Wine History Part Three - Temecula

As we have reviewed in my previous two blogs (part one, part two)…the history of winemaking in California began with the founding of Mission San Diego de Alcala in 1769. As the missions advanced northward, vine cuttings were planted at each of the new missions, with some mission sites more successful than others. Among the most successful of the missions was Mission San Gabriel, just east of Los Angeles, whose wines were generally regarded as the finest of all the mission wines. By the early 19th century the California wine industry was concentrated in Southern California, with a number of successful wineries being established in what is today downtown Los Angeles, San Gabriel Valley, and the Cucamonga Valley. During the 1800’s, Southern California provided most of the wine produced in the state.

My sister and me in 1965
In the 60’s and 70’s, my family would drive through the Temecula area, on our way to Warner’s Hot Springs. At that time, Temecula was farmland, and there wasn’t a major highway through the area. As a small child, it seemed like we drove forever, to get to the hot springs resort, and to visit the local Indians in the area. I have fond memories of the area, before it was ever developed into the wine country area we know today. Let’s take a look at the largest wine region in Southern California: Temecula.

Before becoming a wine region, Temecula’s history goes back over 1,000 years, to its first inhabitants: the Luiseños, named after one of the Spanish Missions. The name “Temecula” actually comes from the Luiseño word, "Temecunga", meaning “place of sun”. The most popular interpretation today, however, is “land where the sun breaks through the mist”. 

Early Temecula, Courtesy San Diego History Center
The more modern history of the area starts in the 1800’s, with the Mexican land grants. The first Americans started moving to the area around 1831.  Then, in 1845, the Temecula Rancho was granted to Felix Valdez by the Mexican Government in an attempt to slow down American settlement. The Luiseños, Mexicans, Americans, as well as the Cahuilla Indian tribe had constant conflict in the area, with the Luiseños eventually being relocated to the Pechanga Indian Reservation in 1885, ten years after they signed a treaty relinquishing the remainder of their land. 

In 1857, Temecula became a stop in the stagecoach lines that were becoming the logistical route of choice in California. A post office was set up in town. Only the second one in the new state of California (the first being in San Francisco).  Settlement increased during the late 1860s as displaced Confederates moved to California in the wake of the Civil War.

Walter Vail's Cattle Ranch
In 1904, Walter Vail arrived in Temecula and bought nearly 90,000 acres in the region. His family would do much to shape the town during the first half of the 20th century. Probably their most famous accomplishment was damming the Temecula River and creating Vail Lake in 1948. (The Vail ranch was later sold to the Kaiser Development Company in 1964, to build the Rancho California housing development – later to become Temecula.)

Because of the region’s isolation, during the 1920s and 1930s, the region took full part in the bootlegging and speakeasies that were common in during Prohibition. The area was mainly used for cattle ranching and the granite rock quarry.

While wine making in the region actually dates back over 200 years, to the Spanish Missions. It took a little over a hundred years before the Temecula Valley saw its first vineyards and wineries. The first vineyards and wineries were established to draw potential home-buyers to the Rancho California area. Modern wine making did not begin until the late 1960's to early 1970's. In the late 1960’s Southern California grape growing and winemaking began a revival in the Temecula Valley with the planting, beginning in 1968, of substantial wine grape acreage.   Vincenzo and Audrey Cilurzo established the first modern commercial vineyard in the Temecula Valley in 1968 , but didn’t produce their own wine until 1978, with their Bella Vista Cilurzo Vineyard label. The first wines from area vineyards were actually produced by Brookside Winery at their Guasti winery. Brookside bought 450 acres in the area to produce grapes as well as purchased grapes from the Cilurzos, as urban sprawl was limiting their vineyards in the Cucamonga Valley. In 1974 the founding of Callaway Winery (by Ely Callaway, of golf fame) marked the beginning of large production winemaking in the Temecula Valley. Callaway, sold the winery in 1981 to Hiram Walker and Sons. John Poole opened Mount Palomar Winery in 1975, and in 1978 the Cilurzos opened another Temecula winery at a new site. Their original vineyard, Temecula's oldest, is now owned by Maurice Carrie Winery. Since then numerous additional wineries have been built, some with restaurants and overnight facilities, including luxury resorts. 

It wasn’t until October 23, 1984, that the area was designated as the “Temecula AVA”. The AVA was given, due to the unique Mediterranean climate (often thought to be too hot to grow good grapes). The morning mist helps keep moisture in the soil without too much rain. Coastal air keeps the temperature down and soil from getting too dry. The decomposing granite soils are a light, sandy loam, which keeps it well drained… ideal for grapevines. On June 18, 2004, the AVA name was changed to "Temecula Valley AVA". As a historical note, this is the only American Viticultural Area to change its name following initial approval.

Temecula Valley is a wine region of rolling hills, with high mountains, reaching to nearly 11,000 feet, forming the backdrop. Vineyard plantings range from 1000 to 2500 feet above sea level, with daytime temperatures moderated by cooling ocean breezes, flowing over the coastal range to the west, through Rainbow Gap and Santa Margarita Gap (two low spots in the coastal range). The region has proven to be diverse in the grape varieties that thrive and produce wines here, ranging from cool-climate grapes such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Chardonnay, through the moderate-climate Bordeaux varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc, to the warmer-climate Mediterranean varieties, including Viognier, Syrah, Grenache, Sangiovese, and Tempranillo. Whether these are the “right” varieties for the region is still a question that is being asked.

When the I-15 Freeway between Los Angeles County and San Diego County was completed, real estate development accelerated even more. The land boom of the 1980’s and the planting of grapes, helped in the decision of the citizens to become a city in 1989. The desire for affordable housing during the 1990’s also helped fuel its growth as well as its growing reputation as a wine region.
The wine industry has grown considerably since then and increasing numbers of Southern Californians are visiting the area. However, many of the wineries still cater to a large local customer base, with summer concerts, and wine pairing/tasting events.

Most wineries are small, and are family-owned. You will often run into the winemaker and/or owner in the tasting room. All produce wines in their own style, some focusing on a very limited number of wines, while others offer a wide range of wines. The wineries of Temecula are, above all else, friendly, welcoming and personable.

Today, Temecula Valley is the largest wine producing area in Southern California. There is a move underway, to expand the wine growing region within the Temecula Valley.  The “Wine Country Community Plan” is currently being discussed with the Planning Commission.  Temecula also faces the challenges of Pierce’s Disease, which is spread by the Glassy-winged Sharpshooter. It is my opinion that Temecula hasn’t yet figured out what type of region it is. Their Mediterranean climate might be best suited for grapes from Southern Italy, Sicily, or Greece, yet they continue to grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay with (again, my opinion) average results. Thankfully, many wineries are now experimenting with different international varieties, which could well lead Temecula into being the next exciting AVA in California. Only time will tell.

For a list of wineries, check out the Temecula Valley Wine Growers Association website:

Rancho de Philo Winery

Mission Grapes at Rancho de Philo

When one of the three remaining wineries in the Cucamonga Valley opens its’ doors only one week out of the year, the only thing to do is rush over, and check it out. In last week’s blog, I shared some of the history of the Cucamonga Valley, and the three remaining wineries. Of those three, the only one I hadn’t visited was Rancho De Philo. They make only one wine: an award winning Triple Cream Sherry. I had the pleasure of visiting their winery, and was pleased with this new “find”.

Rancho de Philo doesn’t have a website, so finding out when they are open to the public can be a bit difficult, unless you get on their mailing list (which I now am). From what I can determine, they open on the second Saturday in November, and remain open for about 7 to 9 days, or until their inventory of wine runs out. They only bottle a little over 300 cases per year, and as the word gets out, the inventory will be depleted even faster.

Rancho de Philo is located in Alta Loma, just northwest of Chaffey College, at 10050 Wilson Avenue. Their hours are from 9:00am to 5:00pm. I drove there on Sunday, and found a sign on the road, indicating “Sherry Sale” which pointed me to the driveway of a 6.5 acre piece of land, surrounded by expensive homes, overlooking the valley below. A vineyard in this area seems out of place, but given the history of the area, it is not so far-fetched.

As I pulled up, I was greeted by a young boy, who encouraged me to sign their guestbook and get on their mailing list. There was a small umbrella set up in front, with almonds, cookies, crackers and small tasting glasses. It was here, that I met the owners, Janine Biane Tibbetts and later, her husband Alan. Janine was pouring three different bottlings of their Triple Cream Sherry: 2013, 2012, and 2011. Their Sherry is created by using the Spanish solera system, a fractional blending system.

Solera systems consist of a pyramid of barrels (in the case of Rancho de Philo it is 15) stacked in a racking system, where the top layer of barrels will contain the youngest wine (the latest vintage), and the bottom level will be a blend of the wines above, and is where the latest bottling is drawn off. As wine is drawn off, the barrels are filled from the level above, blending all the different years, for a consistent product. All the time, the wine continues to oxidize, creating a nutty, raisiny flavor, and turning the wine to a wonderful amber color. Rancho de Philo uses neutral American Oak barrels (used barrels from whiskey distilleries) in their Solera system. But there is a difference between Spanish Sherry and Rancho de Philo Sherry. Traditional Spanish wines are made with Palomino or PX grapes, but Rancho de Philo uses 100% Mission grapes (Southern California’s original grape, brought in by the Spanish Missionaries). Make no mistake, this Sherry is a dessert wine. Since it is a fortified wine, the alcohol level is around 18%, and the residual sugar comes in above 13%.

Philo Biane
I had a brief opportunity to talk with Janine, and learn a little about the history of the property, which was started by her father, Philo Biane. But, the winemaking history of her family goes back much further. She told me that her grandmother’s family, the Vachés, arrived from France and settled in San Juan Bautista in 1832, where they planted grapes and built a winery. They later had a winery in downtown Los Angeles, called Vaché et Cie. In the late 1800s they planted a vineyard and opened a winery near Redlands in the San Timoteo Valley. There was a brook adjacent to the winery so they named it Brookside Winery. The Vaché and Biane families met, and eventually produced a son, Philo Biane (Janine’s father). Rancho de Philo was founded by vintner and wine industry pioneer Philo Biane in 1973, after he retired as the President of Brookside Vineyard, which was sold to Beatrice Foods. He made his first Sherry bottling in 1974, from the grapes on the property. Unfortunately, those grape vines had to be replaced around the time of Philo’s death, in 1999, when they were attacked by Pierce’s Disease. They were able to salvage cuttings from the remaining 30+ vines, and replant. So, the current vines are only about 10 to 14 years old, but do come from the original Mission grape rootstock.

Janine told me they no longer ferment the wine on the property, as too many of the neighbors complained about the fruit flies. So, she ships her wine to Galleano Winery for fermentation, then brings it back up for aging in the solera. Her family has a longtime relationship with the Galleano family, so much so, that the three friends, on the label of the award winning Galleano "Three Friends" Port, are her family members.

Rancho De Philo was recently named the top microwinery in California, for its’ style of wine, and their Triple Cream Sherry continues to reap awards at local, national, and international competitions.

Don’t miss out. Buy it now, and enjoy for the holidays and beyond. And, don’t worry about that open bottle. Since this is and aged, and oxidized wine, it will hold just fine, sitting on your kitchen counter, waiting for you to enjoy.