Temecula Valley, Calif., wine grape growers joined their counterparts to the north this season, successfully harvesting a crop of promising wine quality amid prospects of improved grape prices.

A decade ago, many growers in the southern Riverside County wine grape enclave were not sure they’d be around in 2011 when the glassy-winged sharpshooter (GWSS) vectored deadly Pierce’s disease throughout the 1,300 acres of wine grapes, killing many of the vines.

However, Temecula growers have rebounded from the devastation of Pierce’s disease in the late 1990s, and vineyards throughout the valley are thriving. New plantings are evident across the region. Wineries are expanding their guest facilities and plans are underway for more growth.

Grower and winemaker Nick Palumbo, who owns Palumbo Family Winery with his wife, Cindy, thinks the Temecula Valley wine grape growing region is poised “for getting the attention and respect that is due” all the hard work that goes into growing superior wine grapes. He’s among a new generation of grower/vintners learning and implementing new growing and management techniques — eager to try new clones and varietals.

“In a way, Pierce’s disease was the best thing that ever happened to us because a lot of vines got kicked out and everybody had to rethink what they were doing,” he said.

At the height of the Pierce’s disease crisis many growers lost as 40 percent or more of their vineyards. Some smaller operations survived by intense rouging of diseased plants. Many used the calamity to diversify their plantings to include a wider range of cool-, moderate- and warm-season varietals in the valley’s rolling hills. The Temecula outbreak also jump-started research on international varietals that now has resulted in development of resistant varieties that University of California, Davis, geneticist Andy Walker said are proving to make quality wine, and which will be evaluated for release next year.

The Temecula area is important in the history of California wine grapes. More than 200 years ago, winemaking made its debut in California at Mission San Juan Capistrano. The first winemakers were the mission padres. Mission vineyards were established in Temecula in 1820. The first modern commercial vineyard in the Temecula Valley was established in 1968. Now there are about 30 wineries in the area.  The 35,000 acres of rolling hills identified as "Temecula AVA" were established in 1984.

Temecula Valley vineyards are planted 1,500 to 2,500 feet above sea level, with most at the lower end of the elevation. Just 20 miles from the coast, the area benefits from cooling ocean breezes drawn inland via the coastal mountain range. The breezes help moderate the daytime temperatures and produce cool nights.

Joe Hart, with his wife, Nancy, and three sons, planted their first grapes in 1974. Today, Hart Family Winery grows and bottles a variety of reds and whites, but their focus is on Sauvignon Blanc and a Muscat clone, Hart said.

High quality, low yield

The 8.5-acre vineyard is a blend of older, cane- and head-pruned vines with quite a bit of California’s traditional two-wire trellis, intermixed with newer plantings tended with vertical shoot pruning, Hart said. With this year’s crop, “We’re getting great color in the reds and good acids and pH numbers, but most of the varieties seem to be coming in a little bit short on tonnage this year. It seems to be a classic combination of high quality and low yield. It’s one of those things that doesn’t always work, but it seems to have worked this year.”

During the Pierce’s disease crisis, Hart lost nearly 40 percent of his vineyard. One block of Barbera variety seemed much loved by the glassy-winged sharpshooter. The GWSS and Pierce’s disease now are now under control throughout the Temecula Valley, thanks in part to diligent monitoring and proactive vineyard management, said University of California, Riverside, Extension entomologist Nick Toscano, who manages the tracking and reporting program available at his website, www.bugdr.ucr.edu.

The good news for Hart is that the young replacement vines of a Barbera clone farmed for him by longtime grower/vineyard manager Ben Drake are producing “beautiful fruit” off the vines’ third crop, Hart said. “The Barbera that came in this year I thought was truly exceptional. I’ve never seen such intense color or such great flavor in Barbera.”

Drake sells to a wide variety of small and large growers/wineries across the region. Among those he manages are the vineyards for Europoa Village, one of the Temecula Valley’s newer wineries — the first plantings were in 2006 — that ultimately will include 40 acres with varietals from the Italian, Spanish and French traditions, including Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Barbera and Tempranillo.

Drake often is involved from startup in vineyard site grading and varietal selections. Among his many tools are iPhone applications like SunSeeker3D Augmented Reality Viewer that uses GPS and magnometer readings to find optimal planting locations, and Soilweb for iPhone from the California Soil Resource Lab that uploads USDA-NRCS digital soil survey data directly to your location. These, along with multiple Adcon weather stations throughout the vineyards to monitor temperature and soil moisture conditions help him establish the baseline when new vineyards are planted, and onward through the years to track and document the expensive water needs of vines and weather changes that impact growth. The instantaneous radio-transmitted information uploads to his phone or office computer, helping save big dollars in production costs.

Labor problems

“I want to learn by Mother Nature and not have to spend the money on (inputs) I don’t need, so if I can get the data in the beginning, it’s just education that helps me make smart choices later on,” Drake said.

He is an ardent proponent of composted mulch soil amendments, and has forged partnerships with area landscapers who dump and shred their landscape trimmings and compost it into large-scale mulch fields, which Drake then uses under the vines.

Grower and winemaker Nick Palumbo practices a “less is more” approach, and employs strict regulated deficit irrigation up through veraison. “The reason wine growing and the potential for economic success in the wine industry is that, if you’re going after quality, your cost savings are in water, and that’s a huge savings for us.

“Labor in the vineyards and other things involved in making quality grapes cost a lot, but the beauty is you can cut back on water and get a better quality grape, so that’s a win-win all the way around.”

Labor availability is a growing problem in Temecula like it is elsewhere in the state. “Normally I have two crews of 12 to 14 guys at harvest,” Drake said. “This year I’ve had a hard time just filling up one crew of 12.” On a recent night, he said he was down to seven workers by the time the crew brought the night’s harvest into the winery.

“We’re in desperate need of a (federal) guest worker program,” Drake said. “We need to have labor at harvest and pruning seasons, and then these guys can go home. A lot of them don’t want to come up here and be citizens, but they do want to come up and make some money and go home.”

Prices have improved in Temecula as they have elsewhere in the state, particularly for Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. Sangiovese, Montepulciano and Tempranillo prices also were up a bit, he said.