Before 1976, says Jon McPherson, the only winery in Texas was Val Verde, down in Uvalde. There had been others, some of them dating back to the 19th century, but none survived past the '50s. Then, in the early '70s, two professors at Texas Tech -- horticulturist Bob Reed and chemist Clint McPherson -- got the idea that "they could grow grapes on the panhandle. They put in a little experimental vineyard, and the next thing you know, other guys were asking, 'What if we grew grapes? Could we make money at it?'" If you have a winery to buy the fruit, sure. "So they cooked up the idea to grow grapes and build a winery, and the Texas wine industry was born." Specifically, Llano Estacado Winery. Llano's cellar rat? Clint McPherson's son Jon.
By 1985, McPherson the Younger was ready to make a career out of wine, but not Texas wine. "I moved to California, because I wanted to get into sparkling wine production. I interviewed with several houses and got offered jobs with Piper Sonoma and Culbertson," then based in Fallbrook. "Piper was bigger, and I was going to be a pseudo-lab-and-cellar guy. I thought, 'Culbertson is so small; it's going to be hands-on. I'll get to see all the different aspects.'" He went with Culbertson. "I don't know if I chose poorly or not. There's a huge difference between Northern California and Southern California with respect to what people say and think and feel about all of it. Sparkling wine is a very tough market. If you're not French, you can't drive the price on the high side, and if you're not Napa or Sonoma, you're not going to be recognized much anyway."
McPherson stuck it out down south, and continued to work at the winery through its move to Temecula and its name/ management change to Thornton. But as the years went by, the winery's sparkling production lost ground to its still wines. And Temecula, if it didn't quite go to sleep, seemed to get a little drowsy. "This valley has been producing wine for going on 40 years, and we're still no different than we were 25 years ago. That's sort of a sad commentary. I've seen Temecula grow and change, but we're still not on people's lips when you start talking about wine. Amador was nothing; now, you say 'Amador,' and people automatically say, 'Oh yeah, Zinfandel.' Paso Robles -- that was nothing until the last 10 years, and that's grown. What happened to us? We just kind of got forgotten." The perception grew that Temecula was content with its relative anonymity, happy to sell to tourists in the tasting rooms and leave the marketing to other regions.
Recent years, however, brought rumblings of change. A third wave of wineries cropped up, including Palumbo Family Vineyards, a winery good enough and ambitious enough to get on the wine list at Arterra. New money came in to overhaul old operations -- the Falkners taking over Temecula Crest, Imre Cziraki's transformation of Cilurzo into Bella Vista. And when local giant Callaway suffered managerial upheaval and decided to rebrand itself as Callaway Coastal, it set the stage for Jim Carter's entrance onto the scene.
Carter, who made his money in construction, had purchased a 400-acre parcel of land his father had found up in the Agua Tibia mountains. The parcel bordered the Cleveland National Forest, and McPherson says that Carter first considered turning it into a "sort of hiking and camping destination." Then, continues McPherson, Carter "got the idea to plant grapes. In the mid-'90s, he planted 140 acres of Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, and Sangiovese. He had solicited Callaway, and he had contracts with them to buy his fruit. In 2000, his first year of production, he sold to them." But when Callaway went coastal, "they cut loose most everybody here in Temecula that was growing grapes for them. So there was Jim, with 140 acres coming into production and nothing to do with it."
What to do? If you have the means -- and Carter did -- the easy solution is to build a winery of your own to process your fruit. But Carter resolved to go further. According to McPherson, "He cooked up this whole idea: 'I'm going to build a resort. I'm going to put in villas, I'm going to have a restaurant and a spa. I'm going to make this a total destination, and it's going to revolve around my wine and my vineyards.'" So was born the idea for South Coast Winery Resort & Spa.
Even with sufficient funds, starting a winery takes time. So Carter went to McPherson at Thornton and asked him to buy the Agua Tibia grapes. "We already had contracts out," recalls McPherson. "But Carter said, 'You've got to see my vineyards,' so I went out. I was blown away. I saw them and thought, 'What would have possessed you to think you could plant vineyards here?' But that's what he did; they're all at 2200-2300 feet of elevation. We're at about 1200 feet here in the valley."
The elevation -- together with the combination of soil, drainage, topography, etc. -- made for a grape-growing climate unlike anything McPherson had found in Southern California. He custom crushed some Cabernet for Carter in '01, and was amazed at what he had to work with. "He brought it in at 25 Brix," a measure of its sugar concentration and an indicator of overall ripeness. "But it was still at a 3.3 pH, with a titratable acidity of about 8. I've been making wine in this valley forever, and when you work with fruit from this valley, by the time you hit 24, 25 Brix on a red wine, you're typically looking at a pH of 3.6. You're having to add acid and everything. They were just spectacular reds coming off of those vineyards. They don't lack for extract, and we're able to get some incredible tannins, flavor, and color.
"Carter kept twisting my arm: 'You've got to come work for me.' I realized that there was no way I could not take the job. For a winemaker, the grapes are paramount, and I would have been passing up some of the most incredible fruit in Southern California. I decided I had to cast my lot with him."