After tasting through 142 wines of the Temecula Valley, what conclusions can I draw about the region? Only the most rash:
1. As California wine regions go, Temecula Valley is an appellation still in search of itself. This is perfectly understandable. By winemaking standards, the area still is young, really starting only in 1968, when Vince Cilurzo, an Emmy-winning Hollywood lighting director, planted the first substantial modern-era vineyard in the area, 40 acres given over to petite sirah and chenin blanc. I talked with Cilurzo last night. He's not sure he'd plant the same varieties today. But in 1968 he was confident petite sirah and chenin blanc would sell regardless of where they were planted. Today, however, the judges at the Temecula Valley wine competition tasted just one petite sirah and two chenin blancs. Clearly, the area is betting its future on other varietals, though it's almost impossible to say which one is the front runner.
2. Nonetheless, if I were a gambling man, I'd put my money on syrah. We tasted 15 of them, four of which ended up among the seven wines to vie for best-of-show red wine. The results won't be announced until later tonight, but I can tell you this, a syrah was chosen best-of-show red.
3. Much of the wine consciousness here is driven by market considerations. This is true of other wine regions, to be sure, but the emphasis here is more pronounced, largely because so much of Temecula's wine is sold through winery tasting rooms, primarily because the area is so accessible to so many people - San Diego to the southwest, Orange County and Los Angeles to the northwest, Riverside and San Bernardino to the northeast, Palm Springs to the east. One local resident remarked to me that 15 million people, maybe 20 million, live within a 90-minute drive of Temecula. With so many people so close, why not just cater to their tastes, and their tastes run to refreshing whites, thus the swing to viognier, riesling and pinot grigio. Thus, for a competitition with just 142 wines we ran into a disproportionate number of wines that consumers quaff in winery tasting rooms but are reluctant to order in restuarants and wine shops.
4. If you're planning to visit Temecula and tour its wineries, focus on the area's roses. They didn't win as high a percentage of gold medals as syrahs, but they were exquisite, showing refreshing fruit and refined structure in one attractive package after another.
Got to run. The grand awards are about to be announced.