tasting bar, I finally got to meet the enigmatic young lady who orchestrated this meeting. With genuine warmth and graciousness, Katie Zuber, the tasting-room manager, escorted us up to the shaded patio. The lack of pretension was disarming and refreshing. In fact, one of my favorite moments was when Katie assured my husband that the bathrooms were clean … because she had cleaned them herself that morning. There was no such thing as a job that was beneath her. But even considering how down-to-earth everything seemed, I had no idea just how elevated and professional this tasting was going to be.

Over the course of two hours, we tasted 12 wines. We learned how owner David Bradley transitioned from being a commercial hot-air balloon pilot into being a winemaker—it’s not as far-fetched as you would imagine—and how he’s had the same vineyard manager since day one, some 14 years ago.

As we nibbled on fresh bread and local olive oil, there were several pieces of information Katie shared with us as the tasting progressed that I found fascinating. The first was the full disclosure regarding where the grapes come from, and all the technical information regarding the winemaking chemistry on the back label. Katie explained that they strive for “absolute transparency” with their wines. They want you to know exactly which grapes they grow; which wines feature grapes from other Temecula vineyards; and which feature grapes they source from Santa Ynez. In case you’re curious, they are about 70 percent estate grown, with six different varietals planted.

On the back label of their wines, you’ll see an actual ingredient list—all the elements that went into making that particular wine, everything from tartaric acid, sulfur dioxide and bentonite, to cultivated yeast. “Why?” you might ask—and I’d be inclined to agree with you. I’ve never seen another winery offer up those kinds of specifics, and at first, I thought giving the general consumer so much information that they won’t understand could be a detriment. But as it was explained to me: It’s all part of Vindemia’s objective to educate wine-lovers and create an environment of transparency and trust. The idea: Arming the buyer with as much information as possible is a positive thing that can spark thoughtful questions and conversations about winemaking.

Whoa. My inner wine geek was doing cartwheels!

Once we were on our third red wine, I noticed that the wines were cool—not cold, and not chilled to the point where you couldn't smell aromas, but at that enjoyable red-wine sweet spot where they’re cool enough to still be refreshing without the flavors being dulled. I leaned over and asked Katie if she was chilling the reds, and a huge smile washed over her face. Just behind me, facing the other side of the tasting bar, was a large chalkboard that prominently featured the temperatures for both the whites and reds being poured that day. Wait ... what? You temperature-control your wines at a rustic outdoor tasting bar?

As we continued our tasting, another small group arrived. Ah-ha! Now I’ll get to see how an unplanned tasting is conducted! Who’s gonna break out the bachelorette penis straws? When do the rowdy hay-bail rides start while “Baby Got Back” plays over the loudspeaker?

Nope. Karen—the other consummate professional behind the bar, with a keen palate, warm smile and laid-back demeanor—delivered to that group the same educational, hospitality-focused experience I was getting.

Yep: Vindemia Winery is the real deal.

As we continued our tasting—with an aged cabernet franc, a few zinfandel-based blends, a traditional “Bordeaux style” cabernet sauvignon-based blend, an estate petite sirah, a cabernet, a merlot, and a GSM blend—I realized how all these wines are so varietally correct. They didn’t taste like wines from a region fumbling through its infancy. They didn’t taste like wines that are trying to be something they’re not. They weren’t over-extracted or over-manipulated. They were balanced, and the flavors were seamless and integrated. They were mature yet full of life. 

I’ve always maintained that it takes a long time for a region to figure out what to grow, and then even longer to figure out how to grow it well. It’s an exercise in patience, passion, fortitude and skill. No great wine region is born overnight, and it takes a village of masterful and forward-thinking individuals to not only see the potential of a region, but harness its ability to produce great wine.

I now understand Temecula’s potential. And I can’t wait to go back for more.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

I’m just not ready to give up on Temecula yet—but if my last two visits are any indication of what Temecula wants to be, then its destiny might already be written.

Twelve years ago, I ventured to Temecula for a work trip that slightly masqueraded as a girls’ trip. We all had a great time: The weather was perfect; the food was good; and the hospitality was on point. But one distinct part of the trip does not spark fond memories: We visited about seven wineries over two days, none of which were memorable enough to cite all these years later.

I would like to point out that I’m not a “day-drinker,” and when I’m working, I spit all wine. Always have, always will. So the lack of poignant experiences was not because I had over-imbibed, but because they were simply forgettable, at best. What I remember vividly was staying at a well-known resort, in one of their villas, and thinking at the time that it was a lovely property, despite the somewhat tacky faux-Tuscan decor.

Fast-forward 12 years later, and I found myself back at the same resort. The tacky faux-Tuscan decor remains … only now it’s 12 years older, and in sad, sad, shape. I think it’s safe to assume the decade-plus of bachelorette parties and drunken wedding guests have taken their toll. The carpet was crunchy. There were dead bugs in the bathtub. A pair of old, muddy work boots sat outside the room door. And when the staff wasn’t calling me “sweetie,” “love” and “honey,” they were downright rude.

This was not a work-related trip. I was there celebrating my dearest girlfriend’s 40th birthday. She graciously hosted us on a wine tour with a light dinner in a vineyard. The evening spent with friends and loved ones was sublime. However, I am a sommelier, which makes it impossible for me not to notice the wine and service standards around me. Granted, we did not visit the crème de la crème of wineries (if there is such a thing in Temecula), but instead what appeared to be fun and lively venues where the wine flowed freely. And frankly, I was horrified.

Our first stop was at a high-profile, more-commercial winery. I know, I know … how could I possibly judge an entire wine region by a winery that’s known for golf clubs?! Because it was packed—wall-to-wall people. And those people were having the exact same experience I was. Wine-savvy or not, all the guests visiting that day left there with a perception of what Temecula wine country is, based, at least in part, on that particular winery … which, as far as the tasting room is concerned, is not good. If the lack of quality wine didn’t turn you off, the terrible wine being poured by the un-dead was the clincher. Everyone working behind the bar looked like they would rather have something hot and sharp poked in their eye than pour one more “taste” to a wine-coupon-holding bride-to-be. At one point, I gave all my wine coupons to the zombie so I could put her, and me, out of our misery.

Ironically, once we were outside, the whole vibe changed. We could relax and sip the wine, and chat, in truly beautiful surroundings. There was a musician playing the keyboard and singing to a content crowd, complete with adorable little girls in fluffy dresses dancing along. Atmosphere: 1; Wine: 0.

On to the next winery! By far, it was the most pleasant of the three on the tour. It was a small, family-owned establishment. We ate at long picnic tables in the vineyards as the sun began to set, surrounded by a couple of other groups. The service was more attentive and focused, but I couldn’t help but notice that no one was explaining the wine. At most, we were told what was available to taste, with no further detail given. It was a little head-scratching to me, given I had moved to the Coachella Valley from a place where most people can’t shut up about wine. Then I realized … maybe there isn’t anything to say about it.

By this point of the night, we were all laughing and enjoying being out in our “backyard wine country.” All was going well until they started blaring songs like “Funky Cold Medina” and “Mambo No. 5.” OK … time to go.

Atmosphere: 2; Wine: 0.

The last winery we visited wasn’t really a winery at all. Or maybe it was. Who could tell? In any case, I’ve been to college keggers less rowdy. It could not have been further from a traditional winery experience; instead, it was a happening bar and dance scene. The wine was doled out like shots of whiskey. There were easily a thousand people “out back” where the band was. Apparently there was a guy, who may or may not have been high on ecstasy, doing backflips on the dance floor next to a woman who was 80 years old doing ballet moves … weird. My husband and I missed it all, because by this point, we’d had enough. The sun was casting its final shadows, and the rolling hills were gorgeous. We needed a moment of wine-country solitude. Yes, sometimes we miss Napa. So we sat out front, on old Adirondack chairs, and sipped our terrible wine by an unlit fire pit as we watched the sunset. It was perhaps the highlight of the night. This is when my husband, who grew up in Napa, said to me: “Ya know why this place will never be taken seriously? Because here, it’s not about the wine. They’ve simply substituted tasting rooms for bars. The employees can’t tell you anything about the wine, because they don’t care about it. The guests can’t tell you anything about the wine, because they don’t care, either. These are just venues to have a good time and get drunk. Instead of raising the bar to educate people about wine and the region, Temecula lowered the bar to keep everybody drunk and happy.”

Whoa. Now there’s some harsh truth, Temecula.

Now, let me set the record straight: I said I wasn’t ready to give up on Temecula. I’m happy to take suggestions and recommendations for wineries that will change my mind. I know there have to be dedicated producers out there who are crafting thoughtful wine. I promise to go back again, with an open mind. But hear me when I say that if my experience is by design, and this is what Temecula is putting out there as a tourist destination, then nothing is going to change. You can’t be taken seriously as a wine region if you don’t have respect for the industry, the product, the land and the people.

If Temecula wants to be serious about wine, it needs to grow up.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

Weather report for a dry, summer Friday afternoon in the Temecula Valley: Sunny, light wind, temps in the 90s. A group of visitors to the Frangipani Estate Winery wander outside with glasses of the 2013 Estate Grenache Rosé ($20).

It’s a bone-dry rosé, as tasting-room manager Nick Tavizon describes it.

“A floral nose, hint of strawberry … a touch of minerality,” he says. “A lot of people come in expecting it’s going to be a sweet wine. But it’s not.”

The latest vintage of Frangipani’s popular rosé was released in the spring. In Temecula, the grenache varietal is ideal for the crafting of a complex rosé. The valley’s too hot for pinot noir. Tavizon says the winery has played around with a few varietals for its rosés, but the grenache stands out.

“People are liking it,” Tavizon says. “Rosés are definitely coming back with a new twist, done in a Southern France style.”

That’s satisfying news for folks who like a chilled wine on a hot, hot day. And the weather report for fall? Looks like the heat’s going to stick around for a while.

Not too long ago, I would have snubbed any wine the color of that wine-like substance that gramps buys by the six-pack at Costco. (A Napa winery once countered the white zin craze by printing T-shirts that said: “Zin is red! Zin is red!”)

My thinking changed when my trusted wine-geek buddy—a woman who understood dry rosés before the rest of us—introduced a bottle of coral-tinged French wine at a summer barbecue. Some were dubious. She placed the chilled bottle on a friend’s patio table. Water condensed in the heat, wetting the label. I watched as another guest tipped the bottle to the side and examined the bottle copy. He set the wine down and, instead, polished off a pinot gris.

My wine geek friend opened the bottle of pinkness and poured some for me.

I suspended disbelief. She would not steer me into the land of unpleasant beverages.

“It’s a dry rosé,” she explained. “Try it with the prosciutto-wrapped melon.”

I drank the rosé, ate the melon, drank more rose, polished off the glass, and poured another. It paired nicely with everything from cucumbers to salmon.

Since then, I’ve savored many bottles of rosé. One of my favorites? Twisted Oak’s Calaveras Rosa (the label features a pink skull!), a rosé made with mourvedre.

“Mourvedre?” I said, when my friend handed me this chilled bottle as a birthday present. “You can make rosé from mourvedre?”

You can. And if the Calaveras Rosa is any indication, you should. I’ve lauded the dark mysteries of a delicious mourvedre before. But an encounter with the lighter version of the grape is like meeting Marilyn Manson as an adolescent Brian Hugh Warner: You just know this kid is going to end up seriously interesting.

The Calaveras Rosa is complicated like that, with dark fruits waiting to be discovered behind a crooked smile and clear complexion. We opened the wine that night and drank it with that night’s fusion feast—guacamole and chips, kale salad, boeuf bourguignon.

I’m bummed that the 2012 Calaveras Rosa ($20) was sold out at Twisted Oak’s online store when I last checked. Bring on the 2013.

For award-winning rosés closer to home, there’s Callaway Vineyard and Winery in Temecula. Callaway’s 2013 Special Selection Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) placed in this year’s Rosé Competition, which is open to rosés from across North America.

A standout is Callaway’s Rosé of Sangiovese ($20). The 2012 vintage nabbed a gold in the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and a gold in the 2014 Pacific Rim Wine Competition. Its 2011 Special Selection Rose of Sangiovese won 10 awards.

My idea of a glorious autumn afternoon might include zipping over to Callaway with a picnic basket, attaining a chilled bottle and kicking back in the shade at a table overlooking acres of ripe grapes.

Quick note: Some of my family members and friends do not appreciate dry, aka delicious wine. Gramps, as noted above, lusts for white zin. Mom calls my favorite wines “bitter.” Most recently, a young woman my son brings to dinner has been known to adulterate reds and whites uniformly with various substances, from fresh fruit to sparkling water and, well, spoons full of sugar. “This is so good!” she’ll exclaim, sipping away at her fizzy sangria Kool-Aid.

She is extremely cute and good-natured. I like her lots. It’s not my job to try to change anyone’s tastes, so I choose the indulgent rout. The young woman recently enjoyed Andre’s non-vintage spumante ($6). She added orange-mango juice and made mimosas.

It’s a bit awkward to skulk through a grocery store with cheap pink things in my cart. I keep my head down. Yes, I’m often guilty of being a pretentious wine snob. Bumper sticker/meme idea: “Stay calm and let people drink what they like.”

Preferring sweeter wines, though, doesn’t mean a person lacks appreciation for a delectable, hand-crafted rosé.

Many options exist for, say, a meal that demands a wine with higher residual sugar. Monte De Oro, off Rancho California Road in Temecula, crafts a lovely off-dry rosé from five estate-grown grapes—syrah, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and zinfandel.

“Wine drinkers today understand what a rosé is versus a blush,” says Allan Steward, the tasting-room manager.

The winery educates consumers of rosés at its website, describing how the winemaker uses the saignee style—pulling grape juice from various fermentations after just a few days, allowing only limited contact with red-grape skins. Winemakers who use this style can end up with exquisite roses and also, some argue, more intensely concentrated reds down the road.

At Monte De Oro, the 2014 Synergy 65 Rosé ($22) was released at the end of July. Tasting notes describe the rosé as “youthful (with) appealing aromas of strawberries, currants, cherries, cranberries and raspberries complemented by hints of vanilla bean and fresh rose petals.” Could better flavors exist to pair with the crispness of late summer, harvest around the corner, fall in the air?

Steward says he would serve the Synergy with a spicy Thai dinner—the sweet would balance the heat.

“But I wouldn’t mind having it with a hamburger, either,” he says.

So versatile. That’s what keeps me drinking the pink.

Published in Wine

Located just 70 miles or so from the Coachella Valley, Temecula is known as Southern California’s wine country; the charming California town and surrounding area produce more than 50 different varietals of wine.

This is a great thing for the craft-beer industry. Brewers for years have been using wine-making techniques, like-barrel aging, to produce amazing beers. And today, the rolling hills and plateaus of the Temecula Valley are not just the home of fantastic wineries; they’re now home to some fantastic breweries, too.

Founded in 2009, Black Market Brewing Co. is the beer-maker that broke ground in wine country with the much-loved Hefeweizen. The Bavarian-style ale is a semi-crisp 5.0 percent alcohol-by-volume unfiltered wheat beer that pours a hazy, California sun yellow, and showcases unique fruit and spice characters like clove, orange peel, banana and sweet bread. Brewed in the spirit of the German purity law, the flagship beer won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival this year. It continues to be Black Market’s biggest-selling beer.

I spoke with Black Market’s lead brewer, Aaron Heyden, and asked him what it’s like to be a brewer in wine country.

“I think it’s good, because there’s already a built-in market for those who want to drink,” he said. “It’s natural that we get spillover from wine country.” In fact, Black Market is working on distribution in another part of California that’s big into wine—the Central Coast.

Aaron is a big fan of IPAs, with fresh hop aroma and flavor—and without the big bitter taste.

“I was always on the quest to make the best IPA,” he said. “It’s kinda hard to make really good IPAs. That’s a great test for a good brewery.”

Black Market currently produces 4,000 barrels annually; the goal is to boost that to about 10,000 annual barrels within the next five years.

Pouring an orange-red, the imperial red ale, called Invasion, is a delicious West Coast-style imperial with a whopping 9.9 percent ABV. Using Centennial and El Dorado hops, this brew gives off loads of flower and fruit flavors, like pear and stone fruit. Columbus hops give Invasion an earthy black pepper character.

Keep an eye out for Black Market’s Holiday 2014, a triple black rye IPA, coming out in December. This is a flavorful holiday version of Cascadian dark-style ale (also called a black IPA). It has a pungent aroma of citrus and resinous hops alongside spicy rye earthiness. The brewery is also working on a collaboration holiday brew withValiant Brewing, with smoked pine leaves and vanilla.

Less than a mile away from Black Market is Ironfire Brewery. This brewery’s goal is to build up its barrel-aging program, so if you love bourbon-barrel-aged beers and sours, this is a place to visit. 

John Maino and Greg Webb met at Ballast Point in San Diego and decided to start their own brewery in Temecula. They are on pace to produce somewhere between 1,600 and 2,000 barrels this year; the brewery will be able to max out at 8,800 barrels annually. The brewery plans on growing, having recently added a 60 barrel fermenters and a bright tank.

“We have bourbon barrels, Jack Daniel’s barrels, rye-whiskey barrels, white-wine barrels, red-wine barrels and cognac barrels. We have 30-year-old rum barrels. We have a very diverse collection of barrels,” said Webb, Ironfire’s vice president.

About a year after opening in 2012, the brewery released Collateral Damage. It is an imperial porter aged for 14 months in Maker’s Mark barrels. The Outcast Dead, aged six months in Tennessee whiskey barrels, is available now in the tasting room on draft and in bottles. Don’t miss the best-seller, the 51/50 IPA.

The brewery self-distributes in Temecula, because the owners want supporters to get to know them personally, and they want to make sure they offer the freshest beer possible.

Refuge Brewery is yet another great brewery in wine country. The folks there specialize in handcrafted small-batch Belgian ales. Back on tap are the Illusion IPA, a 6.5 percent ABV Belgian style IPA, and Mystique, a 9.8 percent ABV Belgian-style dark strong ale. Mystique is a sweetly decadent beer with dark burnt flavors and chocolate undertones. They hope to be bottling more specialty Belgian-style beers by the beginning of next year.

Refuge’s flagship Blood Orange Wit is Southern California sunshine in a glass. The brewery just canned the first full run of it on Nov. 13.

Glenn Wichert, the co-founder and vice president of brewery operations, explained why the brewery uses more than 200 pounds of blood oranges in every beer batch.

“It’s a lot of labor, but it really gives the beer that freshness,” he said. “It’s not always exactly the same, because the oranges are at different stages of ripening, but that’s what’s cool about it.”

Wichert said he loves the fact that wine barrels are at Refuge’s disposal on a consistent basis.

“Our Belgian beers age well in these wine barrels,” he said.

More bold flavors were introduced to wine-country palates when Wiens Brewing opened in November 2012. Weins Brewing Company just celebrated its two year anniversary with the release of several special beers that were all aged in bourbon barrels, and then blended for the year’s release.

Other beers include the Type 3 IPA, a tropical hop bomb with five different hops and four different malts. Another popular brew is the hoppy lager, the Millennium Falconers IPL, brewed with Millennium and Falconers Flight hops, which impart a crisp citrus and tropical flavor.

If the name sounds familiar, that’s because Wiens Family Cellars is known for big red wines like Refugio Cabernet Sauvignon and Chateau Grand Rouge.

While you’re in Temecula, also check out Aftershock Brewing, Bulldog Brewery, Electric Brewing Co. and Garage Brewing Co. If you don’t want to worry about driving, consider hiring the great folks at Brewery Tours of Temecula. Ask for Toby; you won’t be disappointed!

There is an old saying in the wine business: “It takes a lot of great beer to make great wine!” At the end of a long day in the field or in the cellar, many wine-makers turn to beer to quench their thirst. And in the Temecula Valley, there’s now plenty of both delicious beverages.

Below: Founded in 2009, Black Market Brewing Co. is the beer-maker that broke ground in wine country. Photo by Erin Peters.

Published in Beer

“California has a climate which is not well suited for growing grapes to make the finest wines. There are rather too many years when the sun scorches the grapes, so that the wine lacks the finest flavor.”

—Excerpt from dog-eared copy of Wines and Spirits of the World (1958), read by Temecula winemaker Phil Baily.

The sunset sparkled rosé over the rolling fields of grapes west of Callaway Vineyard and Winery

Matt Russell, offsite events manager for Lorimar Vineyards and Winery, poured me Lorimar’s 2010 Syrah. In the waning light, the wine appeared inky and luscious—a dark contrast to Frangipani Winery’s well-rounded 2010 Cabernet Franc, which I’d enjoyed at a nearby table.

Lorimar and Frangipani, relative newcomers to the Temecula Valley, were two of 35 wineries pouring at Crush 2013, the apex of California Wine Month festivities in Temecula, on Saturday, Sept. 14.

The valley had cooled since I’d arrived with Independent editor Jimmy Boegle to meet and drink with local winemakers before the larger taste-fest began. In the Coachella Valley, temps reached 108 on Saturday. In the lush green wine-growing region a mere 66-mile drive west—only 100.

Callaway’s patio was ringed with dim round lamps and flickering candles. Canadian singer-songwriter Michael LeClerc performed, silhouetted against the night sky.

The major attraction: bottles of reds on table after table. Whites and rosés chilled in bowls of ice. Sparkling wine. Sweet wine. Dry wine. Wine redolent with the Temecula terroir, flavor derived from the area’s earth, air and water.

Longtime Temecula winemakers have faced hard times. In the 1990s, area grapes were infested by the glassy-winged sharpshooter, which spread Pierce’s disease. Thousands of acres were lost.

Now, the area’s now been re-tooled into this—with several hundred wine-lovers swirling and sipping, contemplating what one earlier speaker had called “the world in the glass.”

Since I had a designated driver, I was in Sniff the Cap heaven.

Speaking of caps, corks and things related to closure, the topic of synthetics came up during the winemakers’ panel discussion.

Temecula wine pioneer Phil Baily, of Baily Vineyard and Winery, argued that synthetic corks give wines consistency and avoid any chance of cork taint.

He’d brought along Baily’s 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon (Estate Clone 7 Cab). The wine is a deep garnet color. No heavy tannins, which can be astringent.

“None of that puckering,” Baily said, “which I personally can’t stand.”

Baily read to the audience from a worn and politely condescending paperback book, Wines and Spirits of the World (1958): “The difficulty is merely that in the Californian climate the finest varieties do not give of their best.”

We laughed.

When Baily started growing grapes in Temecula, he encountered similar skepticism. By the 1980s, people were lauding Northern California wines. But Temecula? Never.

“Be careful what you read from the experts,” Baily said.

Callaway winemaker Craig Larson told us he was pleased to be living somewhere warmer than Washington state, where he began his career in wine.

“I had a passion to get south and make wine,” he said. “This is a dream come true.”

Larson said wine-clubbers and fans sometimes treat him, well, like a god. He actually seems quite soft-spoken.

“It’s just wine,” he understated.

Boegle and I both liked Callaway’s 2009 Calliope Red, a blend of syrah, mourvedre, grenache, cinsault and counoise. Boegle dug this wine so much that I had to finish his taste so he wouldn’t be tempted to drink more. (He had offered to drive in exchange for drinks later within walking distance of his home.)

“It’s just wine.”

Nick Palumbo, from the Palumbo Family Winery, served a 2010 Sangiovese, joking about its 15.6 percent of alcohol.

“I made this wine before I started going gray,” he said.

Palumbo credited grape-growing success to “pure luck” and a prescient dude named Catfish, who’d long ago planted cabernet franc and merlot on the acreage that Palumbo acquired.

“Those were just the right grapes for the site,” Palumbo said. The winery just released its 2010 Estate “Catfish Vineyard” Merlot.

Palumbo and his family live on the estate. This lets him micro-manage his micro-climates and introduce wine to his children at an early age.

One night, he said, his daughter had been watching the grown-ups do some blending and tasting.

“And I handed a glass to my daughter, who is 8, and I said, ‘What do you smell?’ With a real dead-serious look, she took the glass and swirled it.”

Then she looked up at her dad. “It smells like grapes,” she said.

Also on the panel was Ben Drake, a longtime Temecula wine consultant who runs a farm-management company that oversees vineyards and avocado farms.

He said that his biggest challenge is finding enough workers to pick fruit. He called for the need to legalize labor. Hand-picked grapes are superior to those harvested by expensive machines, because people tend to differentiate between grapes, mice and lizards. Machines aren’t as picky.

Dave Fox, Saturday’s panel moderator and a partner at Touring and Tasting magazine, noted that he’s been impressed over the years with Temecula’s cooperative winemaking community. “There’s a camaraderie here,” he said, “a sense of pride in the region.”

The legendary Joe Hart of Hart Winery planted his first acre of grapes in Temecula back in 1974. On Saturday, he introduced us to his 2011 Mourvedre Cruz Way Vineyard, which smelled of ripe juicy raspberries glazed with caramels.

Hart said he’s pleased with the prospects of the 2013 vintage.

“It’s been a terrific year,” Hart said. “Expect outstanding wines.”

Because she enjoys the fruits of hard-working winemakers’ labor, Deidre Pike feels blissful and rested during crush season, aka September, aka California Wine Month, during which the Temecula Winegrowers’ Sip Passport gets you tasting flights at four area wineries for $35. Visit www.temeculawines.org/events for more information.

Published in Wine

I might be stressing out the college-aged woman who is pouring wine in Renwood Winery’s new Napa-tacular tasting room.

She’s been working for four months at the renovated Amador County winery. She’s memorized piles of information—including the single vineyard designate for each wine we taste. She lists these and pauses, expectantly.

“You get an A-plus,” I say. “It must have taken you a while to learn all of that.”

“It did!” She seems relieved and pours more wine in my glass.

Over the Labor Day weekend, we visited Amador County. We anticipated Rim Fire smoke from what’s now being called California’s fourth-largest wildfire ever, burning an area said to be larger than the combined square mileage of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose.

After a bit of morning haze, though, delta breezes whisked toxic air from leafy rows of vines laden with ripening, violaceous clumps.

We haven’t been to Amador in a couple of years. Initially, we’d been drawn here because it was the antithesis of Napa and Sonoma: no castles, fountains or sprawling mansions. We tasted wines in sheds, barns and pole buildings. We met winemakers at small family vineyards. We paid no tasting fees, but always purchased a bottle or two of affordable, delicious wine.

That was the Amador brand—California wine-making before California wine making was A Thing.

Change happens. Turley Wine Cellars (from Paso Robles and Napa) moved into town, buying Karly Wines, a once-familiar stop on our Amador weekends. Expanding its market, Helwig Winery melds its wine biz with a spectacular event/music venue.

Renwood Winery’s new owners have put piles of dough into re-branding the place. A slick logo replaces the black-and-red wren art on bottles. Gone are cheesy cork art and the glossy wood bar of the tasting room, which now sports a more-contemporary box-shaped tasting bar, mod lighting and an expanded store with deli snacks and olive oils.

In Renwood’s spanking-new patio area, waiters fly between tables with large trays containing wine flights, glasses and bottles, accompanied by cheeses and charcuterie. Nouveau Renwood’s tastings are served in flights; there are four from which to choose. Two of the flights are exclusively zinfandel, which attests either to the winery’s devotion to its roots or a savvy willingness to capitalize on recent zin appreciation trends. Maybe both.

Dave and I opt for the King of Zin flight. I recognize almost none of the new-fangled names. Merida? Flutist? Musician? Where’s the Jack Rabbit Flat?

We pay for the tasting—and buy zero bottles. On the way out, I smear some lemon curd on an animal cracker. That’s about as low-brow as it gets.

We follow signs to another newish winery, not far from Renwood. BellaGrace’s makeshift tasting room consists of tables set up in a gravel lot outside of its newly completed wine caves. Weather-permitting. (The winery also has a more permanent tasting room in Sutter Creek.)

The outdoor venue at the BellaGrace estate consists of tables that are really just boards over wine barrels—adorned with colorful clothes blowing about in those delta breezes.

Our knowledgeable wine guide, Dewey, pulls out all the stops—or, rather, he pulls out bottles with stoppers shaped like animal heads. There’s a reindeer atop a chilly bottle of crisp rose made with grenache and mourvedre. Perfect for the 90-degree heat.

Dewey advances through the day’s listed pours and goes off list, because they just happen to have many open bottles—lucky us!

Drum roll, please: Dewey’s pouring the 2010 Old Vine Zinfandel (Shenandoah Valley). The grapes are from the oldest known zin vines in Amador County. He notes that this is the best zinfandel in Amador County. A bold claim.

“Dewey says it’s the best!” I repeat, grinning.

“No,” he replies. “The judges of the Amador County Fair say it’s the best.”

Bella Grace’s 2010 Zinfandel won a double gold at the fair, which is arguably a contest for zinfandel in the land of zinfandel. To be the top zin dog is a coup for the winemaker and a coup de (Bella) grâce to the stuffier oldsters on the block. (Yes, I amuse myself. Thanks for asking.)

The award-winning zin: dark garnet, rich and velvety smooth. I buy a bottle ($28), and while Dewey’s running my credit card, he proffers one last sip of something with intense dark fruit and a finish that keeps on giving.

Dave wants it. So we add Bella Grace’s 2009 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($49) to our order. I justify this purchase by saying, “Hey, no tasting fee, right?” Just a windy wine barrel stand with a view of estate grapes and a blue port-a-potty.

This is the brand experience we’ve been craving: sweating and drinking and laughing at the gravel that gets in my sandal.

Just up Steiner Road, it’s quiet at Amador Foothill Winery. Winemaker Ben Zeitman takes the time to introduce me to his aglianico grapes. It’s an obscure Italian varietal with thick skins that add glorious color and marvelous tannin structure.

“It’s got everything going for it,” Zeitman says.

Zeitman describes the smoke early in the week as “terrible,” but wildfires raging in the next county over didn’t deter the picking of this year’s first grapes—sauvignon blanc. They picked Monday and let the grapes settle before they crushed ’em. Yeast was added Thursday evening.

“And now it’s in a tank-fermenting,” Zeitman says.

As we sip a smooth 2009 Esola Zinfandel made with estate grapes, Zeitman describes with elegance the growing of zinfandel “pruned like a vase so the sun can get in.” He started as a home winemaker after growing up in a household that drank only Manischewitz—and only on the holidays.

I follow Zeitman out of the tasting room to nearby vines, and we taste sweet, barely tart, thick-skinned aglianico (don’t say the “g”—it’s ah-LYAN-ee-ko). Then we pick a few lighter barbera grapes on newish 2-year-old vines.

Wine grapes are sweet, even sweeter than table grapes. They taste like the wines they will become. In fact, before they’re even picked and crushed, I recommend the 2013 aglianico and barbera.

And though it’s a changing place, I recommend a visit to Amador—perhaps for the Big Crush wine festival on Oct. 5-6. (See Amadorwine.com for more information.) With any luck, they’ll be serving award-winning wines in sheds or on makeshift tables in gravel lots.

Deidre Pike is looking forward to Temecula Valley’s upcoming Crush 2013 event on Saturday, Sept. 14, at Callaway Vineyard and Winery; visit www.temeculawines.org for more information.

Published in Wine