By CAROL PARK
Despite a lull in tourism, business at Temecula wineries hasn't completely soured.
Festivals, expansions and new wineries are helping to keep Temecula's Wine Country on the map.
"Loading up the car with gas and driving to the central coast is pricey," said Jon McPherson, master winemaker at South Coast Winery Resort & Spa. "We're about 60 miles from Orange County, San Diego and other feeder markets, and there are a lot of people here driving on the (Interstates) 15 and the 10 that have easy access to us."
South Coast was busy Nov. 1-2 during the Temecula Valley Harvest Festival. That weekend, business remained steady, McPherson said.
Despite the nation's sagging economy and a slowdown in pleasure travel, the 300-employee winery, fresh from winning the 2008 Winery of the Year award in the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition, hopes to expand with a second winery, Carter Estate, to be located diagonally from South Coast's location on Rancho California Road.
That new winery will feature a tasting room, private overnight accommodations, dining, an amphitheater and a wine cave and require up to 500 part-time and full-time workers, according to Crystal Magon, South Coast director of sales and marketing.
Once approved, the project could take up to three years to finish, Magon said.
Meanwhile, Temecula Valley Winery Management has uncorked a business that helps wannabe winemakers fulfill their dreams. Typically, a winemaker must buy equipment, plant grapes and build for a full wine-production facility.
The endeavor costs hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. But instead of gambling on a winery, customers start a label and bottle and sell wine for little more than $200,000 at Winery Management's 33,000-square-foot plant, executive director Patrick J. Bartlett said.
People use the plant's lab to create wine, crush and store grapes, bottle their own labels, and learn to market their products under one roof.
An offshoot of Leonesse Cellars in Temecula, the management company employs 15 people at its plant on Diaz Road. The company plans to hire 15 additional workers and open a 2,800-square-foot tasting room in Old Town Temecula in late February, where clients' wine will be sold.
"We have about 12 clients right now but we could get up to 30 clients. At this point we're filling up fast," Bartlett said. "We could also expand fast and go to San Diego and possibly even Orange County."
The company, which is located in Temecula, can truck in grapes from other regions to be used by any of its clients.
Temecula was an easy choice for the company's location, Bartlett said. "We're in one of the most enviable tourism-traffic areas that a wine country could hope for.
"We get hundreds of people a day in Temecula and thousands on the weekend," he said.
A few miles away, Keyways Vineyards & Winery is "crowded and busy," according to owner Terri Pebley.
"Business is going," Pebley said. "Reports for October were strong and November is starting off well with visitor growth."
But despite growing numbers of visitors, customers are buying fewer and cheaper bottles of wine, Pebley said.
"I've been more conservative about how many bottles of wine I buy," said visitor Melinda Vague, a 46-year-old Austin, Texas, native who was tasting wine at Mount Palomar Winery in Temecula on a recent weekend. "Before the downturn, I used to buy four or five bottles."
Meanwhile, Callaway Vineyard & Winery plans to renovate its chardonnay room and add a 1,000-square-foot bridal suite and two restrooms by the end of the year.
"Business is doing OK," Callaway marketing manager Kristin Sartore said. "However, we're feeling a hit from the economic slump. We have not necessarily noticed an increase of local traffic."
While some Temecula wineries feel the pinch of the slow economy, business for Tesoro Winery's tasting room in Old Town Temecula is growing.
"We certainly felt the impact on tourism because of the downturn, but we're still growing because we're still new and people are still finding out about us," Buzz Olson said.
Olson opened Tesoro's tasting room in March. He said he plans to open a 4,000-square-foot Tuscan-style winery in Temecula's Wine Country in late 2009.
Another winery, Monte de Oro, is set to open its doors in early 2009.
Down the Road
"Due to the economy, as everywhere, business has been slower than in the past," said Tomi Arbogast, executive director of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association. "But there are several projects on the books right now. There are a few that are building new wineries, and there are about 20 new projects in the planning process right now. Potentially they could all be built in the next five years."
To draw visitors and keep the wine flowing, the association stages two Harvest Festivals each year and markets heavily to Los Angeles and Orange counties, Palm Springs, and San Diego.
The association sold more than 1,000 tickets to its Harvest Festival on Nov. 1-2.
"I heard about Temecula in Northern California and I came from Sacramento for the festival," said Linda Bartlett Keys, owner of Belgique Truffle Gateau Co. in Lincoln.
Keys sells her gourmet chocolates at winery events and visits Temecula's festivals to peddle her truffles.
"People up north suggested for me to come here," Keys said. "I've been here twice in the last four months, and I've been selling a lot. I even saw two couples I know from up north here. This is an untapped market, and I will keep coming back."
Published: Monday, November 17, 2008