'It takes big strides to change the perception" of a region, says John McPherson, winemaker at South Coast Winery Resort & Spa in Temecula. "Robert Hall made a huge statement up in Paso Robles when he built his winery. It's a huge facility; it makes a statement, and a certain commitment -- that Paso Robles is going to be growing grapes and making wine for a long time to come. That's hopefully what this sort of says."
"This" is a sprawling collection of buildings large and small: clusters of freestanding residential suites leading away from the huge central complex, future home to the resort's winery, gift shop, spa, restaurant, tasting room, wine cellars, and private tasting rooms and banquet facilities. McPherson hopes it will all be finished by summer of '05; for now, he has to contend with a tasting room and gift shop where his bottling line should be. "They keep sharp objects away from me," he deadpans.
When it's finished, the resort should go beyond making a statement and actually help to create a market. "With this resort here, we're going to be able to market ourselves nationally. People want to come to Southern California as a destination. They want to come to San Diego and lie on the beach. After they've done that for a few days, maybe they'll come up here," bringing their thirst and their curiosity with them.
South Coast owner Jim Carter is not seeking that national image simply to stroke his ego; he needs the customers. When Carter started planting, he intended to sell the fruit to Callaway. When Callaway shifted away from Temecula-grown grapes, Carter built a winery so that he could do something with 220 acres' worth of production. To move enough inventory, says McPherson, "marketing and selling is something that we're going to have to do.
"The focus will be on what we have coming off the mountain," he says, referring to the 160 acres of vineyards South Coast has in the Agua Tibia mountains around Wild Horse Peak. "There's Cabernet, Sangiovese, and Syrah." It's the mountain fruit and its potential to make great red wine that lured McPherson away from his previous employer, Thornton. But South Coast owns plenty of valley vineyards as well. "We planted Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah down here. We've got Muscat here on-site and also Petite Verdot." He'll also get Syrah, Cab, and Merlot from the valley, along with Port varietals, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, and Riesling. Chardonnay is on its way. "Jim looks at the tasting room as a place where you're going to sell a lot of wine. In this valley, tasting-room wines tend to be sweeter -- rosés and Muscats and Rieslings. Out in the general market, it's Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Merlot.
"Every wine we make will be estate-grown and -produced," something of a rarity for larger Temecula operations. "For Jim, it's all about control of the grape, being able to take care of it from the day you plant it to the day you wind up having it in the glass. It's not like he's a control freak or anything, it's just that he likes growing grapes. That's really where his heart is. He's not really much of a drinker; he doesn't drink wine much at all. It's just one big exciting time for him. It's just very nice to have an owner who gets all revved up every time you start talking. He's one of those guys who's always noodling. He comes up with ideas -- 'Hey, I saw something on TV the other night, what do you think about it?' He's been wanting me to make a sweet Merlot."
If Carter is a noodler, he's also "very conscientious about the brand and the winery -- the name and the label. He hates the idea of wines that we sell at $16.99 or whatever here at the winery, when you can go down to Longs and buy them for $9.99." It's common enough to pay full retail -- or even a little more -- for wine at a winery, even when you can get it for less elsewhere. Compare Opus One at the winery and at Costco. But Opus One is Opus One -- Napa wine, born from a celebrity partnership between the storied Mondavi and the legendary Rothschild. People are willing to pay for the exaltation of buying the wine at the source. The brand is impervious to discounts. A startup winery from Temecula, no matter how good the wine, is not so inured.
McPherson told Carter that he had two options. One, "You maintain price points wholesale to keep that type of pricing" -- that is, you keep wholesale prices high enough that Longs has to charge something close to your winery retail price to turn a profit. The trouble is, "that may make it tough to sell." Wholesalers might well be tempted to take their business elsewhere and work with someone who's willing to drop prices and move inventory. And moving inventory is crucial. "Jim optimistically thinks that we could sell 20,000 cases here at the winery," says McPherson. "But even if we could, we would have almost that much more in excess. We have to push it out into the wholesale market. So, we have to have some different branding, different labels, to create a market."
So far, "We have our South Coast label, and we have our Wild Horse Peak label for the wines that come from the vineyards up in Agua Tibia. Those will be all reds. The South Coast wines will run $10-$20; the Wild Horse Peak $20-$30. Then we will have a Carter Estate Selection that will probably be in the high $40s. Those will be wines from any of the estate vineyards that we deem to be of exceptional character and quality. We'll use a different barrel program for them -- higher-end barrels. The Rolling Hills Merlot (a South Coast wine) is 12 bucks. It's very nice Merlot, but when you compare it to our '02 Merlot off of Wild Horse Peak, it's night and day."
The push for effective branding has led to more adventurous, even hip, packaging. "We're doing a label called Elevation Peaks & Valleys. The Elevation goes who knows where -- Vons, Costco. It's a screwcap wine with a topographic map silk-screened onto the bottle showing where the majority of grapes came from for the wine. The Merlot has a map of Wild Horse Peak, while the Sauvignon Blanc has got Temecula Valley." "Elevation" runs up the side of the bottle in all caps; together with the topo map, it makes for a standout design, great for stopping the eye as it scans a supermarket shelf.
"I've got about 1400 gallons of this Syrah in oak," says McPherson as he pours me a taste from a stainless steel tank. "We're going to keep part of it for South Coast and blend the rest of it into our Elevation Peaks & Valleys. They're nice wines," he says of the latter. "They're not going to bastardize the name of South Coast."