Mike Rohner -- the newish, youngish general manager at the WineSellar -- didn't discover wine until he left Northern California's wine country, heading down to UCSD in '89 from a home not two miles from the Kathryn Kennedy Winery in Saratoga. He came south because UCSD accepted him and because of its gorgeous situation, walking distance from the beach. He bounced from this focus to that before ending up a lit/writing major with poly sci and math as areas of concentration. And he started drinking wine with friends, "a little bit earlier than some of our peers."
Rohner continues, "We started off with red wines, one and a half liters for $4.50, straight out of Vons. Then we built up to Louis Jadot. We were drinking reds; we weren't connoisseurs, but we were trying to experiment with wine given a very limited budget. I lived in Pacific Beach, and we traveled to what we called the 'little Golden Triangle': Henry's to Trader Joe's to the 99-cent store for sundries. Trader Joe's was the home of the discount buy, where you could get a $4 bottle that at the time was very drinkable. It was survivable beach living."
"Meeting the right lady" -- Kristen, who eventually became his wife -- when he was 23 helped raise Rohner's sights a bit and sent him northward on periodic tours of Santa Barbara's wine country. It was a good time to be visiting Santa Barbara -- roughly a decade ago, when many of the region's stars were still rising, their celestial status as yet unfixed. Rohner got to know his way around, to the point where he could discuss the wines from the Santa Rita hills as opposed to the rest of the region.
Then, instead of pushing north to Sonoma and, inexorably, Napa, Rohner took a detour. He paid a visit to his parents in their new home on Long Island and "got to discover a region that I never knew was there. I had no concern for it when I went there to taste wines, but I loved virtually every drop I had" -- the region's Cabernet Francs in particular. "I thought, 'Wow, this is a nice up-and-coming region.' " Upon his return, he visited another lesser-known region, this one closer to home: Temecula. Again, he was surprised and impressed. "Maybe it wasn't quite as progressed as Long Island, but I thought the wines were worth visiting."
So he kept on visiting, year after year. Eventually he met Steve Hagata, winemaker at Falkner Winery and owner of his own label, Las Piedras. Hagata needed help harvesting the Las Piedras fruit; Rohner signed on. "I helped out, and I ended up with grapes all over me for a week straight, and I loved it. I loved diving into a tank and having to scoop out 8000 pounds of expired must and getting the unique high of the carbon dioxide splashing in your face the first time the cap breaks" on a fermenting batch of wine. "It was such a new experience for me."
Family matters called him (and his wife Kristen) back to New York for nearly a year. When he came back to California, Rohner decided he didn't want to return to his old career -- writing for an educational software company. He went back up to Temecula, back to Falkner Winery. This time he met Ray Falkner and landed a job working the tasting bar, giving wine tours, and eventually serving as an assistant to the winemaker. "I got to learn as much as I was willing to ask questions about, and I feel like I could make pretty bad wine right now. And if Steve were behind me, I think I could make pretty decent wine."
Rohner began to dream. "I thought -- and I still believe this -- that if you had the energy and drive to go up and find a way to buy property in Temecula, you could make some pretty good wine out of that valley and probably still make a profit. Whereas Napa, I think it's probably impossible now to start a winery and make a profit. Santa Barbara is borderline. I thought that if you got to know the right people, built the right plan, you could go to the banks with confidence and say, 'This is the model for how you make money in Temecula.' And I had this pedigree of success from working with Steve Hagata," whose wines Rohner still admires.
"Steve and I had discussed the future: Grenache, Syrah, probably Tempranillo -- another hot-zone grape. I started learning about the powers of Aussie Shiraz, the saignee method of Syrah production." In a hot climate, "You know you're not going to be able to achieve optimum pH before you've got physiological ripeness, sugars enough to make a 13, 14 percent alcohol wine. Australia and Paso Robles started really experimenting with bleeding off juice, which puts everything in a relative balance" by reducing the proportion of sugar (in the juice) to phenolics (in the skins) prior to fermentation. "Temecula was such a parallel to southeastern Australia; I started getting hope for Syrah in the region. If we vinify like Australia, we're going to get hyperconcentrated, hedonistic wines that people go nuts over.
"My intention was, 'I'm going to own a winery soon.' Then reality kind of played in." For starters, Falkner couldn't offer him anything like 40 hours a week year-round. "I needed another job, so I started to think, 'Where did I used to buy wine?' The WineSellar stood out because Kristen and I had gone to Santa Barbara to celebrate our first anniversary of being together, and we went to a restaurant where they recommended the Chalone Reserve Chardonnay to go with the lobster corn chowder. It was just an idyllic match. But when we got back, we could not find that higher-end Chalone wine anywhere in San Diego. We walked into the WineSellar, and there it was. It was the first time I had ever sought out a specific wine, and it was just cool that they had it."
He approached David Derby, then working under general manager Steve Frederick. "I said I was looking for a job, and immediately he asked, 'What are the five grapes of Bordeaux?' I had to spout them out real quick." The quiz continued: " 'Five first growths? The grapes of Champagne? Okay, you didn't get Pinot Meunier, but it's not a big deal -- nobody uses it. Grapes of Tuscany? Now, just a Brunello?' I didn't need to get every answer right; I realized that it was mainly 'Are you getting scared enough to just leave?' It's that first little bit of fire that pares down potential employees."
He stood the heat and moved on to a second interview with Frederick. "I learned, 'Thou shalt not have no idea.' You should always try to have an answer or do your best to let the person know you're going to find out that night." Frederick asked him about up-and-coming regions; Rohner rhapsodized about Santa Rita. "I had tasted enough from Santa Barbara, and I was really impressed with Babcock. And Melville was just starting." It was enough; he got the job. "I started like everyone here. We're the Nordstrom of the wine world. I was a stock boy/answer the phone/mark empty boxes, whatever. After a few weeks, if you can talk about a wine, they'll let you start talking to the customers."