Desert Wines

A purist approach to wine in the Temecula Valley.

 

By Mark Storer

 

The Temecula wine country don’t get no respect. It’s a matter of upturned noses and heated conversation that Temecula’s wine country is a tourist trap, a sort of marketing circus that appeals to desperate housewives, Orange County 20-something surfers named Brad and Kristen, and San Diego college students looking to get their drunk on. And there’s some truth to that. But as with all things wine, nothing is so cut and dry, and the fastest growing wine region in the world is producing something other than cheap, sweet plonk for the inexperienced palate. Indeed, there are even a few great wines here, so I wish to speak a word for Temecula.

 

Let the word be truth. Truth often hides, as we know, though the diamonds in the rough here aren’t in any actual rough. Temecula is verdant with green rolling hills, sloped and terraced vineyards, and scads of horse properties and ranches. There’s even an opportunity to rent a mount and ride a trail leading to several wineries. Even if you drank nothing, you’d be hard pressed to find such beautiful landscape where you can sit and watch people in various states of inebriation try to ride a horse. That’s entertainment. Escondido lies about 30 miles southwest, San Diego about 60; Palm Springs is less than an hour away and so is Orange County. The result is easy access with a large and thirsty population close by.

 

One of the diamonds is Robert Renzoni Vineyards, a gem of a winery on De Portola Road down the street from the giant Leonesse Winery, which Renzoni himself helped start, among others. “On a Saturday, I’ll get more than 500 visitors at times. Some of the larger places will serve more than 2000 people in one day,” said Renzoni. “I give it a couple of years before you won’t be able to come taste in Temecula without a reservation. It’ll be too crowded.” He’s right, too. Those are numbers you won’t find, say, on the Central Coast, in Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo counties.

 

Renzoni, however, saw past the lure of beautiful land and inexpensive, sweet alcohol. “Temecula was a cheap way to get into the wine business. Retired accountants and lawyers moved out here and put kerosene in a bottle,” he said. “But when some of us came here and saw the potential of this region and the varietals that we could grow here, we knew it was real. There are only 35 wineries here, so if five of them are selling almond-flavored champagne, that’s one-seventh. That seems a lot,” he said. But Renzoni said Rhone varietals like Syrah and Mourvedre, and Spanish and Italian varietals like Sangiovese, Brunello, and Tempranillo, are producing great fruit here and good wines.

 

He is, too. Renzoni’s wines are lower alcohol, in the European style, and he’s not really a newcomer. “My family has 126 years in the wine business. We named the winery on a suggestion from Robert Mondavi to my grandfather, Dominick. He told him it sounded like Mondavi, and that it reminded him of the pasta name Ronzoni,” he said.

 

Indeed, if one considers that as recently as the mid-1970s, the French considered California wine to be altogether plonk—until 1976 when Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay won the Paris Wine Tasting, an event documented rather well in the film #Bottle Shock#—it’s not unlikely that Temecula will one day impress even the most serious of wine snobs.

 

The Renzoni clan hails from Buffalo, New York, and branched out west to find more great food and wine. Renzoni himself sold wines for Young’s Market, among others, and the business is in his blood. His family bought grapes, crushed and fermented them here, and shipped them east on glass line tanker cars. Food and wine are the life of Renzoni’s family. One of the gems inside his gem of a winery is Mama Rosa’s marinara sauce. Try it simply warmed over pasta, or as a dip for bread or vegetables. You won’t find better.

 

But it’s his wines that shine. He poured me through from Pinot Grigio, estate-grown and platinum-colored, gloriously light, fruit-forward and delicate on the palate, to his Barbera, an Italian varietal known for its food-friendly acid and light fruit. Renzoni’s hit the mark, too. Delicate but firm mouth-feel with long lasting fruit. “I wanted to be the Italian winery in Temecula—and we’ve done that,” he said.

 

He makes good Cabernet, too. Lightly vegetal, though not distracting on the palate, it’s a serious contender for Bordeaux. “You have to be gentle with it here; you have to stay on top of leaf pulling and shoot thinning in the vineyard. But when you do that, you come up with a good Cab with body and fruit.”

 

About five miles northeast of the dirt road turnoff for Renzoni’s winery is an old-timer by Temecula standards. Joe Hart was teaching junior high school social studies in Carlsbad when he got bitten by the wine bug. “I looked at the North Coast for land and a winery, but it was too far, and both my wife and I would have to quit our teaching jobs to go there,” he said. Hart’s wife, Nancy, is now retired from teaching kindergarten. “We bought land in Temecula in 1973 and, on our 10-acre parcel, planted eight-and-a-half acres of grapes,” he said. The couple’s eldest son, Jim, now runs the winery, though Joe is there every day and actively involved with operations.

 

Hart’s wines don’t have the depth or complexity of Renzoni’s, but they are not immature. The Zinfandel and Syrah are exceptional, with long finishes and serious balance between acid and fruit.

 

The Hart Family Winery is on Avenida Biona in Temecula, next to a local produce stand, and while his driveway is paved, it’s also small, as is the tasting room. The focus is on winemaking, not museum making. “I took a couple of extension classes from UC Davis and learned how to do this,” said Hart. “I really love the lifestyle and the wine. We’re happy with what we’ve created here.”

 

Both wineries are destinations for true wine lovers. Sure, you’ll find them catering to consumers, offering a few products, mostly blends, that appeal to immature palates. But make no mistake—Renzoni and Hart are also making serious wine in a place that wants to be taken seriously. Perhaps it’s time to start.

 

Regional information online at temeculacvb.com

 

A TASTE OF TEMECULA

 

Robert Renzoni Vineyards
37350 De Portola Rd., Temecula, CA 92592
951.302.8466, robertrenzonivineyards.com

 

Hart Family Winery

41300 Avenida Biona, Temecula, CA 92591

951.676.6300, hartfamilywinery.com

 

Leoness Cellars


38311 De Portola Rd., Temecula, CA 92592
951.302.7601, leonesscellars.com