Southern California’s Wine Country: An Overview

There is a new generation of winemakers in Southern California hoping to change the perception of California Wine Country.

Many travelers see California Wine Country only as Napa Valley or Sonoma County.

Less than an hour north of San Diego, in the southeast corner of Riverside County, 40+ wineries have the perfect climate and soil for growing high-quality grapes.

Temecula Valley

The Temecula Valley was often thought of as too hot for making high-quality wine. However, there is a Mediterranean climate enjoyed by this area. It comes from a gap between the coastal mountains and the high rises that separate Temecula from eastern deserts.

The area gets long sunny days, breezy afternoons and cool nights. In other words, it enjoys the perfect climate!

Often Overlooked

When many think of Southern California they think of beaches and hot sunshine. The weather in Temecula resembles (as mentioned above) the Rhone Valley, parts of Tuscany, and southern Italy.

To many in the wine industry, Temecula has been sort of an underdog. Relative to other California wine regions, this area started producing wines more recently, in 1968.

A learning curve was definitely in effect as some previous generations lacked the knowledge needed to deal with its terroir and climate.

Probably the single most important thing that has changed today is the knowledge base and talent of winemakers there. Now there are well-made wines with varietals grown that are appropriate to this area’s climate and terroir. The quality in the past was inconsistent at best.

The recognition these wineries crave is slowly but surely coming to pass. Some wine media still don’t tend to go south of Santa Barbara, but Southern California and the Temecula Valley is a wine region no one should overlook!

Collaboration and Community

A unique feature of this wine region is that everyone helps one another and wants the other to succeed. There is a level of camaraderie and collaboration that you don’t always see in other wine regions.

Every winery here wants to make good wine! The newcomers learn from one another as well as the older generations. The older generations are very approachable. They want to share their wisdom and make it possible for every winery to continue to develop better wines.

While most other wine regions in California are at the peak of success, and the smaller regions are now trying to reach their own individual recognition, Temecula is gaining success as a whole.

Some Temecula winemakers will tell you that they have felt a consumer and media bias about Southern California wine. This is due in part because national wine publications have treated this area as a fun place to travel to, but not necessarily a serious winemaking destination.

An interesting sentiment is one that states: putting a Napa price tag on one of Southern California’s cabernets would all of a sudden bring a level of respect to one of this region’s high-quality Cabs. In reality, this wine should be recognized as high-quality on its own merits.

Fortunately for the area, the sense of community is attracting winemaking talent who otherwise may have looked elsewhere for starting their wine careers.

The Soil

The sandy loam soil that is prevalent in Southern California has a lot of decomposing granite mixed in. The vines are attracted to this because they need to struggle a bit.

One of the most important factors of the terroir is the soil where the vine is planted. The type of soil where the roots grow, absorb nutrients and absorb solar radiation, results in different wine profiles.

How does the soil factor influence the wine when vines are planted in these granite soils?

  • Granite: Granite is an indigenous crystalline rocked that was formed far below the surface, under extreme heat and pressure conditions. These fusions combined different compounds such as quartz and mica that were driven upwards to the surface of the earth. Over time some of the rocks had been eroded, generating the sandy granitic soils where most of the vines are planted today. 
  • Sandy-Loam: This is loose soil with a sandy-loam texture with a minimum percentage of clay and large amounts of salt and silt. This translates into a medium permeability to water and consequently a low retention of water and nutrients. Loam is characterized by a soil type defined by texture. Loam soils are generally crumbly and are often made up of silt and clay.When conditions are just right, loam soils create concentrated fruit that leads to “big-boned” wines. However, if loam soils are too fertile, they can lead to over-vigorous wines and flabby final wines.

    This type of soil radiates a lot of heat during the day and cools down faster at night. This makes it possible for the grape to obtain the maximum amount of sugars during the day, and at night, with the drop in soil temperature, to preserve its acidity.

Whites

With these two important variables we can define a common wine profile for this type of soil. It is perfect for white wines, since they preserve their acidity very well. It rounds them off, giving way to wines that are floral with a long finish.

Reds

In reds this acidity leads to fresher, lighter, and more vibrant wines. For example, a red grown in this soil will have floral, fragrant and intense characteristics.

To sum it up, wines made from this type of soil found in Southern California is vibrant and exciting!

Visitors to the Region

There are 23 million people living in the cities within two hours of Temecula (San Diego, Los Angeles, and Palm Springs). According to the tourism bureau, travel to Southern California’s wine country has increased steadily year after year. The people living near the area have come out because they know great wine is being made here.

Southern California Stand-Out Wineries

  • Hart Family Winery: In 1980, Joe Hart opened Hart Family Winery. A former teacher, his son is now running the business. The Sauvignon Blanc and Hart’s family’s Estate Syrah has won numerous awards.The Hart Family Winery is also the oldest continuously family-owned winery in operation in the Temecula Valley. Unusually, they produce fortified wine with the aleatico grape from the Isle of Elba. They also farm the oldest vines in Temecula, with plantings of the Mission grape made into fortified wine.
  • Doffo Winery: Founded in 1997, Doffo Winery is family-owned and operated. The family has Argentinean roots. The award winning Zinfandels and world-class Malbecs are a tribute to those Argentinean roots.
  • South-Coast Winery, Resort and Spa: Every wine produced by South Coast comes from the Estate. The South Coast’s Carter Estate wines are not to be missed. The vineyard also has a resort and spa as the name indicates.
  • Robert Renzoni Estate: Specializing in Sangiovese and Pinot Noir, the Renzoni family has been making wines for over a century. They started on the northern coast of Italy and continue today in Southern California. One of the most beautiful wineries in the entire area, the tasting room resembles a Tuscan villa.
  • Leoness: Leoness has an on-site restaurant which is one of the best spots in the valley. Beautiful scenery and delicious wines make this a wonderful place to visit. The Meritage is a favorite and of consistent high-quality.
  • Wiens Family Cellars: Mainly focusing on reds, Wiens Family Cellars are keen on opening visitor’s eyes to trying wine styles they’ve never heard of before. Their Reserve Zinfandel is a favorite.

San Diego

The wineries in San Diego share the sunshine, blue skies, and surf with Los Angeles and Malibu – but the wine lifestyle is serene, with quiet vineyards tucked into rolling valleys and foothills.

Although it’s less of a wine region, San Diego County fruit has more young advocates in the city than Temecula does today.

However, some outside this area don’t know that this area is actually surrounded by small wine growing regions with a vibrant local wine scene.

The nearest local wine country is a gathering of tasting rooms in North County between Escondido and Ramon in the Ramona Valley AVA.

The first vines were planted here by Vincenzo Cilruzo, the famed brewer/founder of Russian River Brewing Company.

One of the best places to taste Temecula wine in San Diego is Callaway Winery.

  • Callaway Winery: The Callaway tasting room is in the Gaslamp District of Downtown San Diego. Callaway was one of the first wineries in the Temecula Valley, years before Temecula was incorporated as a city.

Others Not to Be Missed Near San Diego 

  • Los Pilares: a sulfur-free natural wine specializing in petillant natural – sparkling wine from 100% San Diego fruit.
  • Brix: J.Brix has been utilizing San Diego County fruit since back when few other wineries thought to do so. Their Rougarou is made from fruit close to their Escondido-based winery.

More San Diego Wines and Wine Shops to Note

  • Blue Door Urban Winery The philosophy here is a straightforward approach which is keep it as simple and as natural as possible. With a passion and commitment to winemaking in the backcountry town of Julian, this place is just an hour’s drive from San Diego. Nestled in the local mountains, this great little town boasts fresh water fishing, waterfalls and of course, the blue door tasting room!
  • San Pasqual Winery: Seaport Village A San Diego local winery. In the late 1700’s vineyards were planted at Mission San Diego de Alcala, making San Diego the first to witness wine-making. Centuries later, San Pasqual Winery draws inspiration from the mission legacy, its connection to the famed Rioja region of Spain, and the uniquely cosmopolitan-yet-frontier old California city of San Diego.
  • San Diego Wine and Beer: A native, family-owned and operated business since 2005, San Diego Wine and Beer Company is recognized as one of San Diego’s top wine and beer shop. They pride themselves on helping people find “yet to be discovered” wines. The owner is a expert with extensive wine knowledge. He hand selects the wine and beer in the store and although he uses scores and ratings, he does not solely rely on them.

Los Angeles

There are AVA’s close to Los Angeles. There are a few situated within L.A. County, including two in Malibu, and in the Antelope Valley (a small AVA in the Mojave Desert).

  • Angeleno Wine Company Just outside of Santa Clarita, Angeleno Wine Company bottles wine from their home vineyard. Their wines use Spanish varieties not usually seen in California, like godello and granciano.
  • Herzog One of the largest wineries in the Los Angeles area is the kosher winery Herzog. Featured in every kosher restaurant around town, the fruit for Herzog comes from several parts of California. Some of the wines use grapes from Paso Robles and Santa Barbara. Herzog was awarded “Kosher Winery of the Year” in 2018 at the New York International Wine Competition.

Other Southern California Wines of Interest

Within miles of Los Angeles there are vineyards that represent the remarkable intersection of a deep but nearly forgotten past and an almost unimagined viticultural and winemaking future.

Vesper Vineyards

Chris Broomell is the descendant of six generations of farmers in Southern California. His wife, Alysha Stehley, is from farming roots just as significant as her husband’s. Together they have won the complete support and trust of other wine families and have created a remarkable winemaking operation.

They seem to have the ability to imagine new vineyards, or re-create old ones, where others would never have dreamed of.

Growing up in the small community of Valley Center, the couple learned from their families long rooted in agriculture that the best produce came for San Diego’s own backyard.

Their families primarily grew citrus, but each encountered a few local vineyards and those encounters stuck with them. Chris went to Santa Barbara to pursue an education in Environmental Horticulture.

While there, he worked at Jaffurs Winery and fell in love with the winemaking lifestyle. Three years later he took a trip to Southern Australia for the harvest, learning hands on all that he could about the process.

Alysha went on a more formal journey to UC Davis. She majored in Enology and Viticulture where she learned the scientific aspects of grape growing and winemaking. Her education included traveling with fellow UC Davis students to wineries around California, as well as spending time in Chile and Argentina.

Vesper Vineyards is the result of combining Alysha’s scientific background, Chris’s practical experience, and the love they both have for San Diego County.

Galleano Winery

Galleano Winery is located in Mira Loma’s Wineville area. It is still very much the same as it was in 1927 when the Galleano Family purchased the land. The winery is located at the southern fringe of the Cucamonga Valley, made famous for winegrowing by Secondo Guasti, who came from northern Italy’s Piedmont region.

The name means “foot of the mountains” and is an appropriate name for Cucamonga, an alluvial plain that sweeps down for the eastern reaches of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Milagro Farms

100 % Estate grown, Milagro farms have some of the most beautiful vineyards located in a fierce rock garden. They have a strong desire to honor the rich characteristics unique to the Ramona Valley. Working in “harmony with the land” is their ultimate motto because they believe that the land is at the core of everything.

Fifty minutes east of San Diego, the luscious property boasts a working estate-grown winery, organic farm and orchard, tasting room with scenic vistas and leisure time spent with friends.

Miagro Farms has a wine club as well.

To Sum Up Southern California’s Wine Country

For many visitors, Southern California’s Wine Country is a surprise. A lot of people don’t expect to see gently rolling hills blanketed with rows of vineyards so close to the California desert.

This area is a diverse growing area, home to everything from cooler-climate grapes like Chardonnay, to warm-weather varieties like Syrah and Grenache.

As we mentioned earlier, the rich, granite based soil that hosts the vines here is a big factor in why these grapes do so well this close to the desert. Add the unique micro-climate of crisp mornings coated in mist, a warm daytime sun, and cool ocean breezes that welcome the clear night sky and you have the perfect combination.

And finally, the community of winemakers here and the camaraderie they share top off the perfect marriage of soil and climate.

Many, many award-winning wines are produced here. If you get a chance, taste your way through the spectacular Southern California Wine Region!