Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Free the grapes

From the 1880s until the 1960s, the Inland Empire -- the Southern California area spanning roughly from East L.A. to the deserts surrounding Palm Springs -- was the backbone of the California wine industry. The emergence of Napa, and the demand for housing in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, nudged land owners to plow the vineyards and plop down subdivisions. But a sliver of winemaking areas remain in SoCal, and the two dozen or so vintners in the Temecula region near San Diego County want to use the force of law to protect their little slice of heaven from competition.

The Riverside County supervisors today will vote on a set of new restrictions that would block outsiders from building new wineries in Temecula unless they abide by rules that might well make their operations unprofitable. The big impediments: Wineries with tasting rooms would have to grow 75 percent of their grapes in Riverside County; and tight limits would be imposed on the number of "commercial buildings" -- tasting rooms, gift shops, restaurants, banquet halls -- that could be erected on the premises. Not surprisingly, existing wineries wouldn't face these barriers unless they expanded their facilities. The Press-Enterprise story outlining the rules is here; links to the paper's reportage is here. (Reg may be required.)

IMHO, Temecula wines are overpriced and uninspiring, with the exception of a few whites (which I rarely drink) and some zinfandels. (Why? It's too hot in Temecula in the summer to grow anything but the heartiest grapes. Forget Pinot Noir and decent Syrahs. Even the best zins in the IE come from the Cucamonga Valley ... which is in San Bernardino County. 40 miles north of Temecula.)

That said, Temecula is the only winemaking region that's a reasonable day trip from the southern Los Angeles basin, Orange County and San Diego; that's what -- 20 million upscale consumers? So there's gold in them thar grapes. Today's winemakers stand to make a mint if they can shut out competitors who would increase output and, who knows, might produce better wines.

What's this protectionism worth? This report chronicles production by grape variety county-by-county in California. Riverside County hosted only 177 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in 2004; contrast that with nearly 16,000 acres of Cab Sauv in Napa, 11,000 in Sonoma, and even 8,000 in San Luis Obispo, which includes my favorite winemaking region, Paso Robles. Keeping production low and limiting competition will surely inflate wine prices in the region -- and, as Press-Enterprise editorials have noted, is surely an abuse of power by county government.

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