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Meet Your Winemaker: Jon McPherson, Master Winemaker at South Coast Winery, Resort & Spa

January 27th, 2012

We’re starting a new series here called “Meet Your Winemaker,” so you can get to know the folks behind the wines we all enjoy so much! Temecula Valley Wine Country is made up of so many fascinating, creative and talented people that we felt the need to give you an all-access pass into the stories behind the people behind the wine. So welcome to the inaugural “Meet Your Winemaker” post, highlighting veteran winemaker Jon McPherson of South Coast Winery, Resort & Spa.

Jon has been in the business most of his life, moving out to Southern California from his native Texas in 1985 and carrying on his family’s winemaking tradition. Read about his journey here:

Q: What inspired you to go into wine making? 

I could lie and say, “The moment I had a 1976 Johnson-Turnbull Cabernet.”  Or, “When I saw the harvest in Burgundy.”  Truth be told, as a small child, I was pressed into service by my father (founder and pioneer of the modern Texas wine industry ‘Doc’ McPherson), who had the grand idea that growing grapes in west Texas would be a great occupation/hobby/pursuit of happiness.  He purchased some land in early 1972 and started planting grapes in ’73 and ’74.  Since I was young, and certainly able, I found myself on the end of a post hole digger, shovel, hoe and any other manual labor implement used in the vineyard.

Weekends, summers, vacations, were all spent going to the vineyard with my dad.  As a kid, this was not the idea of a good time- for sure- but my father saw it as a way to keep me off the streets, off of drugs, and away from girls.  I missed a lot of cartoons, and general mischief that my friends all enjoyed, but this all seemed to work out pretty well, and by the late 70’s when my father decided to start Llano Estacado Winery I had enough experience running around grapes that I was drafted into service for a cellar hand.  I worked with several different winemakers that came through Llano in the 80’s, and I saw that the lifestyle and actual work that was part of the winemaker’s life was very much something that I wanted for myself.  Besides, it was a good time.  I grew up in the business, and by the time I was graduated from high school, I had figured out that this was what I wanted to do.

Q: Did you have a wine-making mentor, and if so, can you tell us a bit about him or her?

Certainly my father, who made wine at home in “experimental” batches.  He was a chemistry professor at Texas Tech University, and he was all about wine chemistry and what it took to make a good wine.  Other than that, there was the Australian Terry Belltrame, Joe Norman (formerly of Heitz Cellars)  Bill Ward (Vineyard manager of Chappellet in the 80’s, no longer with us) , Ron McClendon (retired from Allied Domeq), Greg Fowler (Shramsberg, Mumm Napa and Seagrams), Carol Shelton (has her own label of the same name) and Sam Balakian (ASV and SVP wineries) all had a part in what I know and believe to be true of the winemaking industry.  They all have their own story, but I worked with them at various stages and times and I learned what I could from their perspective.

Q: Have you had any “oops” moments during your early days of winemaking? If so, we’d love to hear the story!  

Many years ago (1988) on a rainy February day, I was working on some outdoor tanks and I was moving wine from tank to tank.  It was raining quite heavily, and my eye glasses were all covered in water and I couldn’t see clearly.  I needed a valve for what I was doing, so I grabbed the closest valve that was handy off of what I thought was an empty tank.  I was met with a stream of 35 degree wine, and besides being wet from the rain, I was now soaked with ice cold wine.  After the initial shock, I did manage to compose myself and get the valve back on the tank (a 12,000 gallon tank to boot) but I lost about 200 gallons of wine and swore never to work in the rain again.

On another note, I had an intern that worked for me one harvest (2001) that seemed to screw up everything she touched.  Her first screw up was when she pumped syrah over a cabernet fermentation.  I wanted to fire her.  No, I wanted to kill her. Then fire her. Instead, everyone convinced me that she would never make that mistake again, and would be all the more conscientious in future cellar work. I took the advice, and chilled out. After all, everyone deserves a second chance.  So we tell her not to turn on another pump without direct supervision. Sure enough, when she is suppose to only set up for a move of wine from tank to tank, she takes it upon herself to turn on the pump. She walks away from the pump and doesn’t tell anyone she has started the movement. Well, she forgot to close the racking valve on the tank she was pumping into.  When she returns she finds the wine streaming from the tank and over 1,000 gallons lost.  That sent me up the wall and her out the door.  She resigned on the spot, and I never heard from her again. I don’t think she stayed in the business.

Q: What do you feel has been your greatest achievement as a winemaker?

Bagging not one, but two Golden Bear Awards (an honor presented to the winery that wins the most medals and awards at the California State Fair’s prestigious wine competition). Oh, and back in the day I was the most award winning sparkling winemaker in the country, for four or five years.

Q: Give one piece of advice to aspiring winemakers.

Always be passionate about making wine. Just don’t fall in love with it.  The minute that you fall in love with it you lose all objectiveness and the ability to approach wine in an analytical manner.

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