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California Wine's Best Kept Secret
By Robert Whitley
Jun 21, 2016
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 The South Coast Winery in Temecula recently pulled off a feat no other California winery can claim, winning its fourth Golden Bear Trophy at the California State Fair earlier this month.

The trophy is awarded to the California winery of the year, chosen from the hundreds that enter the state fair’s annual wine competition. Considering more than half the wine consumed in the United States is produced in California, the trophy represents a significant accomplishment.

That one small winery situated in the unheralded Temecula Valley, 60 miles north of San Diego, has captured the title four times against stiff competition speaks volumes about the winemakers, Jon McPherson and Javier Flores.

The two are longtime colleagues, having joined forces a quarter-century ago at another Temecula winery, Culbertson, which later became Thornton. They are the unlikely heroes of the South Coast Winery saga, Jon having been born in Texas and Javier in Mexico, neither place more than a blip on the world’s wine radar.

But both arrived in Southern California with solid roots in the wine business. Jon learned at his father’s feet as the son of the most respected winemaker in Texas, Doc McPherson at Llano Estacado. Javier began working as a teen at LA Cetto in Baja California, thought by many to be Mexico’s finest winery.

Their success at Culbertson, and later at Thornton, made them logical candidates for the winemaking job when Jim Carter, who made his fortune in the nursery business, decided to launch a state-of-the-art winery in Temecula and call it South Coast Winery.

Jon was appointed Master Winemaker and Javier joined him as winemaker and the rest is history.

South Coast, despite its four Golden Bear trophies, is one of the best-kept wine secrets in California, largely because the Temecula Valley is off the beaten path and tiny compared to more renowned, and larger, regions such as Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Paso Robles and Santa Barbara, among others.

That said, the wines of Temecula can be quite good, especially those made by McPherson and Flores at South Coast. Carter, whose previous farming experience centered on ornamental trees, sees to it that the vineyards do their part in the winemaking equation.

“It’s my job,” said Carter, “to make sure Jon and Javier have the best possible grapes to work with. That’s my passion.”

To say that the wines of South Coast are as eclectic as they are delicious states the obvious. One of the best of the South Coast wines I tasted recently was a blend of Touriga Nacional and Tempranillo that the winery calls “TNT.”

Neither grape is commonly grown in California, but both McPherson and Flores returned from trips to Portugal, where the grapes are indigenous, firmly convinced the Mediterranean climate and rolling hills of Temecula were ideal for the Portugese grape varieties.

Temecula is unique among California’s inland wine valleys because of a narrow opening to the Pacific Ocean some 20 miles away. The Rainbow Gap creates a cooling affect in the evenings that lowers temps and retains freshness in the grapes.

“We thought the climate was so similar to what we saw in Portugal that Touriga and Tempranillo (called Tinto Roriz in Portugal) would do well here,” said McPherson. “And they have.”

Touriga and Tinto Roriz are red grapes that are the backbone of Portugal’s sweet Port wines, but both are witnessing growing acclaim for dry table wines. McPherson and Flores also also took a shot with a white grape from Portugal, Verdehlo, which is found mostly in the Madeira islands.

This crisp, dry white is one of the finest wines produced at South Coast. France’s Rhone Valley also is well represented in the South Coast lineup, with a beautiful white wine, Viognier, made from grapes grown at the Carter Estate, and a red blend that includes Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre.

South Coast also makes a line of sparkling wines, including a sparkling Touriga, and is about to launch an upscale “Carter Estate” brut that McPherson and Flores hope will compete with the likes of Gloria Ferrer, Domaine Carneros and Schramsberg.

South Coast may well be the best winery you’ve never heard of, so its wines aren’t likely to be readily available at your favorite wine merchant. But the internet makes it possible to purchase the wines online at www.SouthCoastWinery.com, including many of its 21 medal-winners from the California State Fair.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.