Four SoCal winemakers making a difference

Southern California does so many things in such a big way. The rest of the world can only follow, and when trends catch on elsewhere, SoCal is on to something else. People flock here to catch the trendy wave of opportunity. 
Population has swelled to some 13 million in five counties, yet the big puzzle is why hasn’t the wine industry kept pace. After all, the first wine in the state was made in the 1700s by the missionaries in San Diego. Now more than 50 wineries operate in the county, mainly in Ramona and Julian. Temecula in Riverside County has 1,300 acres planted in wine grapes and plans to create up to 5,000 more acres of “citrus/vineyards” in a protected zone. It is fast becoming Southern California’s Wine Country with easy access to more than 30 wineries. Elsewhere, vineyards and wineries show up in such urban areas as Malibu, downtown Los Angeles, Rancho Cucamonga and Westlake Village.
If we look a little closer, we can find some competitive and dedicated professionals making high quality wines, mainly in San Diego and Riverside counties.  Here are four you’ll want to know.
Les Linkogle, winemaker/owner Briar Rose Winery, Temecula Valley
Les Linkogle will be the first one to tell you that he makes only ultra premium handcrafted wines that are expensive, with some reds as good as any in the Valley. Tasting is by appointment only. That makes him a wine making contrarian and that is a label he will gladly wear over his heart. 
“We are very different and like to feel we are like those smaller, premium boutique wineries in Napa Valley,” he said. He and his wife Dorian opened the doors of Briar Rose Winery in 2007, converted it from a country cottage home built with the wistful imagination of a Disney builder in the 1970s who fashioned it from Snow White’s cottage.
Linkogle considers his wines “art in a bottle.” Discerning locals and even Hollywood celebrities caught on to the Briar Rose wine experience and soon orders for Briar Rose wines were coming from such diverse locations as the White House and the Playboy Mansion. His reds were gathering medals by the bushel, especially small batch, barrel enhanced Cabernets that are turning heads in the wine world. Linkogle is now the southern district director of the prestigious Wine Institute. You must try the wines, but keep in mind, you must also make a reservation. Call (951) 308-1098. The website  is www.briarrosewinery.com.
Ryan Baker, winemaker, Witch Creek Winery, Carlsbad.
Ryan Baker cut his teeth in the wine industry in the Napa-Sonoma area before arriving at Witch Creek Winery, an urban operation in the tourist-friendly beach resort of Carlsbad. He makes mostly Mediterranean style wine in the tasting room, rarely more than 200 cases, and the varietals sell out quickly. Grapes are brought in from Northern California and the Guadalupe Valley in Baja, Mexico. A decision was made in 2009 to enter seven varietals, including lesser known Italian wines sourced from the Guadalupe Valley, into the San Francisco International Wine Competition. All seven took medals, including Witch Creek’s 2006 Nebbiolo that was awarded “Best of Class!”
Baker, who was a chemist before the epiphany and listening to the call of winemaking, calls his Nebbiolo as good as any Barolo or Barbaresco in Piedmont Italy (those are the premium wines that are made from the Nebbiolo grape).
“Our 2007 Nebbiolo is released and the $30 price is way lower than the Italian style price. The Cellar Club price is just $21. The mouth-feel is rich and round with blueberry and blackberry notes,” he said.  “I’m constantly experimenting, trying new combinations and blends. You have to try my latest, Due Pastore, a combination of Brunello and Aglianico.” We did and we loved it. Visit www.witchcreekwinery.com.
Jon McPherson, master winemaker, South Coast Winery, Temecula.
Jon McPherson, along with Assistant Winemaker Javier Flores, have put South Coast Winery on the state and national map by capturing the Gold Bear California State Fair award for best winery in the state two of the last three years. This year it earned 56 medals at the fair. “It’s about letting the grapes speak. We listen and then carefully nurture the process.” 
He planted grapes in Texas as a kid, helping his father in the wine industry, then came to Southern California, determined to make great sparkling wines. He got his chance in 1986 as winemaker in what is now known as Thornton Winery in Temecula. The winery eventually earned the title of “America’s Most Honored Sparkling Wine Producer.” When South Coast opened in 2003, Jon saw the opportunity and joined the team. The Wild Horse Peak series, with estate fruit harvested from South Coast’s vineyard at nearby Palomar Mountain is the crown jewel, producing best-of-breed 2006 Sangiovese, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. See more at www.wineresort.com.
Justin Mund, winemaker, Orfila Winery, Escondido
Justin Mund is a winemaker with swagger and self-confidence, like a quarterback in football that always wants the ball.  He’s been a winemaker for nine years, making a name for himself in Sonoma with Ferrari Carano, then in the Central Coast with Addamo. He has recently come to Orfila replacing a winemaker legend in the area, Leon Santoro, who had been in charge since the origins of Orfila in 1994. “My challenge is to continually improve the wines while keeping the style on track. My wines are fruit driven and vlean,” he said. “I found a lot of ‘07 and ‘08 varietals in-barrel and bottled them all.  I want the wine in bottles and out for sale 18 months to 2 years after harvest.” 
I asked him about the unusual 2010 growing season and he answered, “I loved it! It was a cool season in a hot climate. We’ll have great flavor and a lower sugar count, with more hang time. We’ll get the acid up and the wines will be more accented. There is great potential here at Orfila and I want to step up the quality and ratings with a fresher, fruit forward style and a shorter vintage with lower alcohol. They will be balanced,” he promised.
 Southern California wines have pockets of tradition and greatness and deserve our attention. Serious, quality wines can make their place among the “wine countries” of California. The new kids on the block are growing up.
 Wine Bytes
— Bernardo Winery in Rancho Bernardo has its 33rd annual Fall Arts and Crafts Fair Oct. 16 and Oct. 17. More than 140 artisans will be on hand from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Live music, wine and food available. Park on the grounds. More details at (858) 487-1866.
— Holiday Wine Cellar in Escondido presents St. Francis Winery from 5 to 7 p.m. Oct. 16. Big, bold Sonoma-style wines will be tasted including Cabs, Merlots and Old Vine Zins. The cost is $10 per person. Call (760) 745-1200 for details.
— Orfila Winery in Escondido starts Concerts in the Vines from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 17. Latin jazz kicks it off. The cost is $15 for club members, $20 for everyone else.  Call (760) 738-6500 for details.
— Girls Night Out parties rock on at Tesoro Winery Tasting Room in Old Town Temecula from 7 to 10 p.m. Oct. 22. The $24 cost includes wine tasting, appetizers, chocolate fountain and a chance to wine a prize basket. Call (951) 308-0000 for details.
— Meritage Wine Market in Encinitas is pouring Merlot Mania from 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 22. The cost is $20 each. Call (760) 599-1200 for details and the list.
 

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