The SoCal Wine Country Where Experimentation Reigns Supreme

Nicholas and Reed Palumbo / Photo by Gabriel Nivera
Nicholas and Reed Palumbo / Photo by Gabriel Nivera

Surrounded by the tens of millions of fun-loving Californians from Los Angeles to San Diego, many Temecula Valley wineries historically emphasized tourism functions like bridal showers, vineyard weddings and on-site restaurants, hotels and spas, rather than what’s inside their bottles.

But a growing cadre of winemakers has been upgrading Temecula’s vinous profile through quality craftsmanship to compete with more established regions to the north. These producers dial in viticultural techniques, experiment with new cellar technologies and explore the area’s many microclimates. In particular, they’re delving into De Luz and La Cresta Hills to the west, which offer higher elevations, more varied geology and closer proximity to the cool coast than the often scorching valley floor.

Palumbo Family Vineyards and Winery

From Glories to Grapes

Nicholas Palumbo went from SoCal beach bum to bassist in a “three-piece, melodic, heavy post-grunge” band called the Morning Glories, which rocked New York City during the mid-1990s. Palumbo also worked in several kitchens and took culinary classes with plans to become a chef when he returned home to San Diego.

However, once back in California and commuting through Temecula, “I took a right turn, in life and literally, to check out the wineries.”

Two months later, in 1998, he bought seven acres of existing vineyard land. Though the fruit was initially contracted to the region’s pioneer, Callaway Vineyard & Winery, Palumbo became fascinated with farming. He opened his namesake winery in 2002.

An Introduction to Temecula / South Coast

“The vines, our home, the tasting room, the production—everything is here,” he says. Palumbo now farms just over a dozen acres around his property and converted a former avocado ranch in the De Luz hills into a Tannat, Syrah and Grenache vineyard, supervised by his stepson, Reed.

“I love the farming side,” says Reed. “I have no qualms about doing that all day, every day.”

Reed says that the emerging, coastally influenced area can be difficult due to weed control and mildew pressure. “The great part in having these challenges is that it goes to show how different the climate is up here,” he says.

Nicholas was one of the few to warn other wineries that a tourism-over-quality strategy may not be greatest long-term plan.

“I’ve been really adamant that everyone should make the best quality wine,” says Nicholas. “We’ve never modeled ourselves as a tourist destination. We take ourselves as a serious winery.”

And it’s finally paying off. “People in the industry used to taste with their minds, not with their mouths,” he says. “That was a struggle for a while. I think we’ve moved past that.”

Damian Doffo / Photo by Gabriel Nivera
Damian Doffo / Photo by Gabriel Nivera

Doffo Winery

Family Vines that Bind

In 1975, Marcelo Doffo chased a girl from Argentina to California, where he eventually settled in Santa Ana and built a successful career in the automotive body repair industry. But during a trip to Italy to visit relatives in 1994, Doffo watched his great uncle make wine in the basement and decided he might like to try the same.

He returned home and hit the ground running, soon creating batches of wine in his garage. By 1997, Doffo had won a home winemaking competition and purchased land in Temecula. Two years later, he started to plant vines.

But in 2003, Doffo nearly died from a heart attack. He attributed the incident to stress from his body shop business and began to focus more intensely on his vineyard instead, where he plays soothing classical music to his vines all day.

His only son, Damian Doffo, started helping with the winery when he was just a kid, washing bottles.

“I was cheap labor, so I’ve had to help make wine since I was a little boy,” says Damian, who now runs the operation with the help of his sisters, Brigitte Doffo-Cartaya and Samantha Doffo, as well as Assistant Winemaker Nadia Urquidez, originally from Baja California.

Finding the American Dream Through Wine

Today, the family owns and farms nearly 30 acres that includes plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Zinfandel, Syrah and Petite Sirah. The winery also sources from other vineyards, where the team gets involved with the viticulture.

“My dad grew up on a soybean farm, so farming is a big part of what we’re about,” says Damian. “We look at our vineyard like a 100-year investment.”

The family also loves vintage motorcycles, which has since spurred MotoDoffo, a brand that sells motorcycles, apparel and small-batch wine blends. “It’s a really weird crossover,” he says. “We’re in a niche, and we’re the only one. When we go to motorcycle shows, we’re like rock stars.”

Currently tinkering with a few niche experiments of his own, like a Viognier aged in concrete egg, Damian is appreciative of the groundwork his father laid. “I got dealt a pretty good hand,” he says. “I feel responsible to take it to the next level.”

Olivia Bue / Photo by Gabriel Nivera
Olivia Bue / Photo by Gabriel Nivera

Robert Renzoni Vineyards

Old Country Soul Meets New World Flavor

When former rock ’n’ roller and alcohol distributor Robert Renzoni opened his namesake winery in 2008, he carried on a family tradition that began with his great-grandfather, Federico, who worked in the vineyards of Fano, Italy, in the 1880s.

His opulent, Tuscan-villa-like property now features a popular Italian restaurant, beers on tap and plenty more tourist treats, but Renzoni’s commitment to wine quality has only intensified each year.

“Everything begins and centers on wine being number one,” says the winemaker, Olivia Bue.

An Encinitas-raised graduate of the University of California, Davis, Bue started at the winery in 2014. That came after jobs at Mollydooker Wines in Australia and Cakebread Cellars in Napa.

“There is no budget for making the best wine,” she says. “If there is something we need in the cellar, he will buy it.”

To keep his team abreast of trends and styles being pursued elsewhere, Renzoni takes them on tasting trips throughout California and in Valle de Guadalupe in Mexico. “It’s been great to get inspired together,” says Bue.

Like many of her neighbors, Bue makes more than two dozen annual bottlings from nearly 20 grapes. But the winery has experienced the most success with Italian varieties like Montepulciano, Sangiovese Grosso, Vermentino and Barbera, for which they’ve developed a longer-aging riserva program.

“We’re all in it together, figuring out what excels down here,” she says. “There is room for trial and error, and every year we’re doing experiments.”

The warm weather, dry conditions and the lingering specter of Pierce’s disease, which devastated the region in the late 1990s, can be challenging. Yet, Temecula’s main hurdle is to receive critical acclaim and attention from serious wine collectors.

“But as winemakers, we feel like we have it all in our hands,” says Bue. “There’s nothing holding us back.”

Joseph Wiens / Photo by Gabriel Nivera
Joseph Wiens / Photo by Gabriel Nivera

Wiens Family Cellars

No Rules, Just Right

“We have a young winemaking team, and it’s a fun challenge for us to figure out how different varieties express themselves down here,” says Joseph Wiens, the second-generation winemaker at Wiens Family Cellars.

The winery produces about 60 bottlings from three dozen vineyards, many of them less than five acres. About 70% of the plots are on the roughly 2,000-foot-tall mountains of La Cresta and De Luz to the west, where the family planted vines in 2005.

“That’s the fun thing with Temecula,” he says. “There isn’t a set variety. We get to experiment and play around.”

Wiens works with everything from flagship Cabernet Sauvignon and tasting room-only Aglianico to Montepulciano and a growing list of crisp white wines like Vermentino. The experimentation also extends to the cellar, where Wiens, along with Assistant Winemaker Brian Marquez, Cellar Master Antwoine Moe and Production Manager Blake Miller, tries techniques like carbonic fermentation for a bright, red Rhône-style blend.

The Arduous Quest to Bring Rare Grapes to California

His father, Doug, had originally planted grapes in Lodi in 1996 but came south to be closer to relatives, and more customers, in the early 2000s, opening the winery to the public in 2006. At the time, Joseph was spending a couple of years at work in Northern California restaurants. The experience, which allowed him to taste some of the world’s great wines, would be critical in developing his palate.

“It was good for me to get away from that cellar blindness you can get from only working in one place,” says Wiens. In 2008, he moved to Temecula to take over the winemaking at the family business.

“When we first came down, there were only diamonds in the rough, but the winemakers are now providing a lot of healthy competition for each other,” he says. “We understand that if we all make better wine, it’s going to make Temecula more attractive to serious wine consumers.”

Jim Hart / Photo by Gabriel Nivera
Jim Hart / Photo by Gabriel Nivera

Hart Family Winery

Old Dog, New Tricks

The oldest Temecula winery still run by its founders, Hart Family Winery remains one of the best. It all started back in 1973, when Joe Hart, a high school teacher, bought 12 acres and, a year later, began planting a variety of grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Sauvignon Blanc. More vines followed over the next decade, and the winery would officially open in 1980. It’s been a family affair ever since.

“My dad is 87, but he still comes to work every day,” says Jim Hart, who became head winemaker in 2008 after earning a post-graduate certificate in winemaking from University of California, Davis. His late brother, Bill, had helped Joe in the cellar, while his other brother, Mike, retired from the electronics industry in 2015 to become assistant winemaker.

Like quality vintners the world over, the Harts focus on the vines.

“We try to find interesting vineyards to work with and form solid relationships with people so that we can work with the same fruit year in and year out,” says Jim. “If you can get good fruit, you can make good wine.”

In addition to their range of estate wines, the Harts round out their more than 20 selections by sourcing from vineyards around the valley and mountains. Among this production is the winery’s Reserve Syrah and its Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Volcanic Ridge Vineyard, which sits at 2,400 feet above sea level.

“It’s really spectacular,” he says. “It’s got red volcanic soil, and it looks across Camp Pendleton to the ocean.”

He also sources Mission grapes that were planted sometime between 1882 and 1905 for a multivintage solera-style bottling called Angelica, as well as old-vine Zinfandel from a vineyard on the Pechanga Reservation that was planted in 1882; Jim believes Hart is the first winery since the 1930s to bottle the latter.

“It’s got some nice brambly fruit character and a really peppery finish,” he says. “I tried to make it like an early California style.”

Published on May 28, 2020
Topics: California