If it feels like you’re pulling up to someone’s home when you pull up to Doffo Winery, it’s because you are.
Behind what looks like a typical California ranch house, however, Marcello Doffo and his son Damian are making some of the best Malbecs in the Temecula Valley. If “the best in Temecula” sounds like a low bar to clear, you probably haven’t been to Temecula lately.
Along with Robert Renzoni Vineyards, Hart Family Winery, Stuart Cellars, Falkner Winery and a handful of others, Doffo is one of the top boutique wineries in Temecula, a wine-growing region that has finally come into its own after 25 years of harvesting grapes and producing wines.
Many of the local wineries have little distribution outside of Temecula (and maybe San Diego), so the area is often ignored in favor of California’s better-known wine regions. It doesn’t have the history of Napa and Sonoma or a quirky indie movie devoted to it like Santa Barbara and the Central Coast. It does, however, have about three dozen wineries producing top-notch wines, everything from crisp Viogniers and Roussanes to hearty Barberas and Cabernets. If you like waking up before sunrise, you can catch a hot air balloon ride for a stunning, bird’s-eye view of the sprawling vineyards.
Tucked in the southwest corner of the Riverside Valley, a county that doesn’t conjure visions of verdant pastoral splendor, Temecula sits between the Anza Borrego desert to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. In fact, Temecula is only 18 miles from the coast, though there’s no direct road to reach it. The result is a Mediterranean climate, though conditions differ significantly from the west to the east side of the Temecula Valley. More than that, the microclimates that vary from hill to hill, make Temecula a fruitful and intriguing challenge for winemakers.
2010: The Harvest of Harvests
If the old adage that “a great winemaker can make great wine from good grapes but he (or she) can’t make a good wines from bad grapes” holds true, even the most novice winemaker should be able to turn out something eminently drinkable from Temecula’s 2010 harvest.
“That’s really the job,” says Bill Wilson, the CEO and one of the owners of family-run Wilson Creek Winery, “to not screw up what’s in the vineyard.” (Wilson Creek’s Spring White, a blend that’s 60% Chardonnay, 20% Viognier and 20% Muscat is a standout.)
An unusually mellow summer coupled with solid rainfall that occurred at nearly perfect intervals meant the grapes were allowed to ripen on the vine longer than usual. It’s the kind of harvest that comes around maybe once in a decade, and everyone in Temecula is expecting a blockbuster crop.
“This is arguably the best vintage since 2002 and the before that, going back to the 90s,” says George Myers, the assistant winemaker at Falkner. “If you can’t make a great wine this year…” He trails off, shaking his head. Look for the white wines from the 2010 harvest to start showing up in the spring of 2011 and the reds in 2013.
Though plenty of places will sell you a sparkling wine, including the popular and very sweet Amour De L’Orange at Wiens Family Cellars, the only two places in the Temecula Valley that make their own sparkling wines are Thornton Winery and South Coast Winery Resort & Spa.
Though it’s only seven years old — its first vintage was in 2005 — South Coast is one of the largest wineries in the region with 700 acres of land on five different estates, 400 of which are planted to grapes. Owned by Jim Carter, the man with the deepest pockets in the Temecula Valley, South Coast’s two winemakers, Jon McPherson and Javier Flores, produce 65,000 cases per year in nearly 40 varieties. South Coast also features a resort hotel with a spa and 76 guest villas spitting distance from the vineyards. Carter is dipping into those deep pockets to build an even more high-end villa, though, if you’ve stayed at South Coast, you might be baffled as to what needs to be upgraded.
Founded in 1990 by Carl Key, Keyways Winery is now owned by Terri Delhamer, one of the few female winery owners in the region. Since she bought it in 2004, she’s changed the plants, the land, the grading and the facilities — everything except the name. Try their Roussane or their Off-Dry Roussane, a rare grape in the Temecula Valley, and done very well at Keyways. With couches, chairs and tables that invite visitors to sit, Keyways may also have the most comfortable tasting room in Temecula.
When Phil Baily moved to Temecula with his wife Carol in 1981, he recalls that there were no stoplights; the area was remote and small enough, that they didn’t need them. Nearly a quarter century after he founded Baily Vineyard & Winery, he has nearly 30 acres where he focuses on Bordeaux varieties and his standout white wine, Montage. The 2008 Montage is a blend that’s 52% Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.
Falkner’s 2009 Sauvignon Blanc was lovely, and if you want a red wine with a naughty connotation, try the 2006 Amante, a word that means lover but also connotes a woman taking a male gigolo.
At Stuart Cellars, which does about 26,000 cases per year most of which are sold on site or in San Diego restaurants, the 2007 Lagrein is a standout. It hits 14.2% alcohol, though it doesn’t taste like it with a perfect balance of peppery and floral hints.
The Doffos, Italian transplants from Argentina, make terrific low-tannin, full-bodied Malbecs that are velvety on the tongue and pair perfectly with grilled meat. Their top-of-the-line wine is the $100-a-bottle 2007 Merlot with a top that’s hand-dipped in gold wax. The best of the best, they only made 252 bottles of the stuff — and it’s spectacular. “No discounts, not even for my mother,” Marcello says. On the more affordable side, their Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve is lovely, with hints of blackberry and oak.
The Hart Family Winery is another family-run operation and one of the oldest wineries in Temecula. “We lose customers because we focus just on making dry, full-bodied reds,” says Jim Hart. His father, Joe, opened the winery in 1980 back when there weren’t many other wineries in the region. These days, Joe, Jim and Jim’s wife, Christine, run the 10-acre estate. “We could make more money if we made different wines, but we couldn’t live with ourselves.”
Most of their money has gone into building a terrific winery rather than a high-end venue, which is evident in the cramped tasting room. Their Barbera, the poor peasant cousin to Nebbiolo, makes it all worthwhile, but any red wine from Hart is worth a taste and won’t disappoint. They also make an intriguing Port-esque dessert wine, Aleatico, that’s fortified with pure brandy.
More Points of Entry:
Robert Renzoni, which only does 9,000-10,000 cases per year, makes a slew of lovely Italian reds including a fantastic 2007 Old Vine Zinfandel. The Super Tuscan makes a great table wine and would probably pair excellently with Renzoni’s marinara sauce, which is one of the best jarred tomato sauce I have ever tried. Renzoni is also one of a handful of vineyards that has an olive grove and makes their own olive oil, but you can expect to see more olive oil coming from Temecula in the next few years.