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It’s Official: Harvest is Here!

Wednesday, September 1st, 2021

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at What Goes on in the Vineyard and Winery Before, During, and After Harvest in Temecula Valley

Evening Harvest

Equipment has been washed and sanitized. Bins have been readied. Summer vacations have been enjoyed, bodies rested and refueled for the work to come.

And then it begins. That perfect brix reading on the refractometer, telling winemakers and vineyard managers that the sugars in the grapes are where they want them to be. A quick sampling of a few berries straight off the vine indicate perfect phenolic ripeness – the grape skins have lost unpleasant, bitter flavors and have softened into something that will produce delicious, balanced wine. It’s go-time – the official kick-off of harvest. And it’s all underway in Temecula Valley Southern California Wine Country right now.

This is a busy time in the vineyard and the winery, and no day is the same. We caught up with a few Temecula Valley winemakers and winery staff to check in on how it’s all going, and what a typical day might look like at the winery during harvest. We also asked them if they have any superstitious, pre-harvest rituals and found out that winemaking isn’t all science and agriculture… it’s also a little bit of magic as well.

THE PREP

For the team at Peltzer Farm & Winery, the days leading up to harvest contain an energy shared by all. “Harvest season is usually an exciting state of limbo,” says Tasting Room Manager Danae Wager. “The grapes tell US when they’re ripe, so we wait on the sidelines in anticipation as the season begins. Typically, farmers wait until dark to pick the fruit, which preserves the sugar and acid levels needed to curate the desired end result that ends up in the bottle.” 

Oak Mountain Winery owner Valerie Andrews paints a picture of the days and weeks leading up to the big moment when harvest officially begins:

“Oak Mountain’s harvest routine is to hurry and bottle everything in the tanks so we will have room for harvest. Next, we wash and test all equipment, as it has been sitting all year. Steve, by this time, has ordered yeasts and supplies so we are ready when Mother Nature says ‘go.’ We check last year’s timing of when we picked grapes and start testing sugar levels, then cross our fingers that we can get pickers to pick when we are ready. Fortunately, it always works out! Now it’s time for a glass of wine.”

Nick Palumbo, owner and winemaker at Palumbo Family Vineyards and Winery, compares prepping for harvest to getting ready for a busy night of service at a restaurant.

“[It’s like] Mise en Place,” he explains. “This is a French term often used in professional cooking that roughly translates into ‘Get your act together!’ But what it really means is, before you get started, gather all you will need, do your prep work and make sure everything is in place. The best run restaurants as well as wineries know this well and plan ahead. Harvest is and can be unpredictable, chaotic and fast-paced but if you are ready it can also be smooth and predictable.”

Some pre-harvest rituals are more superstitious. “We bury 11 pennies in the ground on the first day of harvest,” says Sharon Cannon, Director of Operations for Akash Winery. “It’s an Indian good luck tradition that [Co-owner] Mrs. Patel started for the winery.”

Or they’re just plain sensible:

Says Joe Wiens, winemaker at Wiens Family Cellars: “We don’t really have any pre-harvest rituals besides stocking up the fridge with beer!”

THE REAL WORK

So once all of the pieces are in place, what does an actual day of working harvest look like?


Joe Wiens shares a snapshot of what the day-to-day can look like during this exciting time in Wine Country:

“We typically get in at 6 or 7 AM.  One of us will start with turning caps on our fermenting reds, while the other weighs the newly delivered fruit.  We taste the fermenting reds (not the most fun thing in the world at 6am!) and decide if anything is ready for pressing.  The remainder of our workday entails racking settling wines, pressing and processing, and running lab analysis.”

While it’s exhausting work, Joe credits the sense of community and shared responsibility for getting them through it. “Our team has been together for years, and everyone is trained on many of our responsibilities from processing, to preparing yeast additions, to lab analysis and data entry,” he says. “We get the music going early and all work really well together to make the long days feel shorter.”

“Our days here at Palumbo start as early as 2 am and can last well into the night,” shares Nick Palumbo. “Then off to sleep for a few hours before starting again. We are a small, family winery so everyone gets involved. We are in the field sorting leaves out of the bins, then off to the crush pad for processing, fermenting, pressing, and barreling. There is a lot to do but somehow, we get it done each year. As we have always said we don’t have a choice; it will get done somehow.”

“A typical day consists of early morning vineyard visits to collect grape samples for analysis, brix and temperature readings on all fermenting wines, smelling the top of each fermenting tank to make sure there are no ‘off’ odors or nutrient deficiencies, and most importantly, tasting each lot daily,” explains Olivia Bue, Winemaker at Robert Renzoni Vineyards.

“And, once the reds come in, the real harvest bootcamp begins, with pumpovers three times a day, with at least three hours off in between. This involves sanitizing all hoses and pumps before and after each lot. As the reds approach the end of alcoholic fermentation its time press the wine off the skins… Each day consists of a lot of cleaning and scrubbing.”

Olivia says the hardest part of her day is when the alarm goes off at 3 AM. It’s also incredibly rewarding with moments of beauty as well. “[I love] processing the grapes as the sun rises,” she says. “I also love when the last lot is pressed out – not because harvest is over, but because I can look back and feel proud of all the blood, sweat, and tears put into the vintage.”

She also loves the team building that happens over their traditional 9AM happy hours.

Over at Wilson Creek, the day-to-day looks similar. And they get ready for the mammoth task ahead by going out for pizza and beer the Friday before harvest begins.

“We start picking at 10 PM and, depending upon the varietal, we finish with the harvest crew at 3 am,” says Wilson Creek Winery winemaker Gus Vizgirda. “The cellar crew kicks in on the crushpad at 4 AM. Whites are crushed and pressed and put in the tanks. Reds are crushed and put in the tank for two weeks for fermentation.”

With a total of 140 acres to harvest, this goes on for about 2.5 months, with two crews of twenty people working seven days a week. This hard work is recognized and rewarded in two ways. First, Gus arrives every morning at sunrise when the grapes are on the crushpad, and he plays the bugle for everyone – including the grapes.

Head on over to Lorenzi Estate Wines and you will see their crew at 3 AM, planning the day, taking readings, doing pumpovers, and picking crop starting around 4 AM, with the goal of being done by lunchtime so that they can avoid that Southern California midday heat in early Fall.

At Gershon Bachus, the dawn patrol continues, with the picking crew arriving around 3AM as well to pick the fruit and drop it at the winery’s production area.

“Our team arrives by 7AM,” explains Gershon Bachus owner Christina Falik and winemaker Dakota Denton. “For our hillside vineyards, we have a team picking out the leaves and bad clusters as the grapes take a ride on the elevator. The winemaking staff secures the connections to our concrete tanks where the fruit will go through fermentation.  Then the pumpovers begin in order to make sure the must stays wet. This is done twice per day, until fermentation is done. Harvest for us goes fast, and is intense, as the fruit tends to ripen at a similar pace.”

What many people don’t realize is just how physically demanding harvest and winemaking are, requiring long hours, heavy-lifting, and early starts. “On a complicated day you can crush/destem, pump over, press, and move wine into barrels,” continues Christina. “This is not a day for the weary.”

The excitement – and work! – of harvest isn’t limited to those working in the vineyards or cellar. Oftentimes, the experience is shared by everyone at the winery.

“We love to gather and watch or participate in picking the fruit and making memories together,” says Danae at Peltzer. “Seeing the process firsthand and learning exactly how each grape is processed reignites our passion for farming and high-quality winemaking. We typically order pizza and invite the families of our staff to join in the festivities and ask as many questions as possible!” 

THE AFTERMATH

And when it’s all over? At Wilson Creek, once harvest is complete, the team has a huge – and well-deserved – harvest party among the vines.

And they’re not the only ones celebrating a job well done. “Our end-of-harvest ritual is a PARTY,” says Christina. “Since our season is so short, it precedes the holiday season and is just as festive.”

Photo courtesy of Matthew Burlile- Instagram: @temeculaphotography

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A Bright Future for Temecula Valley Southern California Wine Country

Friday, July 2nd, 2021

Get to Know the Next Generation and Youngest Rising Stars of This Top Wine Destination

Damian & Lucca Doffo

While many think Temecula Valley is a relatively young wine region, this Southern California wine hot spot actually celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018! In fact, Temecula Valley has been around long enough now that the next generation of winemakers and winery employees are starting to leave their mark on this dynamic wine destination. It’s not uncommon to see multiple family members working at the same winery, sons and daughters learning the ropes and making wines alongside their parents, and young, fresh-faced winemakers just starting out in their careers staining their hands purple in the cellar.

From Temecula Valley Wine Country pioneer Phil Baily’s 24-year-old grandson Alex, who is an integral part of the Baily harvest crew alongside Phil and Phil’s son Patrick, to Nick and Cindy Palumbo’s son Reed who has been put to work in all aspects of the winery, vineyard and production at Palumbo Family Vineyards & Winery, to second generation winemaker Damian Doffo’s very young children who are regularly seen playing amongst the vines and at the winery, the future is bright Temecula Valley! Passionate winemakers, winery owners, and staff of all ages are all bringing a touch of magic to the region that Wine Enthusiast Magazine called one of the Top 10 Wine Destinations in the world in 2019.

We caught up with a few of Temecula’s youngest winemakers and next generation winery employees to learn what it’s like not only to work with family, but to be the faces of the future of Southern California Wine Country.

Jeff Carter, President of Carter Hospitality Group

Jeff Carter

Jeff is the son of Jim Carter, founder of Carter Hospitality Group and South Coast Winery, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Jeff was originally the CFO for Carter Hospitality Group from 1998 to 2011, ultimately becoming president in 2011.

TVWA: What is it like working with family?

JC: Working with family can be a blessing and a curse. While we have many common goals to help the business succeed, we sometimes have different approaches. Since we’re more familiar, we can be and are more direct with each other versus a traditional corporate business setting. At the end of the day, we are family and work through those differences, ultimately bringing everyone closer together. Having lost my mother when I was 24 years old, I am thankful for the time spent with my father working on new endeavors. I hear so many people wishing they had spent more time with their loved ones; I get to do that on a daily basis.   

TVWA: Do you see any differences in the way you and the next generation of winemakers and wine country personalities approach business, the community, and winemaking when compared to previous generations?

JC: I think we are starting to see some of the transition from one generation to the next and I am not yet sure how it will all work out. Will the new visions of the next generation turn into reality, or will time and experience build an appreciation for what the first generation has built? I believe the next generation of winemakers will continue to create one-of-a-kind experiences for the public, just as the first generation did. The next generation has newer technologies and data to refine the quality of the wines and are able to cast a larger net outside of Southern California – which is exciting to see.

TVWA: What do you see for the future of Temecula Valley Wine Country?

JC: Temecula Valley continues to build a stable of serious wineries making amazing and complex wines. I see Temecula Valley Wine Country expanding its presence in wine consumers’ minds and hearts, whether that is pulling in guests to the valley from a larger geographic area or putting a bottle of wine on their dinner table 3,000 miles away. Temecula has matured as a wine destination and wine aficionados across the country will continue to take notice.

Joseph Wiens, Winemaker, Wiens Family Cellars

Joseph Wiens

Joseph Wiens is one of about ten other members of the Wiens family that work at the winery. He followed in his father and founding winemaker Doug’s footsteps, and has been the head winemaker for nearly 11 years now.

TVWA: What is it like working with family?

JW: Overall, it’s been great.  Our (huge) family all has special strengths in their positions, and we all work together to make sure our guests enjoy their time with us.  We have a tradition at our winery that gives the winemaking staff relative autonomy over our winemaking program, which is very freeing, and allows our creative sides flourish. Also, sometimes we fight (just like any other family).

TWVA: Fighting in any family is to be expected! At least you have wine to get through it. Do you see any differences in the way you and the next generation of winemakers and wine country personalities approach business, the community, and winemaking when compared to previous generations?

JW: The younger generation pushes to try new winemaking techniques, less traditional blends, and branding that resonates with our generation.  Since we have so many age groups involved at our winery, we tend to diversify our portfolio of offerings, which translates into a wine list that appeals to a very wide audience.

TVWA: What do you see for the future of Temecula Valley Wine Country?

JW: I see more of the younger generation getting involved with winemaking and ownership.  That will help to keep Temecula Wine Country fresh, exciting, and relevant as a Southern California destination. 

With so many family members working alongside you, you must have some great stories to tell! Can you share?

JW: Although we’re a big, diverse family, we always get together for family gatherings.  Once the adults have enjoyed enough beer and wine, they challenge each other to a “feats of strength” game called leg wrestling (which looks as strange as it sounds).  Basically, two people lay on their backs and try to flip over the other person, using only their leg.  My uncle, Big Dave was the final boss, and to my memory, has never been beaten. 

Damian Doffo, CEO & Winemaker, Doffo Winery

Damian Doffo

Damian is the 37-year-old son of Marcelo Doffo, who purchased the land and planted vines in 1994, and wasted no time involving the whole family in the business, including Damian and his sisters Brigitte and Samantha. Damian has been the winemaker for 12 years, and also became CEO five years ago. Big sister Samantha is in charge of events and tours for the winery, and Damian’s other sister Brigitte handles all things related to design, merchandise, and aesthetic for the business.

TVWA: What is it like working with family?

DD: We love it! Our inside joke is that we even hang out after work. That’s how you know we really like each other! 

TVWA: What is it like being among the youngest winemakers in Temecula?

DD: I feel very lucky to be in the Temecula Valley amongst great company of young, talented winemakers. It’s been fun watching my peers develop and produce some amazing wines in the Valley.

TVWA: Do you see any differences in the way you and the next generation of winemakers and wine country personalities approach business, the community, and winemaking when compared to previous generations?

DD: The next generation is putting their twist and mark on the valley. I believe that this last year really put some separation between the wineries that pivoted and adapted versus those that bunkered down and went static through the pandemic.  

TVWA: What do you see for the future of Temecula Valley Wine Country?

DD: I see Temecula continuing to create its own legacy in the wine world. Our model doesn’t conform to the norms, but it’s working for us! Temecula needs to own its diversity and its tourism appeal and run with it! Celebrate the uniqueness of what our small slice of heaven offers the world.

Justin Knight, Winemaker, Danza del Sol Winery & Masia de la Vinya Winery

Justin Knight

Justin’s first job in wine was in the tasting room at Danza del Sol Winery over 12 years ago, where he first developed an interest in the production side of the business. After working under then-winemaker Mike Tingley and assistant winemaker Renato Sais, he learned the ropes, ultimately being promoted to head winemaker for both Danza del Sol and sister property Masia de la Vinya in 2018.

TVWA: What is it like being among the youngest winemakers in Temecula?

JK: I wouldn’t want to be a “young winemaker” anywhere else. Being an up-and-comer in most industries can be an intimidating time, but the previous generation of winemakers has set a strong foundation which has allowed the beginnings of a new generation to come and thrive. There is also more of a camaraderie factor in the valley, that I don’t believe is as strong in many other regions. 

TVWA: Do you see any differences in the way you and the next generation of winemakers and wine country personalities approach business, the community, and winemaking when compared to previous generations?

JK: Experimentation is one word that comes to mind in searching for differences in winemaking styles between generations. I think the younger generation will be more likely to experiment as they try and find a style of their own. Personally, I pull a lot of inspiration from the “old school” winemaking techniques that I learned from my predecessors, while also using a fair amount of “new” practices in order to make the best quality wine I can. 

TVWA: What do you see for the future of Temecula Valley Wine Country?

JK: I see Temecula continuing to grow and getting more world recognition as our region’s potential is fully realized. 

Spenser Epperson, Sales Associate, Wiens Family Cellars

Spenser Epperson

Spenser’s mother was the first non-family employee at Wiens. She started out as a sales associate in the temporary tasting room trailer while the family was building what is now the winery’s main tasting room, ultimately becoming an assistant manager before retiring ten years after she started. Spenser has been a sales associate at Wiens for two years now.

TVWA: Do you see any differences in the way you and the next generation of winemakers and wine country personalities approach business, the community, and winemaking when compared to previous generations?

SE: There has been noticeable change in the level of service expected, as well as amenities desired over the last 15 years or so. Many tasting rooms in the Valley were a belly-up style, and more informal for many years. With the change of guard, so to speak, the expectations are different, and many wineries have changed to meet demands like table service, on-site restaurants, and other amenities.

TVWA: What do you see for the future of Temecula Valley Wine Country?

SE: I believe Temecula is beginning to find itself with regard to what grape varieties can thrive and evoke a sense of place in our warm and arid climate. We are in the very early stages of transformation from a weekend destination to a serious wine region as the next generation of winemakers apply new ideas and begin to assert a more dominant role in the valley.

Meanwhile, my generation is beginning a transformation of their own. I feel my generation is much more open to new experiences. While my parents would stick to ordering a Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay on a wine menu, my generation is much more open to new experiences, and is willing to try more esoteric grape varieties on a wine menu. They are also beginning to reach that age when my own parents began to discover wine. It is only a matter of time before these trends converge. When that happens, watch out!

TVWA: It’s great that Temecula Valley is home to so many unique grape varieties in addition to the classics! Can you share any funny stories from your experience working at Wiens?

SE: My mother once brought home a 2012 Grand Rouge (The Wiens Family flagship wine) for me to try. She opened it and left it on the counter. I found it and thought it was left out overnight, so I dumped it down the kitchen sink! Needless to say, I was sad when, years later, I finally had a chance to taste how good it is. We now laugh when we remember that story.

Olivia Bue, Winemaker, Robert Renzoni Vineyards

Olivia Bue

Olivia has been part of the winemaking team at Robert Renzoni Vineyards since 2014, becoming head winemaker in 2017. Her passion and commitment to quality have contributed in no small way to the large number of 90+ point scores Robert Renzoni wines have received over the years.

TVWA: What is it like being among the youngest winemakers in Temecula?

OB: Honestly, I feel like I have a lot to live up to being among the youngest in the valley and surrounded by many incredibly talented winemakers here who have been making wine for decades. I have definitely leaned on them through the years to fully understand this region’s idiosyncrasies. When I first began working in Temecula Valley as a 23-year-old, I dreaded when people asked me my age, but here I am 9 years later and feel so proud of this opportunity to grow with the wine region.  

TVWA: Do you see any differences in the way you and the next generation of winemakers and wine country personalities approach business, the community, and winemaking when compared to previous generations?

OB: The next generation of winemakers may be a bit more adventurous with old school winemaking philosophies. I think it’s great to see young adults enthused about wine, so our market is much bigger now than it was two decades ago. We younger winemakers are able to connect with that audience as well as the older consumers.

TVWA: What do you see for the future of Temecula Valley Wine Country?

OB: The main goal is for Temecula Valley to get recognized for quality winemaking beyond just Southern California. Seeing visitors specifically flying into Southern California to come spend a weekend in the beautiful Temecula Valley is so exciting. The unity this region has among the winery leaders is incredibly special. 

Dakota Denton, Winemaker, Gershon Bachus Vintners

Dakota Denton

Dakota Denton is the 35-year-old winemaker at the picturesque Gershon Bachus Vintners along the De Portola Wine trail, where he has been working in winemaking since 2013.

TVWA: What is it like being among the youngest winemakers in Temecula?

DD: Being a young winemaker I find that people are surprised about my age, and time spent working for Gershon Bachus Vintners. It’s been amazing to be able to work with some of Temecula’s great winemakers at such a young age. I was lucky enough to start working full-time in production at the age of 20. The amount of support I have received from the winemakers before me and the encouragement to keep on pursuing my dreams has helped me meet my goals at a young age. 

TVWA: Do you see any differences in the way you and the next generation of winemakers and wine country personalities approach business, the community, and winemaking when compared to previous generations?

DD: As for winemaking, I’m going to have to say no, because the wine industry is constantly updating and innovating; so, as a winemaker – young or old – we are constantly trying to keep up with the times, and the best winemaking procedures to make the best product we can.

TVWA: What do you see for the future of Temecula Valley Wine Country?

Growing up in Temecula, I’ve been able to see wine country grow and grow, and the wine get better and better every year. Temecula Valley Wine Country is producing world class wines, and, as young winemakers, it’s our job to keep the quality next-level.

TVWA: Got any stories from when you were just starting out in the business?

DD: During my first production job on a hot summer day during harvest, the cellar crew and I got in trouble at work for starting a water fight that went on for about 10 minutes – all of us just spraying each other with hoses and dumping buckets of water on each other. It was a blast.

Photos courtesy of Carter Hospitality Group, Doffo Winery, Wiens Family Cellars, Danza Del Sol Winery, Robert Renzoni Vineyards and Gershon Bachus Vintners.

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Grilled Sausages with Fig and Onion Jam

Wednesday, September 26th, 2018

Chances are you’ll find many other uses for this fragrant sweet-tart jam. Enjoy it on a grilled-cheese or ham sandwich or serve it with a cheese or charcuterie board. It’s the perfect complement for fresh goat cheese or a tangy Cheddar. Pair with your favorite Temecula Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

¼ pound (125 g) dried Calimyrna figs, stems removed
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, about 10 ounces (315 g), halved and thinly sliced from root to stem
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
½ teaspoon ground fennel seed
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar, or more to taste
4 fresh Italian sausages, hot or sweet, 5 to 6 ounces (155 g to 185 g) each

Directions:

Put the figs in a small saucepan with 1 cup (8 fl oz/250 ml) water. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and simmer for 2 minutes. Cover and set aside for 30 minutes.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onion, thyme, and fennel seed. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, until the onions are soft, golden-brown, and sweet, about 30 minutes. Lower the heat if necessary to prevent burning.

While the onions cook, prepare a medium-hot charcoal fire or preheat a gas grill to medium-high.

Lift the figs out of the liquid with a slotted spoon and slice thinly. Add the figs to the onions, along with the sherry vinegar and 2 tablespoons of the fig-cooking liquid. Cook, stirring often, until the liquid has been absorbed and the flavors have merged, 3 to 4 minutes. Taste for seasoning. The jam should be moist with a balanced sweet-tart flavor.

Grill the sausages until they are nicely browned all over and feel firm when probed, about 10 minutes. Serve immediately with the warm jam.

Suggested Pairings:

Bel Vino Winery ~ Cabernet Sauvignon Vintners Selection – Aromas & flavors of black cherry, plum and dark chocolate.

Callaway Winery ~ 2014 Winemaker’s Reserve Syrah – Dark, spicy and brimming with black fruit, this vintage will only get better with time.

Danza Del Sol Winery ~ 2014 Syrah – Flavors of ripe black cherry, plum and hints of chocolate and tobacco laced finish.

Gershon Bachus Vintners ~ 2010 Aquilo God of North Wind Cabernet Sauvignon –  The smooth velvety finish carries a blackberry undertone

Recipe and photo courtesy of the Wine Institute of California

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