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Winemaker Challenge

Southern California's Finest Winery
By Robert Whitley
Feb 22, 2011
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Several of the winners at the recent Winemaker Challenge competition hit me where I live, literally. That would be San Diego, at the southernmost tip of Southern California. We are known for our beautiful beaches, spicy Mexican cuisine, Sea World and an amazing zoo.

Hardly anyone comes to San Diego for the wine. Maybe they should, for at least one San Diego winery, Fallbrook, left quite an impression on the judges at Winemaker Challenge II.

Fallbrook's winery building.It was an impressive group of winemakers that evaluated the wines, including the likes of Daryl Groom (who once made Penfolds Grange Australia's most famous wine), Ed Sbragia (who twice made the Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year, one a red and the other a white) and Darice Spinelli, who today is one of the Napa Valley's brightest stars and winemaker at Nickel & Nickel.

These are not folks who are easily fooled, so when the results of the first day of judging came back and Fallbrook had won a medal with each of its six entries, there was good reason to stand up and take notice. The next day in the championship round of judging, it brought even greater glory as Fallbrook's 2010 Sauvignon Blanc captured the vote for Best White Wine and its 2008 Sangiovese made a strong run at Best Red.

While it is virtually impossible to keep a secret in this age of the Internet, I would venture to say few wine enthusiasts outside of San Diego have ever heard of the Fallbrook Winery, which is located about 45 miles north of San Diego in the hills east of Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base, and about 11 miles from the Pacific Ocean.

Even most San Diego residents might have trouble identifying the area's finest winery, despite the fact its wines are on the list at many of San Diego's most wine savvy restaurants, such as Oceanaire, Bice and Market.

Wine production around San Diego dates back to the 1700s, when most of California's 21 Spanish missions were built. However, the Fallbrook Winery was only founded in the early 1980s by wine enthusiast John Culbertson. The winery and its 44 acres were purchased less than 10 years ago by Ira Gourvitz, a transplant from Northern California who once owned vineyards in Sonoma County.

It was under the guidance of Gourvitz and winemaker Duncan Williams (Associate Winemaker Vernon Kindred joined the team two years ago) that Fallbrook found its footing and began to produce wines that could turn heads.

The ambition at the beginning was fairly modest. Fallbrook purchased grapes and bought wine in bulk and succeeded in making solid if uninspired wines for restaurant clients who used their own custom labels. And some of the wine was bottled under the Fallbrook label and found its way into the marketplace, albeit in small quantities.

At the same time, the winery embarked upon a program to plant most of its 44 acres to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc. Therein lies the secret to Fallbrook's recent success. It turns out Fallbrook's Gracie Hill Vineyard is a gem.

"It's all hillside, decomposed granite," Gourvitz explains. "It's warm enough to ripen everything we've planted, but it never gets really hot. We're only 11 miles from the ocean and it cools down dramatically after the sun sets."

The cool maritime breezes that roll in along the San Luis Rey riverbed have a profound impact on the taste and structure of Fallbrook's estate wines. The reds typically possess exceptionally good levels of acid, with firm tannins that will ensure they have the guts to age gracefully. The warm days allow the grapes to ripen fully, and the cool nights ensure the resulting wines will be fresh and lively.

The estate wines from Fallbrook — under the 33N label because the winery is on the 33rd parallel — have only been online for a couple of years, with most of the vines somewhere between four and seven years old at this point. They will likely appeal most to connoisseurs of French and Italian wines because the structure is European in style rather than the more overtly fruity style for which California wines are infamous.

That isn't to say the Fallbrook wines lack fruit. They are generous and fleshy but with backbone. The challenge of Fallbrook wines is finding them, though they are available on the winery website at www.fallbrookwinery.com. A couple of big time wine merchants in the San Diego area — 3rd Corner and The Wine Bank — have large inventories of Fallbrook wines.
A simple Google search will turn up other outlets.

Shortly after the impressive showing at the Winemaker Challenge, I sat down and tasted a number of Fallbrook's current releases. This week's tasting notes are dedicated to those wines.


Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value.

Fallbrook 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, California ($16) — Although much of the fruit for this wine was grown on the estate, the wine carries a "California" appellation because some of the grapes were purchased from Paso Robles and Monterey County. Eventually, there should be enough Sauvignon on the estate for a 33N bottling. This wine exhibits notes of lemon grass, minerals, citrus and peach, with an appealing spicy nuance. It was voted Best White Wine at the 2011 Winemaker Challenge. Rating: 93.

Fallbrook 2008 Merlot, California ($16) — The nose is spicy and fruity, showing bright aromas of plum and black cherry, with a light overlay of oak vanillin. It's medium bodied with modest tannins, so excellent by the glass or with grilled or roasted poultry. Rating: 88.

Fallbrook 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, California ($16) — This is another mix of estate fruit with purchased fruit. Most of the Cabernet comes from the Halter Ranch in Paso Robles. This wine exhibits rich black fruits, with hints of licorice and ripe, sweet tannins. Very good Cab for under $20. Rating: 88.

Fallbrook 2009 Chardonnay, California ($14) — Grapes are sourced from Hames Valley, Lockwood and the Arroyo Seco districts of Monterey County. Made in a lighter style, the wine nevertheless exhibits delicate aromas of ripe pear and peach, with just a hint of vanilla. Exceptional value at the price. Rating: 87.


Fallbrook 2008 33N BDX, Gracie Hill Vineyard, South Coast ($52) — Fallbrook's proprietary Bordeaux-style blend, BDX , is the winery's wine with the greatest potential, although it is still a work in progress. The previous vintage was voted Best Bordeaux blend at the 2010 Winemaker Challenge, and the new vintage is every bit as formidable. The '08 blend is 39 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 37 percent Merlot, 12 percent Petite Verdot, eight percent Cab Franc and four percent Malbec. There is talk the blend may move in the direction of a Right Bank Bordeaux blend, leaning heavily on the estate's outstanding Cab Franc and Merlot to make a wine similar to those found in Saint-Emilion. The '08 is a delicious brew, exhibiting layered aromas of blackberry and red currant, with hints of mocha and spice. But it needs time to show its true colors in all of their glory. Rating: 95.

Fallbrook 2009 Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay, Monterey County ($25) — Sleepy Hollow is one of California's most famous Chardonnay vineyards, and with good reason. The vineyard consistently delivers rich, full-bodied Chardonnays with that rare combination of power and elegance — a powerful wine that is cut with firm acidity and no small nuance of minerality. It shows aromas of ripe pear and tropical fruits, with hints of butterscotch and vanilla. It's big, bold and delicious. Rating: 94.

Fallbrook 2008 33N Sangiovese, Gracie Hill Vineyard, South Coast ($33) — California hasn't been the breeding ground for much high-class Sangiovese, as many thought it would be, but Fallbrook's estate Sangiovese will remind even diehard Italian wine geeks of Tuscany. The nose of dried black cherries and spice is classic. This is a beautifully structured red that is complex and tantalizing, with an overlay of oak vanillin and delicate floral aromas. It was a Platinum award-winner at the Winemaker Challenge and a serious contender for Best Red (won by a V. Sattui Zinfandel). Rating: 94.

Fallbrook 2008 33N Dalla Collina, Gracie Hill Vineyard, South Coast ($52) — This proprietary red is a super Tuscan-style blend of Sangiovese (67 percent) and Merlot. The name means "from the hill." It is a hugely structured wine that's extremely tight and unyielding at the moment, but all of the elements of greatness are present. The wine exhibits layers of luscious black and red fruits, firm acid and an abundance of wonderful grape tannin that bodes well for the future. Rating: 94.

Fallbrook 2008 33N Cabernet Sauvignon, Gracie Hill Vineyard, South Coast ($33) — The nose of the Fallbrook estate Cab smacks of Bordeaux, from the faintly herbal note to the heady aromas of violets, cassis, blackberry and Bing cherry. Tightly packed at this time, it is a wine that will open up and layer out with time. It is well-balanced, with firm acid and tannin, and perfectly focused fruit aromas that will lengthen on the finish as the wine ages and the grape tannins recede. Rating: 92.

Fallbrook 2008 33N Cabernet Franc, Gracie Hill Vineyard, South Coast ($33) — Franc is typically used for blending in California, though there are exceptions. This is one of the exceptions because it is very good on its own. Fallbrook's estate Cab Franc delivers the classic Cab Franc aromas of violet and spice, lovely red-fruit aromas and firm acidity. Rating: 91.

To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.