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:


  1. Welcome to Vineyard Limousine. We offer transportation in the San Diego area. We know San Diego very well and promise an unforgettable transportation service. We provide transportation for all occasions temecula wine tours .

  2. Really very informative post. Although I have never visited that Temecula but after read this post It encouraging to go there have enjoy their place. However last year my father was went to Temecula and enjoyed there winery tours under a guide as Moses Tours.

  3. Jim, San Fran guy here. Visiting my family in Riverside and thinking of a trip down to Temecula to taste some local grapes. Any wineries you'd recommend? Thinking tempranillo might be interesting since that's not something you get in other parts of California. Thanks!

    1. I do have some favorites in Temecula, although I must admit I haven't been down there to taste in a couple years. The wineries that stand out for me are: Baily try their Sangiovese); Doffo; Monte de Oro (they have Tempranillo); and friends have suggested Hart and Wien wineries.

      I hope this helps. Let me know what you find, and which ones you preferred.


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