Several spots, such as Mission San Gabriel, east of Los Angeles, were especially known for high-quality wine, and by the early 1800s, the state’s entire wine industry was concentrated in Southern California, particularly in the San Gabriel Valley, Los Angeles itself, and Cucamonga Valley. And this wine scene was viable all the way up until Prohibition went into effect in 1920. The first wine grapes in what would eventually become the Temecula Valley AVA were planted in 1820 by the Mission San Luis Rey fathers. But through to the middle of the 1900s, business in the remote region ran more to cattle ranching and granite rock quarrying than winemaking. (Although, remote as it was, Temecula had its fair share of bootlegging and speakeasies during the Prohibition years of the 1920s into the 1930s.)
Enter Temecula Valley. In the 1960s, a number of studies were commissioned: The most influential in prompting the first commercial vineyards to be planted in the area were the McMillan Report, by William Heintz, and a study for Kaiser (interested in agricultural and residential development), done by Dick Break, a graduate in viticulture from UC Davis who, with several UC Davis professors, planted test blocks to delve into the region’s viability. What they found was a cooler climate in Temecula, with potential for higher-quality wines.
In 1968 Vincenzo Cilurzo, a television lighting director from Los Angeles, and his wife, Audrey, planted the first modern-day vineyard in Temecula Valley. Later that year, Brookside winery, based in Cucamonga, planted a vineyard in Temecula as well. And it was Brookside that produced Temecula’s first commercial wine, in 1971. Two other wineries were influential in launching the region: Callaway Vineyard and Winery, founded by Ely Callaway of golfing fame, began farming grapes in 1969 and opened a winery in 1974; and John Poole opened Mount Palomar Winery in 1975.
As the first vineyards were planted in the region, California wine drinkers as a whole were starting to shake off their taste for sweet-leaning white and red blends. Varietal wines were just beginning to gain traction, and Temecula growers planted a wide range of varieties up and coming at the time: Chenin Blanc, Pinot St. George, Grenache, Zinfandel, Riesling, and, of course, Cabernet Sauvignon.
By 1984, Temecula earned American Viticultural Area status from the TTB, largely because of the geological quirks that moderate its Mediterranean climate, which otherwise would be deemed too warm to grow wine grapes—two gaps in the Coastal Range that allow the cool marine air in, and a regular mist that lingers at about 1,400 feet (427 m) elevation, slowing moisture loss. (The appellation name would officially be lengthened to Temecula Valley in 2004, the only California region to undergo a change.)
In 1998, many of the region’s vineyards were decimated by Pierce’s Disease, transmitted by the glassy-winged sharpshooter. The disease, which inhibits a vine from absorbing water, devastated local crops. With the threat of the problem spreading, the California Department of Food and Agriculture, collaborating with UC Davis and UC Riverside, among other institutions, studied the pest and found ways to control the spread of the disease with parasitic wasps that preyed on sharpshooter eggs.
A few winemakers, including Jon McPherson of South Coast Winery, advocated for Rhône, Italian, and Spanish varieties. And as McPherson recalls, that was the start of the hand-sell in the tasting room—”explaining Viognier, Sangiovese, and Tempranillo to a wine consumer who had just graduated from generic jug wines to Chardonnay and Merlot.” More than two dozen varieties are now produced in Temecula, but the focus has narrowed to those that thrive in the region’s microclimates: Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Roussanne, Viognier, Vermentino (Rolle), Verdehlo, Touriga Nacional, Tempranillo, Sangovese, Barbera … the Rhône, Iberian, and Italian stars.