Mike Rohner has a soft spot for Temecula. He tasted there in his early days as a wine enthusiast and was happy with what he tasted. Later, he worked there, becoming an assistant to Falkner winemaker Steve Hagata and helping out with Hagata's solo project, Las Piedras. He admired Hagata's work, and also that of winemaker Jon McPherson (then at Thornton, now at South Coast). "Thornton's Cote Red of two vintages ago was $18," recalls Rohner, "and it could stand up against any $18 bottle in the store." The store is the WineSellar, and what gives Rohner's comment weight is that the shop can procure pretty much any wine it wants, at any price point.
Rohner's soft spot, however, is not so yielding that it will yield to local-boy boosterism. "I want Temecula to get good and be priced right," he says. "Recently, I've been shown wines that are going to retail at around $35. Maybe that wine will stand out in a day of tasting in Temecula, but when I have a floor that houses every varietal from all over the world..." At $35, people might be inclined to look for regions with more history -- or more buzz.
Paso Robles, says Rohner, has recently acquired that buzz. "There's no denying the power of Justin Smith at Saxum. That's really what made the world start caring about Paso Robles. Not just because the wines were good, but the scores were 95+" -- and from kingmaker Robert Parker Jr. "When you get into that range, you're talking about world-class in the eyes of that reviewer." There were already good wineries in Paso Robles -- Eberle and Justin, to name two consistent producers -- but 95+ is 95+. After the buzz began, says Rohner, "We started learning about other producers in the area who were doing 500 cases or less. They were all working together in a kind of consortium." One spectacular example: a friend of winemaker David Core "is a bagger at the Trader Joe's in Cambria. He made two barrels of Syrah and one of Viognier as a lark, and he got tasted at Hospice du Rhone by Parker and got 90 points for his Syrah.
"I notice similarities between Temecula, Paso Robles, and Australia," says Rohner. He's talking about climate, but he wishes he could include winemaking and the marketing of the region. "If we vinify like Australia has been doing, we're going to end up with hyperconcentrated, hedonistic wines that people just go nuts for. They're going to be dead in four years, but still -- I mean, it's all about pleasure. Or it should be. I wish everyone would just taste Las Piedras's wine and ask Steve what he's doing differently."
Off to Temecula, then, to ask Steve Hagata what he's doing differently and about Temecula following Paso Robles' lead. "I do think Paso is more together about sharing knowledge," he says. "There are a lot of new wineries up there, and they've probably got a technical group where all of the wineries go and share tastes and ideas. Here, we have very few wineries, and the ones we do have are owned and run by people who are individuals. Some of them are throwbacks and still feel that Cabernet and Chardonnay are the best grapes for the area. It's tough."
But even in the most collegial atmosphere, Hagata still might not be able to help Temecula's winegrowers the way Rohner wishes he could. "My success probably has more to do with being lucky than good," he says, chuckling -- lucky in terms of vineyard location. Las Piedras's Arroyo Vineyard is not in Temecula at all; it's in San Diego County, near Sunshine Summit. "It's a great place to grow grapes. You're very vulnerable to late-season frosts, but if you can avoid that, you're in much better shape."
Late-season frosts are perhaps a little more of a problem than they once were, because Hagata has recently started making the sort of hedonistic wine Rohner talks about. "I thought, 'Do I really want to follow the trend in California, to pick at around 36 brix and get 14%-plus alcohol and all that kind of stuff?' I know everybody else is. I decided I would -- with my Syrah." Getting that kind of sugar content means letting the grapes hang a little longer and so get a little riper -- hence the added frost worry.
The resulting wine is exactly what he hoped it would be -- rich and ripe -- and it sells. When I spoke with David Derby at his new wine shop in Rancho Santa Margarita, he told me that "the wine at the tasting bar that I absolutely cannot keep in stock is Las Piedras Syrah. We've developed a cult following for it here; it's like Rombauer Chardonnay. People come in and say, 'I need a Syrah, and it has to be around this price point' " -- in this case, around $15. "I'll pour the Las Piedras, and they're, like, 'Oh, my God. This is really good.' It's an example of how good Temecula can be -- it's world-class. We sell out and reorder it, and by the time we get the wine in, it's already sold out again."
But Hagata doesn't give the same ramp-up-the-ripeness treatment to his Sangiovese. "I'd rather have it lighter and maybe a little tarter, like Chianti, and try to retain some kind of resemblance to the wine of its origin." (Again, he got what he was after.) "I was in Florence for six months when I was in college -- that was 1972 -- and Sangiovese was all you drank. It was pretty rough stuff -- not very good -- but it was my first exposure to wine. So this is a sort of hats off to Tuscany and Chianti. I read a really good article that said if you pick any kind of grape at over 25 brix, they're all going to taste very much the same. The last couple of years, I've gone to the World of Pinot Noir in Shell Beach. They have some outstanding Pinot Noirs there, but a lot of them are heavily extracted. You pour them and they're black. I immediately think, 'This may be a pleasant wine, but it's not Pinot Noir, not to my knowledge.' "