In the ’70s and ’80s, John Piconi helped Temecula become a legitimate wine region.
"But this really is Cailles en Sarcophage!” — General Lorens Lowenhielm, Babette’s Feast
The general is shocked when he says this. He is shocked because he has just finished describing a dish he once enjoyed at the finest restaurant in all of Paris, only to have the same delicacy served to him at a dinner party in a tiny Dutch fishing village. (“This rarefied excellence — here? How is such a thing possible?”) It’s pretty much the same reaction I had upon tasting John Piconi’s 1987 Johannesberg Riesling, a Riesling made from grapes grown just over yonder in Temecula. There it was: the distinctive tang atop the honeyed ripeness…“But this really is botrytis!”
“If it affects ripe, healthy, whole, light-skinned grapes, and the weather conditions are favorable, botrytis [fungus] develops in a benevolent form called noble rot, which is responsible for some of the world’s finest sweet wines.” — The Oxford Companion to Wine
I’ve been fortunate enough to sample a few of those “world’s finest sweet wines;” almost always, they’ve been either German Rieslings or French Sauternes. But there I was, in Piconi’s Fallbrook home, having my own Cailles en Sarcophage moment. Granted, the Riesling was relatively light-bodied; no one would ever mistake it for Château d’Yquem. But still: Botrytis? Here?
Well, yes. Bear with me for a quick dip into history. Robert Benson’s Great Winemakers of California, published in 1977, includes only one entry from Temecula: Ely Callaway’s Callaway Vineyard & Winery. This is not terribly surprising, as Callaway was one of only two commercial operations running in the valley at the time (the other, John Poole’s Mount Palomar, was selling fruit to Callaway). In the piece, Callaway explains his decision to plant grapes so far south. “The Salton Sea is generally the lowest pressure area in California, and it generally pulls air from the ocean, which is a high-pressure area. We happen to be in the pathway of the wind…. Our wind is not only strong, about 15 to 17 knots at its peak every day, but it also contains moisture. That’s why the Indians named this area Temeku — Temecula — meaning, according to local historians, ‘land where the sun shines through the white mist.’” As a result, he says, he gets “frequent botrytis…. It’s not a problem, because we’re highly specialized and we know how to make botrytised wines.” Still, I’m not sure how much credence I would have given Callaway had I not tasted Piconi’s little sip of history.
The rest of my evening with Piconi provided its own sort of history lesson. (He hasn’t made wine commercially since 1999; the old Piconi winery is now home to Miramonte.) Listening to him talk, you could hear echoes of a bygone era, one less dominated by the overall homogenizing power of market forces. (Read: Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc.) “There was a guy at UC Davis by the name of Dr. Olmo,” he explained when asked about a particular bottle tucked on a shelf above his stove. “He wanted to grow Cabernet in the San Joaquin Valley, and of course, Cabernet doesn’t do well there” — too darn hot. “So he hybridized it with Carignan,” and created a grape called Carmine.
“A friend of mine grew some,” continued Piconi, “and I made wine out of it. It tasted more like a Bordeaux than anything in California. So I planted it and made the only Carmine here for about four or five years” in the late ’80s. “It turned out much better than the Cabernets being made here. I made probably 1000 gallons a year, and I sold every bottle I ever made at $20 a bottle, which was a lot of money for the time. It held its acid late into the growing season, and when I put it in tastings, for the life of me, everybody thought it was French. Of course, when I sold the winery, the people wanted to make something that would sell, so they grafted it over.”
“Something that would sell” here equals “something you didn’t have to trust the winemaker in order to buy.” “It’s like selling Petite Sirah,” said Piconi, who broke into the business with that robust grape. “It doesn’t sell like Cabernet or Merlot. But with my ’82, which won a double gold medal in San Francisco, I sold the last ten cases for $50 a bottle.” Yes, it helped that it won a fancy medal, but $50 for Petite Sirah, 30 years ago? That’s faith in the winemaker, and market forces be damned.
Of course, it helped that there wasn’t much of a market for local wines back in ’78, when Piconi partnered with local grower Vince Cilurzo and opened a winery. He had started out ten years previous in Washington state, drawing on his biochemistry training from medical school to make fruit wines. “I’m not a very artistic person, in the sense of someone who can create. But I found I had an affinity for smelling and tasting things and then making them taste better. I loved doing it, and I paid attention to detail.” But while he had a knack for fermenting berries, he still longed to try his hand at the grape.
“I remembered my father making wine back in Pittsburgh. He would buy grapes off the train. I fell in love with the aroma of fermentation — we lived in the attic, but when they were making wine in the cellar, I could still smell it.” Years later, he had the opportunity to taste the best of Burgundy and Bordeaux while working as a surgeon in Vietnam. So when he made his way south to San Diego, he started in making Lodi Zinfandel. The results impressed Cilurzo, and the two worked together until 1980, when Piconi left to start his own venture.
“I was practicing medicine full time, but I had a big enough family; they were all helping me. I had a problem in the tasting room, because I’m a very opinionated guy, and these guys would come in half drunk and say my wine smelled like vinegar. I would get upset. So my son Robert said to me, ‘Why don’t you let Peter and me sell the wine?’ Theoretically, they were too young, but they ran the tasting room every Saturday and Sunday, and people loved it. They were really knowledgeable.”
Robert and Peter had it easy in the tasting room. Sons Tom and John had to work in the winery after finishing their homework. “One night, we were racking Cabernet and Chenin Blanc, transferring them from one container to another. I got an emergency call — torsion of the testicle — so I told the kids, ‘All you have to do is rack this wine from this container into that empty vat. I set it all up. I’ll be back in two hours.’ Two hours later, I walked in there, and you could hear a pin drop. Tom looked like he was about ready to cry.” The boys had racked the Cabernet right into the Chenin Blanc, creating about 2000 gallons of bright pink wine.
At the time, “we were losing money. I didn’t know how we were going to survive.” Still, “I wanted the whole thing to be fun, so I said, ‘Don’t worry. We’re all alive. Let’s see what we’ve got here.’ It looked just like a holly berry, it smelled like Chenin Blanc, and it tasted wonderful. I said, ‘It looks like Christmas. Why don’t we call it Christmas wine? I designed a green-and-white label, and it sold like hotcakes, all 2000 gallons. Saved the winery. The next year, I had a waiting list for 3000 gallons.” Another scene from a bygone era.
Today, Piconi makes olive oil from the trees on his property and wine from grapes grown all over California in a snug home winery dug into the side of a hill. “I buy from a lot of people who don’t usually cater to home winemakers, but they remember me. This year, I made my first Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia highlands and a Sangiovese from right here in Escondido. It’s not Chianti, but I think it tastes pretty good.”