Temecula's wine country is booming. A mix of great wine, food and entertainment draws thousands of Southern California residents to the local wineries on the weekends. The region can take on a party like atmosphere with all of the weddings, concerts and winery special events, but there is more to Temecula's wine scene.
Many true wine lovers are finding out there is a more serious side to Temecula. The success of the local wineries has attracted some top notch winemakers and they are making incredible wine using the local vineyards.
Mount Palomar winery was fortunate enough to find one of these great winemakers. James Rutherford's roots are in Northern California and the Central Coast, but he is making Temecula his home and being rewarded with some exceptional wines.
We had a chance to catch up with James and get his thoughts on making wine in Temecula, the trend toward sustainable agriculture and what he thinks of the current wine rating system.
California Winery Advisor: Tell us how you became interested in winemaking.
James Rutherford: Though my family had left the wine industry by the time I was born, I did grow up around the wine industry of Livermore and Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley. I have actually been drinking wine since I was six or seven. My Mother even mixed Colombard with Tang. Not a mix I would recommend however a good Colombard by itself is still comfort wine for me.
CWA: How would you describe your winemaking style?
JR: I would best describe my style as fragrant and smooth. Smoothness of finish has always been important to me.
CWA: Do you have a particular wine consumer in mind when you are making a wine?
JR: I always think of market when we are creating our wines. Since our winery produces 15,000 cases we are a larger facility for the Southern California/South Coast Wine Region, but we are not large by Northern California standards. We do not have a national distribution chain where we target certain demographic groups.
Considering that wineries at our size can’t compete with the pricing of the big wine groups that have national advertising, we must compete with the higher quality and well crafted wine market. Given this, we do tend to target those with a greater experience enjoying wine who are wishing for higher quality. Everyone in this business would like to make a lot of money, however, I am pleased that many of my wines are priced so that most Americans can afford to buy them. We work very hard in the winery and we want people to enjoy what we make.
CWA: How were you influenced by working on the Central Coast?
JR: Even though I made wine before receiving my degree and working on the Central Coast, I would say this region is where I learned to make wine. I apprenticed under two very talented, well established winemakers of the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County. Even though I had the education the masters taught me how to make wine.
CWA: What is unique about making wine in Temecula? Are there challenges you don’t have in places like Napa or Santa Barbara?
JR: Temecula as a region has great flexibility. Our climate provides us with a long growing season with a perfect combination of warm and hot days for ripening while our cold nights maintain great acid levels in our fruit. The soils are well drained with low fertility which provides just the right stress for the vines to maintain lower yields and produce small berries with great concentration of flavor.
In the past Temecula’s greatest threat was the invasion of the Glassy Winged Sharp Shooter leaf hopper that caused the Pierce’s Disease epidemic that threatened this region. The potential spread of the epidemic threatened to destroy California’s wine industry as a whole. Everyone in the industry was saying ‘dear God don’t let it happen here’. Temecula’s industry suffered greatly, but survived. What was learned and done by Temecula’s wine growers benefits the whole wine industry.
I feel the greatest challenge to making wine in Temecula, even above the lack of water, is our challenge in the market place and the perception of the region against places like Napa and Santa Barbara.
Napa is great and as my family started the valley through George Yount, I have a connection to that region. The fame of Napa, and even Santa Barbara County, is a double edge sword for Temecula. The whole wine industry benefits from the fame of Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara, however other wine regions operate in the shadow of these well known wine areas like the ugly sisters. Napa is the wine snob’s first choice, however true wine lovers will look for great wines from any region. Temecula’s wine industry needs to catch people’s attention and be known.
CWA: There is a lot of buzz about organic, sustainable and bio-dynamic wine. What do these terms mean to you? Should wine consumers be focused on these designations when buying wine?
JR: I do have an appreciation for all said methods of agriculture. In fact I taught permaculture through Guatemala’s Ministry of Agriculture, so I am a believer in these sustainable practices. Ultimately the consumer must support the methods to make them feasible to the industry. The wine industry is still agriculture and we are farmers. Farmers definitely aren’t dumb, rather we are true scientists. I would like to remind the consumer that wine grapes do not tend to be pesticide laden due to the nature of fermentation. Think of wine as a living thing. Fermentation involves the activity of yeast converting grape sugar to alcohol and will be inhibited by chemical residues. Wine producers must always be mindful of that residues may make it impossible to make wine. The consumer may not understand exactly what these terms mean. I feel the consumer wants a pure product, but what the consumer thinks is pure does not necessarily match up with whatever term is applied. Some consumers may think the terms represent the same thing. So yes I feel wine consumers should take an interest in these methods, but not be fixated on them.
CWA: Are there any winemakers you are excited about right now?
JR: There are many skilled winemakers that I respect. I would like to draw attention to the winemakers at Puchella in Santa Clarita: Steve Lemley and Nate Hasper. There are plenty of good and competent winemakers however this duo is gifted. They are passionate and intuitive and are an example of where craftsmanship moves to art.
CWA: What are the last two bottles of wine you remember as truly special?
JR: From our winery there’s the 2013 Primitivo under our Castelletto label, which hasn’t been released yet but will be soon. From another winery what stands out in my recent memory is a 2013 Pinot Noir from Puchella Winery.
CWA: What advice do you wish you received when you first started making wine?
JR: I wish I received more advice and guidance in industry politics. Every industry has its politics and despite the movies the wine industry is no Walk in the Clouds.
CWA: How do you feel about the current wine rating system? Do you feel consumers benefit from numbering system?
JR: The current wine rating system serves a purpose for marketing. What I think is funny about the point system is it makes the ratings seem very scientific by using a number to suggest the quality of a wine. In reality the system is highly subjective and based on what a few individuals like. If one likes the same tastes the expert reviewer likes, then the rating is helpful. Personally I don’t buy wine based on ratings since I have little faith in the system and I am secure about liking what I like. How something tastes to us can change from day to day for various reasons. The demographics of California are rapidly shifting with different cultural and ethnic taste preferences being added to the mix. It is a very difficult task to create a rating system for wine that expresses the overall taste preferences of our country. To me an accurate rating system is yet to exist. I still go by the old adage, “the best wine is the one you like.”
CWA: Can you tell us a little about the current lineup of wines from Mt Palomar?
JR: With 25 varietals being grown on the property there is too much to talk about here. We do great Bordeaux varietals. Of those my favorites would be Cabernet Franc and Merlot. I was never a fan of Merlot until I started getting fruit from Mount Palomar’s vineyard. Our Castelletto label is a focus on Italian and Piedmont varietal wines which includes Mount Palomar’s own clone of Cortese. I challenge anyone to find an American Cortese as there are very few. We make cream sherry from perhaps the oldest sherry Solera in the United States which was started in 1974. Our Sherry is close to becoming a cult wine. Our Rosé and Blush wines always do well in the wine competitions and are particularly popular with the local market. We make great Riesling which was one of my favorites as a kid and I still love the wine.
CWA: Where can consumers by your Mt Palomar wine?
JR: Most of our wine is sold through our tasting room with very few outside sales. We do sell quite a bit online and we have a dedicated following. I encourage consumers that don’t live nearby to watch for promotions on the website which tend to be priced well to balance against the shipping costs. To note are the current promotions of our Cinsuat Blush, which is slightly sweet with bright tangerine and peach elements and is perfect for warm weather. For the red wine lovers look for our “Kyanti” that is of the Classico style, which is a dry medium bodied red with earthy cherry and strawberry elements.
The Blush and Kyanti wines that James mentioned above are available at the Mount Palomar wine store. They are currently on sale for 50% off 6+ bottles. -http://www.mountpalomarwinery.com/Wine-Store/Featured-Wines This is a limited time offer.
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