Many wine lovers don’t realize that California’s origin story when it comes to wine is deeply rooted in the Southern part of the state. In fact, it was primarily Southern California’s Spanish missionaries who planted the state’s first vineyards in the late 18th century, establishing the foundation for California’s now world-famous wine industry. In 1769, Father Junipero Serra planted the first grape variety as part of his chain of missions in San Diego, which became known as the Mission grape, and was the dominant variety until the late 1800s.
These Spanish missions gave way to early winemaking efforts, producing sacramental wines and setting the stage for a flourishing industry that would later spread North and captivate the world. In the heart of this historical narrative, Temecula Valley stands proud, bridging the gap between the State’s wine origins and its vibrant, innovative present.
Amid Temecula Valley’s sun-drenched hills, an exciting winemaking scene has emerged – one that is uniquely SoCal. It’s where laid-back vibes meet the meticulous art of viticulture. The soul of Temecula’s Wine Country has been shaped by the region’s talented winemakers, many of whom have deep roots in Southern Californian and Northern Baja soils. Their unique backgrounds have, in no small way, helped shape the energy of the region, through wines that echo the vibes of Southern California’s beaches, the rhythm of its cities, and the charm of its hinterlands.
We invite you to get to know a few of these SoCal and Baja natives to discover what it is about Temecula Valley that is so special.
Nick Palumbo, Palumbo Family Vineyards & Winery
Nick Palumbo was born and raised in San Diego, working and around the restaurant business his whole life prior to the 22 years he has spent in Temecula wine. He also spent time in New York City “grinding it out in restaurants (among other things),” he says. He explains that, while he worked in both the front and back of the house in restaurants, he really excelled in the kitchen. When he returned to his SoCal roots, he fell in love with the idea of making a home as well as wine in Temecula Valley. “I knew when I got here there was much to offer in terms of advancing the valley as a leading quality wine region, and I found the challenge exciting,” he remembers.
When asked what he’s most excited about when it comes to making wine in the region, he underscores the cross-section of quality with Wine Country amenities. “I am happy to say my ‘hunch’ was right and Temecula Valley really can compete on the quality side, but I’ve also been happy to find that, as a destination, it excels above many other regions with its varied and accessible offerings,” he says. “It’s been a great place to be true to who we really are. Small farmers first, winemakers second, and more importantly, Southern Californians at heart.”
Dakota Denton, Gershon Bachus Vintners
Born in Murrieta and raised in Temecula, Dakota is a local in the truest sense of the word. He grew up in Wine Country and landed a job at a winery at the age of 15, with Carol’s Restaurant at Baily Winery. When he turned 20 years old – not even legally old enough to drink – he got his first full-time position in the cellar, working at Leoness Cellars, where he came into his own, eventually earning a Cellar Master position with Temecula Valley Winery Management. In 2006, he became the winemaker for Gershon Bachus Vintners, focusing on red varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Zinfandel to name a few.
With nearly two decades of experience under his belt, Dakota knows a thing or two about making wine in Southern California. “Working in Temecula has taught me the importance of pH in the wines and the importance of managing a good vineyard to make the best wine possible,” he says.
When asked what makes Temecula Valley such a special place in which to grow grapes and make wine, his heart turns to the individuals that call the region home. “The people in wine country are so friendly and always willing to help a neighbor out,” he says. “I also love the beautiful rolling hills with the mountains surrounding the valley, making for excellent views.”
Nadia Urquidez, Doffo Winery
Nadia was born in Ensenada and raised in San Vicente, Baja California, Mexico, now boasting 12 years of experience in wine. “I went to ask for a job in a winery in Valle de Guadalupe without any experience, and the CEO hired me because I have a BS Degree in Chemistry,” she explains of her start in the industry. A few weeks later, Nadia enrolled at the University Autonomous of Baja California to earn a postgraduate degree in Viticulture and Enology and has been working her way up in the industry since then – first in the lab, then as assistant winemaker, and now winemaker.
Nadia has been drawn to the diversity of grapes that thrive in Temecula Valley. “You can make different styles of wines with good results,” she says. Like others, she’s also drawn to the spirit of collaboration in the region. “The welcoming people in the industry, the solidarity, and passion about wine [are what attract me to Temecula Valley]. Also the hard work they do every day to put the name of The Valley on the map with high-quality, award-winning wines.”
Javier Flores, South Coast Winery Resort & Spa / Carter Estate Winery and Resort
It’s hard to think of Temecula Valley wine without thinking of Javier Flores. Born in Tijuana, Mexico, Javier has a whopping 45 years of experience in wine under his belt. After earning a college degree from Tecnologico de Tijuana as a Biochemical Engineer in Food Sciences, he began his career in wine at LA CETTO winery in Tijuana. From there, he came to Southern California to work at Thorton Winery. “I was attracted to Temecula Valley because of the proximity to my family in Tijuana and friends in the Mexican wine industry in Valle de Guadalupe,” he says. He ultimately joined South Coast Winery where he’s been for 21 years. “I love working with the Carters and winemaker Jon McPherson.”
One of Temecula Valley’s greatest traits is the diversity of grapes and wine styles one can find while sipping their way through the region. This is a dream for many winemakers, who have a seemingly limitless palette to work with when it comes to making wine. “I’ve learned so much about the different varieties of grapes in the SoCal and Baja regions,” says Javier. “Especially here in Temecula Valley, where we work with as many as 30 grape varieties.”
Kristina Filippi, Wilson Creek Winery
Kristina’s 15 years of experience are jam-packed. Originally from Rancho Cucamonga, she kicked off her career in wine at age 21, working at a tasting room while completing her college education. This early experience ignited her fascination with wine production and the business in general, and she devoted herself to learning as much as possible about the world of wine, reading, participating in educational courses, and seminars, all while transitioning into cellar work and steadily progressing to the role of winemaker. “I consider myself fortunate to have cultivated a comprehensive understanding of the industry from its very foundations,” she says. “Moreover, I attribute a substantial portion of my growth and expertise to the valuable guidance received from my predecessor and consultants.”
Kristina’s extensive experience also includes working with old vines. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with many different varieties of ancient vines – some over 100 years old – in Cucamonga Valley, and have learned to work with vines and fruit grown in difficult drought conditions.” These skills are no doubt a major asset in the warm, Mediterranean climate of Temecula Valley – one of the things that attracted her to the region in the first place. What else brought her to Temecula? “Career opportunities and the expanding diversity in winemaking that the area has shown over the last decade.”
Giovani Verdejo, Callaway Vineyard & Winery
Born in Mexico City, Giovani grew up in a family of wine lovers and was exposed to wine at a very young age. He built his now 23-year career from the ground up, starting in Napa at the age of 19. He has since worked in every department in production, from cellar master to enologist to assistant and head winemaker, all while getting an enology degree from Napa Valley College.
Searching for new experiences and opportunities, he landed himself in Temecula Valley after more than two decades making wine in Norther California. “Temecula had been on my mind for quite some time,” he says. “I have always loved Southern California, and when the opportunity at Callaway arose, I did not hesitate to move my family to be able to make wines here. The hot days with cool nights are not too different from where I started my career.”
Giovani is also aware of the quality coming out of Temecula Valley – thanks to the hard work and passion of winemakers in the region. “Great wines can be produced everywhere, and Temecula is no exception,” he says. “I am genuinely pleased with the wines being produced here, and am very proud to be a part of it.”
Renato Sais, Avensole Winery
No doubt one of the most prolific winemakers in Temecula Valley, with 19 vintages (“and counting!”) under his belt, Renato was born in Sonora, Mexico, and raised in Tijuana. After graduating from International Business Major in Tijuana (2004), his dad invited Renato to work for him. And, despite no one in the family having any experience in wine – his parents were both medical doctors, his brother is an architect, and his sister a lawyer – a year later, they we were establishing a winery from scratch. “Everything began from scratch in this industry for all of us,” he remembers. “Now here we are, 18 years later, I love my job. As versatile and crazy as it is, it keeps me humble in every sense of the word. Today I can say, wine is my passion, my life.”
Renato came to the United Sates in 2009 and never left. He credits Southern California with allowing him to become who he is in wine today, and for allowing him to understand wine from vine to bottle. “I remember early in my career focusing on understanding broad wine concepts and processes,” he says. “Now it’s becoming more of an understanding of little details in every step of the process. The difference between fermentation temperatures, understanding how each variety behaves differently on the vine, in fermentation, at aging, and all the cons and pros that the weather brings to our vines to make every season different, stressful, but enjoyable at the same time… Being a winemaker might be cyclical, but it’s very different every year, and that’s what makes it fun.”
Renato speaks fondly of the spirit of potential and opportunity that Temecula Valley offered when he first came to the region. He earned his stripes under the leadership of Mike Tingley as assistant winemaker and vineyard manager, ultimately landing at Maurice Car’rie at age 32. He now consults for various wineries throughout the Valley. “I am doing my part to make this Wine Country better, focusing on winemaking quality, and helping winery owners succeed and make the right investments in production year after year,” he explains. “I am living my dream job. I am proud to say that I consider this wine country my home and have the most respect for it and for the people who are trying to do the same for this amazing Valley.”