It was a perfect SoCal day, 86 degrees and a light breeze, a helicopter in the parking lot, a restaurant full of happy people. I must be at the right location.Today we are meeting with Don Reha to taste the seven new wines he has released. This is an unprecedented move for Don, as he normally releases wines when they are ready, or when the previous vintage has been depleted. This time around all seven wines were ready for market at the same time, so Don decided to release them all at once and make a big splash.
Thorton winery currently produces 17 still wines, and 6 sparkling.
2008 Viogner Six months in old oak. Delicate floral nose, good balance, clean finish with a slight muscat aroma on the back end. 90 cases produced.
2007 Thorny’s Red Coat Interesting blend of Rhône and Italian varietals: Syrah, Grenache, Barbera and Sangiovese. An every day wine that is easy drinking and approachable. Complex nose with melon and stone fruit. Cherry and juicy in the taste, good balance. Quick refreshing finish with a little tannin that would make it a great foil for barbecued burgers. This is a seriously fun wine juxtaposing the Rhône with the Italians, try it at your next barbecue. 650 cases produced.
2007 Old Vine Zinfandel This wine is made from grapes sourced from the Jose Lopez Ranch Vineyard in Cucamonga Valley. This is the first harvest where Don Reha was able to select the block, brix and when to harvest his grapes, as normally this decision has been made by the grower. The fruit is from old, head trained vines, and typically produces a jammy taste. Big berry nose, big body with pucker factor. Long, enjoyable finish. 580 cases produced.
This OVZ is typical of a well-made big California Zinfandel, where the Winemaker exercised restraint. When asked about it, Don responded, “I don’t like over the top Zin’s, so I don’t make them.”
2007 Zinfandel Temecula fruit from Huey Vineyard two miles down the road. This wine is sourced from head trained vines which are hugely in demand by local winemakers, unfortunately there is not enough to go around. Very delicate nose, less wild than it’s Brother. Don described it, “like smelling pie”, and I think that is an apt description. No big alcohol hit, a nice, mellow finish.
2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Touch of white pepper, more restrained than a typical California Cabernet, old-world in style. Pale berry. Clean and balanced. 401 cases produced.
The fruit is sourced from up on De Luz, where a considerable microclimate exists. Don was candid about the Cabernet, and said, “I have to offer it, as it pays the bills.” However, he acknowledged that it is not a great varietal to try to grow in the area, so the unique climate on De Luz allows him to offer the best local grapes available.
2007 Petit Syrah This is the first release from Thorton, from vines planted in 2000. Don described it as “a journey from hell”, I guess this grape has provided it’s share of viticultural challenges. Don’s mission was to coax the fruit character out of the grapes. Aged for 27 months in one year old French Oak. Huge luscious fruit, smooth, dried plum. A good deal of glycerin and a slight hint of melon on the finish. 200 cases produced.
2007 Nebiollo Chalk, oak black fruit on the nose. Wonderful typicity. Plum and leather. Well behaved tannins. Awesome food wine. Buy this one early as it always sells out. 409 cases.
“We are not just in the wine Biz, we are in the tourist Biz”
This is a reality and a huge market pressure that wineries in high-end regions can ignore. They can make three perfect reds and cater to the twenty people a day that come through their tasting room. Temecula is different, a huge portion of the wine produced here is sold directly at the winery, and tourists, well 2,000 a day can come through the door and you better give them what they want.
Tourists bring palates in all ranges, from new wine tasters quaffing sweet entry-level wines to the serious oenophiles demanding extracted pigments so dark that it is inky. Then there is a restaurant to supply, and you need a broad-range of wines to cater to the whims of Chef Steve Pickell.
In short wineries are businesses and they need to cater to the needs of their clientèle. Don Reha told me he once tried to take his Rose off the roster and a near riot ensued. It is especially difficult being a large winery with an established clientèle. Switching the program mid-stream and cutting out Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon (all grapes which grow better elsewhere) is just not going to happen. The market and visitors whims and tastes dictate to a very large extent what the winemaker is going to grow and be able to sell.
A little about Don Reha
“…Raised on family vineyards in Ukiah, California, Reha has an extensive wine background. He began his career in winemaking in 1988, at Fetzer Vineyards in Redwood Valley and Hopland, California. There, he worked as a Barrel Program Supervisor for six years. …In 1995, Reha began working for Cline Cellars as Assistant Winemaker. He was instrumental in producing many award-winning Zinfandels and Rhône varietals. … In 1999, Reha accepted the position of Director of Winemaking for Renwood Winery in Amador County, where he largely focused on Zinfandel, Rhône and Italian varietals.”
Thorton Winery press materials.
Don was originally a member of the Viogner Group, a band of California winemakers getting together to craft Viogner and Rhône Style wines. As their expertise matured, the group morphed into Hospice du Rhône, which promotes Rhône varietals in California and makes some wickedly good wine.
Hospice du Rhône (HdR) represents and embodies the spirit of Rhône varieties and those who produce the wines made of these unique winegrapes.
Each year, Hospice du Rhône produces an exceptional three-day wine event, in Paso Robles, California USA ,that is globally regarded as the single most essential and enjoyable gathering of international Rhône wine producers and enthusiasts. During the wine event, attendees expand their knowledge of the twenty-two Rhône varieties, while rubbing elbows with the winemakers whose passion spurs the inspiration and energy that sets the tone for every seminar, meal and tasting at the spirited affair.
The future of Temecula Valley
The following is based loosely on a conversation that Don Reha and I had, along with my own general observations.
Surprisingly little Zinfandel is planted in the valley, which Don Reha thinks is a wasted opportunity at greatness, as Zinfandel thrives in our area with huge amounts of sun, awesome drainage through the decomposed granite soils and a very large diurnal temperature difference. All factors that go on to produce excellent Zinfandel. It’s not too late to plant of course, the problem is that it takes about 20 years for the vines to start getting interesting. Hopefully todays winemakers will take notice, and plant these long-lived vines for their children and grandchildren to enjoy.
Other grapes to concentrate on in the valley in general are Rhône and Italian varietals. Italian varietals is a bit of a misnomer though as they actively have over 1,000 different varietals in production.
Viogner has been making huge strides in the valley and is probably going to start to be recognized as a star very soon. Early problems were the typical ones, the vines need age, and then it’s a new grape in the field, so the viticulture expertise has to grow, and finally the winemakers need a few seasons under their belts to start to dial-in production. Don’s example is excellent, he has done something a little different than his neighbors maybe it’s the oak aging but it has a little more body and acid than most in the valley (this is good) and the hint of Muscat aroma on the finish is definitely a nice sensory experience.
Our superstar of the Valley has to be Syrah. This is the first year that I have tasted some examples that will hold their own anywhere. With supremely well crafted versions coming out from Dofo, Palumbo and Miramonte, which should be bottled this Fall. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask for a tasting of Thorton’s Syrah, so I’ll have to pay another trip to the winery…darn my hard luck.
Two styles of Syrah have emerged in the valley. The predominant one is earthy (if you are here on a windy day, the taste of the silt in your mouth is exactly what’s in the wine), rugged, powerful and a little rustic. The second one is big and bold, yet refined and supple. I am a huge fan of the latter and think it has huge potential to launch the Temecula Valley into name-brand recognition.
Mourvedre is also starting to strut it’s stuff as well, which could be a category killer as it is only now creeping into the mainstream, and some of the best versions in all California come from right here in the Temecula Valley.
Do we have the right varieties planted?
When Pierces disease ripped through the valley it decimated huge tracts of land, however it was a blessing in disguise. Gone were many—but not all—of the flat, flabby varietals that have no business being here, much less anywhere in California.
Anyhow, Pierces disease allowed—actually forced—replanting efforts by grape growers. This was fortuitous as it allowed them to plant varieties that met market trends and that were more appropriate to the region. The last seven or eight years have seen a large replanting effort in the valley, and the pressure to craft better and better wines is increasing.