One of California’s most ambitious vineyard plays is afoot in the hills west of Temecula. There, entrepreneur Heather Petersen is determined to make world-class wine.
Petersen, who built her wealth through National Merchants Association, a credit-card processing firm she founded in 2004, has purchased nearly 150 acres over the last four years, 70 acres of which have been planted with vines. The region, known as De Luz, rises starkly above the flatter Temecula Valley, where most of the grapevines are grown in this area northeast of San Diego. Petersen’s project is called Sol De Luz Vineyards.
“I hope we improve the quality of the vines here,” says Petersen. She admits to being a wine newbie, but she’s learning fast. “Ultimately, what I know is that it comes down to the farming.”
Petersen enlisted the services of Mark Horvath, a Santa Barbara County winemaker who co-founded Kenneth-Crawford Wines in 2000 and his own Crawford Family Wines in 2011. In De Luz, Horvath saw similarities to the Central Coast, specifically its shifting temperatures and variety of soils compared to the rest of Temecula Valley AVA.
When it’s hot and sunny on the valley floor, the hills can be awash in fog and wind, often 15 degrees cooler.
“The landscape becomes much more severe as well, with undulating hills and red volcanic soils,” says Horvath, who commutes weekly by plane to check on vines and wines. “It struck me as a place I’d like to see wine grapes come from, the moment I saw it.”
He’s not sure there’s enough of a day-night temperature swing for the grapes to retain the acidity required to make world-class wines, but Horvath remains hopeful.
Petersen, who grew up on an Ohio farm, purchased her first De Luz property in 2014. Conceived originally as a wedding venue, she shifted focus and mulled a plan to cultivate hops. Ultimately, Petersen planted about 11 acres of grapevines, specifically Sauvignon Blanc, Sangiovese and Cabernet Franc.
“They’re my three favorite varietals,” says Petersen. “And that’s all this was supposed to be.”
She realized that she could benefit from an ongoing “crop swap” program that the local water district created to combat drought. The district, dominated by avocado and citrus orchards for decades, pays property owners $15,000 per acre to shift to drought tolerant crops like grapevines.
So Petersen went on a buying spree, and began calling up Horvath frequently to report, “Hey, I may have picked up another parcel.”
In the case of one plot, “between the crop swap and the fencing that the previous owner put in, I got [it] for free,” she says. Its red volcanic soils have since been planted with nearly a dozen grape varieties, from Albariño and Arneis to Syrah, Mourvèdre, Counoise and Nebbiolo.
That diversity speaks to the exploratory nature of the project. No one is sure what grapes will do well in De Luz, so Horvath experiments with as many as he can.
“We’ve got 22 different varieties,” says Horvath. Another nearby vineyard, which is owned by Chinese investors and called Good Luck Have Fun, is betting on Malbec. This is in line with the grape diversity already found in the appellation, where over two dozen varieties are grown.
Petersen also seeks to create momentum to forge a new AVA. In September 2017, she hosted approximately 40 landowners and committed to pay for the entire process. Appellation creation guru Wes Hagen, also from Santa Barbara County, is working on the proposal, as is soil expert Charles Hanley, who just completed mapping the region. They hope to submit the proposal by summer 2018.
The response to Petersen’s push was generally positive, although concerns exist that neighbors may one day rise against an influx of wine-sipping tourists on their rural roads.
In the meantime, as Petersen and Horvath wait for their new vines to bear fruit, they’ve also started Sweet Oaks Wine in the heart of Temecula. Construction of the winery is scheduled to be complete later this year, and they plan to open a tasting room in Old Town Temecula in the summer of 2018. It will offer the first taste of this ambitious project.
“What I do as a business owner is find people with passion,” says Petersen. She strives to empower people like Horvath to carry this vision forward. “My passion is living through other people’s passions.”