Reinventing Temecula Wine

June 07, 2010 – CORRECTION

When I originally wrote this article I took a quote out of context and managed to mangle it’s meaning.

Here is Cane Vanderhoof’s clarification:

…just to clarify my own thoughts for you. I think what you refer to as “bad harvests”, is what I referred to as “failures.” By “failures” in any given vintage what I refer to are individual experiences in a given harvest. I don’t know that I feel we have had “bad vintages” per se. Solid, modern wine making allows us (I think) to craft generally successful vintages. Kind of comes to how intrusive one is willing to be in the process. (Eg, larger producers [in Temecula and elsewhere] use color correctors all the time. We don’t.)

I probably should have made that clear. We feel pretty confident in our vintages as a whole. I don;t think we’ve had bad ones. I refer more to individual learning experiences when I say “failures”. And usually — those are experiences where we’re intentionally trying things — farming techniques, wine making techniques — and then we note and record outcomes.

Cane Vanderhoof seems to think so.

He has placed himself, and his Miramonte winery, at the forefront of the cycle of change–from producing wine as it has always been made, to producing what grows best–or purchasing the best grapes available–for the varieties that do not flourish in the heat of the Temecula Valley.

Taste of Temecula captured his explanation:

Cane Vanderhoof—owner of Miramonte Winery—is changing the game in Temecula Wine Country. Growing what works best, to purchasing grapes from areas best suited to varietals that grow better elsewhere. A smart strategy business strategy, but he admits, there are risks.

Cane Vanderhoof, owner of Miramonte Wienry. Photo by Loren Scott

Temecula Valley Appellation has been a blip on the map. There are very few in the mainstream press that have recently tasted the best of what the Valley has to offer, and most are unaware of the great efforts made by a few vintners to bring their winemaking to the next level.

It takes a brave man, like Vanderhoof, to buck the trend of trying to appeal to everyone that walks through the door, determined instead to grow what grows best and make the best wine possible while continuing to be a commercial success.

Beautiful expression from the vineyard, being able to influence the process but interfering as little as possible. Grow fabulous grapes, produce delicate wines with finesse, interfere as little as possible. Make the wine expressive through the individual vineyard blocks. Success and failure in every single vintage.

The smart growers, long ago, started a replanting effort focused on a crop more aligned to the valley’s strengths. There are some holdouts, due to either commercial pressure or lack of funding, are reluctant to make the change.

Miramonte is discontinuing its Riesling program, focusing their main resources primarily on Rhone varietals. To meet market demand, some wines will remain on the label due to market pressure. They will source their grapes from best fruit available.

What’s the last thing in the world that Vanderhoof wants Miramonte to produce? “Big volume, soulless wines.”

Vanderhoof is aiming production for a sweet spot between the 50,000 case per year wineries and the Artisan’s who really don’t care if they ever see a profit. Their winery makes for a great tax write-off, while maintaining it’s status as an elegant showpiece for their wealth. He has also stopped pursuing medals, as in his words, “we are beyond that.”

Competitions,  if they only recognized the idea of soul and artistry.

"We are wine centric now."Photo by Loren Scott

Last year marked a milestone of sorts for Miramonte, when they recruited veteran winemaker, Reinhard Schlassa, formerly assistant winemaker for Argyle Wines in Oregon. Schlassa is formally trained as Champagne Vigneron, and prior to Oregon spent ten years in Germany producing Sekt and still wines. Recently Argyle was awarded 95 points by Wine Spectator for the 1999 Extended Tirage Brut Sparkling. It’s sold out, but maybe you can still find a bottle floating around at an auction house.

Rienhard is a top-tier level of talent that the Temecula Valley A.V.A. needs to get to the next level of quality. By hiring Schlassa, Miramonte has skipped to the front of the line on knowledge and expertise.

Science and artistry, evolution in thought, business practices, marketing and more.

His expertise is not limited to the cellar room. One of the first things Miramonte did upon hiring it’s new winemaker was to radically change their viticulture practices. Miramonte only has 4 acres of its own estate grapes, with another four going in, but manages another 40 acres with Ben Drake Enterprises.

Ben’s reaction to Vanderhoof’s new standards?  “…here is what you are going to pay for that,” and it was not a small number. Vanderhoof’s reaction: “whatever it takes.”

This year marks a banner year for Miramonte, a good harvest last year, a new winemaker who also has operations experience, and this is key, as Miramonte is about to undergo it’s first radical transformation since their facility was constructed..

Miramonte was purchased in June 2001, and overnight he became the Young Turk in the valley. Things really started shaking up once he started keeping the tasting room open after 5:00 p.m., thus allowing the locals—who mainly commute to their jobs elsewhere—a chance to come out and visit. Few area wine enthusiast are brave enough to deal with the weekend mobs, but until recently, Miramonte was their only choice if they wanted to visit a winery on a slow evening.

Vanderhoof described his new winemaker as being an intellectual, and an educator. According to Cane, Schlaasa has taught him more in the last nine months, than in his entire career of making wine, learning both empirical and practical elements in the art of wine making.

“One of the neat things of owning a winery is the absolutely huge social network you develop. This is pre Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, back in the day when ‘networking’ meant that you had to actually meet the person in person, and shake hands.” Vanderhoof said. “Families have been made, children born, people married, and people mourned.” The long-time wine club members have been with Vanderhoof for nearly a decade now, sharing their trials and tribulations.

His loyal customers, a few bad harvests, and some sleepless nights have challenged and tempered Cane Vanderhoof. He admitted that even five years ago he could not pursue what he is trying to achieve today.

Like all Young Turks, they eventually face an insurmountable wall. It is how you deal with challenges that determine if you are a “has been,” or a visionary and leader of the future. Early success at a young age tends to build a big ego, and Vanderhoof was no exception. However, when life got tough after so much early success he kept going, and came out the other side. In his words: “Sweating it out, sleepless in bed…a new level of humility.”

New Market Reality

One of the downfalls of the elite wineries is that, after a while, they tend to look at their wine like their children. A ten-dollar decrease in price is a direct assault the ego, as if saying “my child is not worth as much as yours.” Many have gone bankrupt over the last two years by falling in love with their creations, rather than face the cold, hard, stark reality of market pressures.

The days of highly priced wines supporting huge capital investments are over. Consumers are looking for value, and if you are charging them $40.00 for the privilege, the wine had better be awesome.

Miramonte is evolving their business into an agile production process. If this sounds like a best-case scenario from your MBA class, it is. Agility built-into the production, the design, and the winery will take the best-in-class management principles and create a top-tier winery, location irrelevant. Miramonte has a unique combination of drive and leadership, combined with can-do, has-done depth of staff, and is ready for the next chapter in their evolution.

Wine making is a tough business, with slim margins at most properties. Anyone that tells you otherwise is rich beyond belief or is simply lying.

New day new plans.

What this means for practical purposes—is that Miramonte must deal with the numerous auspices of the Riverside County Planning Commission. He is not the first, nor will he be the last winery owner to ‘reinvent the wheel’. Every winery project that has taken place in Riverside County has been delayed by insane amounts of red tape, and lack of inter-agency cooperation.

Few, if any, projects in Wine Country that have been completed even near the estimated completion date, even when driven by top-tier project managers and legal teams familiar this sort of bureaucracy. Miramonte’s project is no different.

The irony, Miramonte is not adding a hotel. It’s not adding 30,000 sq. ft. of tasting room. He is asking to update the property by adding washrooms, more parking, eliminate a dangerously steep driveway, add a few shrubs, and generally spruce the place up for the first time since it was built in the early 80’s. Ever doing everything by the book, elegant, and double-checked, yet still scrutinized by multiple county agencies every week.

Regardless, entrepreneurs are actively bringing new construction, playing well-within the planning guidelines, doing their homework, and bringing jobs to the Valley. Here’s to Cane Vanderhoof, Miramonte, and all that is yet to come.

"When she was a pup, she was the size of her head." The ever-present Mira...you would be hard pressed to miss her. Photo by Loren Scott


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