Friday, August 28, 2009

Exploring Mount Palomar Winery, Temecula Wine Country, Thornton Winery in the Temecula Wine Country

On my third day in the Southern California (Saturday, August 15th) I headed north to the Temecula, in southwestern Riverside County, with a friend of mine. To get there from San Diego you take Interstate 15 over a series of hills to the Temecula Valley. It is about 45 a minute drive from Escondido and Ramona. It is bordered by Murrieta on the northwest and the Pechanga Indian Reservation on the south, with unincorporated areas of Riverside County on all of its other borders.

I first visited the area in the late 1980’s when I was in the Marine Corps and stationed at Camp Pendleton. Back then I don’t recall seeing any vineyards or wineries, all I remember is a lot of cows and a few residential areas. Today it is a booming residential, tourist destination and wine country.

The history of wine making in Temecula started in 1968 when Vincenzo and Audry Cilurzo established the first modern commercial vineyard in the Temecula Valley. In the same year, Guasti-based Brookside Winery planted its own vineyard and in 1971, Brookside produced the first wines from Temecula grapes at their Guasti Winery. Callaway Vineyard & Winery opened the first Temecula Winery in 1974 and it was the first winery I ever visited in Temecula in 1999, thirty years after they began farming grapes in 1969. In 1975 John Poole opened Mount Palomar Winery which I also visited back in 1999 and revisited on this trip, 10 years later. In 1978 the Cilurzos opened the third Temecula winery at a new site. Their original vineyard, Temecula’s oldest, is now owned by Maurice Carrie Winery. Approximately 1,300 acres are currently planted in commercial vineyards. Within the appellation there are 5,000 acres located in a protected area referred to as the Citrus/Vineyard Zone most of which is generally located on and around Rancho California Road.

Thorton Winery - Temecula

Our first stop for the day was Thornton Winery, which opened in 1988. Their primary focus is on sparkling wine made in the M├ęthode Champenoise process. But, I decided to only taste a sample of their white and red still wines.

Most wineries require that you “belly up to the bar” where you stand and have a person behind the counter samples of their wine. It isn’t a very relaxing way to enjoy the wine and few, if any, people are going to enjoy their wine at home in this fashion. Such tasting rooms are more like wine bars than tasting rooms.

At Thorton Winery you are able to sit at table either inside or out on their beautiful patio in view of the fountain and restaurant. A server then brings you a tasting menu with a number of flights to choose from such as all white wines, all red wines, a mixture of red and white wines and different varietal variations (Rhone, Italian, or a blend). The tasting fees are between $10-$17 for six moderate sized proportions. My friend and I both chose the “Cal-Ital & Rhone Flight” ($13) which consisted of the 2007 Viognier ($28 a bottle), the 2006 Thorny's Coat Red which is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Barbera, and Sangiovese ($18 a bottle), the 2005 Syrah ($24 a bottle), and the 2007 Sangiovese. Overall I would say that the quality of the wines was fair but at those prices it is easy to find higher quality of wines.

Mount Palomar Winery - Temecula

Our second stop in the Temecula wine country was at Mount Palomar Winery. Mount Palomar has 40 acres of producing vineyards overlooked by the Palomar Mountain range and their main emphasis is on Bordeaux style blends and Italian varieties. But what I found to be most interesting was their excellent Port and Solera Cream Sherry. The winery uses two main brands: Mount Palomar and Castelletto. The Castelletto name (“little castle” in Italian), used by Mount Palomar for our Italian style wines, comes from the family of our founder's wife, Olivia de Reya Poole. The name “Castelletto” is a title awarded in Italy to Antonio and Sebastiano de Reya in 1735. The Castle and Star image on the label is found on the original Castelletto crest.

Today, Mount Palomar Winery is owned and operated by Louidar Inc., an Arizona Limited Liability Company. Current development plans include extensive new vineyard plantings; a larger wine production facility; a new guest facility including restaurants and a wine country resort and spa and estate homes.

During our visit we tasted the 2006 Mount Palomar Viognier. It is an “okay” wine for $20 but I have certainly found many others that were better for the same price.

Our second wine was a rare varietal which is only produced by four wineries in the United States - the 2007 Castelletto Cortese. Mount Palomar introduced this Italian variety to California in 1991. It is grown mainly in the province of Piemonte in Northwest Italy, is often considered Italy's premiere traditional white variety. If you visit the winery this is a unique opportunity to try something different and expand your palate!

Our third wine was the 2005 Mount Palomar Cinsaut. This varietal is usually used as a blend so you don’t find too many 100% bottlings. It is a light bodied wine that would work well white meats such as turkey and a fair price at only $14.40 a bottle.

Our fourth wine was the 2006 Mount Palomar Meritage $24 which wasn’t all that impressive followed by the 2004 Mount Palomar “Cloudbreak” which was already showing a little age around the rim. For $50 I can certainly find many more impressive wines elsewhere.

Our sixth tasting was the 2004 Mount Palomar Syrah which for $44 which was way over priced as nothing about it rang my bell.

However, our final tasting was worth the drive to Temecula alone. The 2008 Mount Palomar Solera Cream Sherry is an absolute dream! Since 1978 Mount Palomar has produced handcrafted sherry wines in their outdoor aging solera. Using the classic Palomino variety and patient aging of at least three years under the sun creates rich, almond caramel, butterscotch and hazelnut flavors with a long silky finish. This wine sells for $29 and I bought three of them, one to keep and two to give as gifts to friends.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Adventures in Wine Tasting at Orfila Vineyards and Schwaesdall Winery in San Diego

At the beginning of this Summer I planned to travel around California and visit as many wine regions as possible. Between June and July I went to the Napa Valley, Amador County, Monterey, and Paso Robles. Then from August 13th through 16th I visited San Diego, Temecula and Santa Barbara. On Thursday August 13th I drove from the San Francisco Bay Area down to Escondido which is in the North East side of San Diego County (an 8 hour drive) to where my wine exploration began over ten years ago when I was a student at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Orifla Vineyards - Escondido

Orfila Vineyards & Winery is on the east side of Escondido, tucked into the picturesque San Pasqual Valley, approximately 30 minutes from San Diego and just a stone’s throw from the Wild Animal Park. Orfila specializes Rhone-style from their estate hillside vineyard, which is about approximately 15 miles from the Pacific Ocean, as well as from other grape-growing regions along the coast of California. They also produce an awesome Merlot, an intense Pinot Noir and my favorite Sangiovese in the state.

They have an impressive line up of wines and for a nominal fee you can try six of them. I wanted to state all of them so I returned the following day for another lineup.

My first wine on Thursday was the Estate Viognier "Lotus" Lot 67 ($29) which is 76% Viognier with Marsanne and Rousanne, aged the blend in French Oak. This is a rich and floral wine with well balanced plenty of citrus, tropical and vanilla notes.

My second wine was the 2007 Ambassador's Reserve Chardonnay ($25). If you like big buttery oaky Chardonnays then is one is right up your alley. The wine is 100% malolactic and barrel fermented then aged in French Oak to produce a full-bodied Chardonnay with rich flavors of vanilla, oak, butter and apple.

The third pour was the 2007 Gew├╝rztraminer. The grapes are sourced from Monterey County it is a sweeter style of this varietal (4.7% R/S) with flavors of melon, green apples, honey, with a slightly spiced finish. At $16 a bottle it is a great value so I brought ½ case back home with me.

My fourth taste was the Pinot Noir Lot #37. This is not your light and subtle style Pinot. It is very earthy and with flavors of cherries, plums, raspberries, root beer and vanilla on the nose and the palate along with some mild tannins on the back end. A bit pricy at $41 a bottle but I found in to be very complex and intriguing so I bought ½ case.

My final wine for the first day was the 2006 Estate Grown Sangiovese “Di Collina.” This is my favorite Sangiovese in the state of California and I’ve loved it for over ten years. It is produced with grapes from their own hillside vineyards and has aromas of dark plums, raspberries and blackberries with savory spices, salty bacon, bright acidity and hints of vanilla from the soft oak on the finish. It is absolutely awesome with Italian food, especially pesto. At $23 a bottle the price is fair so I brought home 6 bottles.

On Friday August 14th I visited the tasting room again for another line up. My first and second wine was the 2006 and 2007 Estate Ambassador's Reserve Merlot. The Ambassador’s Merlot is a limited bottling produced from only the finest grapes from our hillside vineyards. Both are a full-bodied Merlot but the ’07 was richer with more intense and concentrated fruit, far superior to the ’06. The 2007 is dark, smoky and luscious cherries, a little spice and a bit jammy with a cedar and tobacco finish. At the time they were only selling futures which was unfortunate because I would purchased a few bottles.

My third wine was the 2005 Estate Syrah “Seasons.” This wine wasn’t quite up to snuff; sort of a simple one note wine but they were having a two for one special at about $10 per bottle.

The next taste was the 2006 Estate Syrah. A noticeable improvement over the “Seasons.” It is complex with layers of plum, blackberry, and raspberry followed by a hint of bitter-sweet cocoa with a dash of pepper on the back end. At $32 it is a bit steep, but I brought a couple bottles home.

My final wine was the California Tawny Port. It is medium brown color going to tan on the rim with good viscosity. It is velvety smooth with rich flavors of caramel, raisins, licorice, toasted almonds, cashews, a pinch of Orange zest with a lingering finish. A fair price at $25 a bottle so I picked up three, one for myself and two to give away as gifts.

If you are ever in the San Diego area, especially if you are visiting the Wild Animal Park, you’ve got to stop in for a tasting at Orfila Vineyards & Winery. (

Schwaesdall Winery - Ramona

On my second day of visiting the San Diego area I stayed with some close friends who I met when I lived in Ramona while a student at the seminary. It is at an elevation of about 1,500 feet and as you drive up from Escondido on the long winding Highway 78 you then drop into the Ramona Valley which is known as “The Valley of the Sun.” Back in the 1850’s Ramona was called “Nuevo” and was home to Native American Indians and there are still a couple reservations in the area with accompanying casinos.

Today, Ramona also has a couple wineries one of which is Schwaesdall Winery, owned by vintner John Schwaesdall. A San Diego native, he started making wine from some of the old vineyards in Ramona that were planted in 1950’s. Since then he has planted 4 1/2 acres of various red and white wine grapes among enormous granite boulders that are found predominately in the Ramona and Mt. Woodson area of San Diego. On a covered deck overlooking his vineyards you can sample his wines while enjoying the view of Iron Mountain. I mostly interested in the estate bottled wines so I could get a “taste of Ramona.”

My first wine was the Ramona Red ($15), a red table blend of 36% Syrah, 16% Grenache, 15% Ruby Cabernet, 22% Gamay, 11% Mourvedre. It has subtle berry notes, it is somewhat earthy with a hint of smoke, black pepper followed by an herbal and berry finish.

My next wine was the Zinfandel 2004. An interesting wine with Raspberry jam on the nose and palate and a little oak on the finish. Not bad for $18.

If you are visiting the area, be sure to drop in and tell John that Erik Wait sent you!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Jarvis Wines - Napa Valley California

A few weeks ago a friend of mine came up from Southern California for weekend a visit. So I decided to show him the beauty of the Napa Valley with a long country drive up the Silverado Trail and an exploration of the wine caves at Jarvis Winery. 

Jarvis is at the southern end of the winery so we first stopped there for a tour and tasting. The tour is quite impressive as the entire winery is inside the 45,0000 square foot cave within the Vacas Mountains four miles east of the town of Napa. 

There are many wineries in the Napa Valley that use wine caves for storing barrels and aging wine. But this was the first I had visited (and I’ve been to 95 Napa wineries so far) that the entire winery was in a cave. The tour was quite impressive and within the wine caves is a naturally flowing stream which helps maintain the needed humidity for barrel aging the wines. My friend commented, “This is like Disneyland.”

The fee was $40 and the line up of the wines was quite expensive. We tasted the 2007 Finch Hollow Chardonnay ($95), the 2005 Cabernet Franc ($44), the 2006 Merlot ($90), the 2004 Lake William Bordeaux Style Blend ($105). The 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon ($95), and the 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve ($160). While their wines have many award claims, frankly I wasn’t impressed by any of them. I know of many better wines or of equal quality for under $30.

While my friend and I had a great time, enjoyed the wines and the beautiful grounds and the wine cave I would have to say, “pass” on purchasing any of their wines.