by Sally Colby
Bill Wilson doesn’t mind telling visitors to his family’s winery that no one in his family had notable any wine-making experience before they purchased a vineyard. He’s also quick to admit that the concept of developing Wilson Creek Winery was his midlife crisis.
“There were 13 wineries in the area,” said Wilson. “We’d be the 14th winery in Temecula. At the time, in 1996, there were 25 million people who had no idea that Temecula even existed.”
Wilson says the property they purchased was a vineyard but not a winery. “We did it backwards,” he said. “We bought the vineyard and planted the building. We had some issues in the vineyard with Pierce’s Disease, but we replanted and recovered from that. Now we’re starting to see some real quality by having modern technology and rootstock. The wine tastes a lot better.”
When the Wilsons started the vineyard (with plans to create a winery and tasting room), the existing grape varieties included Chardonnay, Cabernet and Zinfandal. Today, 13 different varietals thrive on 75 acres of gently rolling hills.
Since most of the rainfall occurs when vines are dormant, the entire vineyard is irrigated. Wilson says the soils are ideal for growing wine grapes. “The soil isn’t really suitable for growing other crops, but grapevines thrive in it,” he said. “It’s decomposed granite that has washed down from the mountains, and there’s a lot of minerality from the granite. We don’t have a huge clay substrate like in Napa, so our vines go 15 to 20 feet deep.” The vineyard is irrigated from May through crush and into September. Wilson says the practice of deficit irrigation – heavy irrigation in spring, then backing off once there’s a nice canopy – vines go into what Wilson calls survival mode.
Many Wilson family members are involved in the business, and immerse themselves in various aspects of the business to give the entire winery a homey, welcoming atmosphere. But the crown jewel of Wilson Creek Winery is the tasting room.
Tasting room manager Ryan McCormick draws on his background in hotel and restaurant along and level 1 Sommelier certification to keep tasting room staff at the level the Wilson family has cultivated. He realizes that many tasting room guests are tasting wine for the first time, and while part of the experience is all about having fun, he wants guests to feel at home as they learn about wine.
“What we do well here and really embrace is creating a family feel,” said McCormick. “We are one of the larger tasting rooms in the valley, but when people come here, they’re welcomed by friendly faces and great personalities, and people feel like they’re part of the Wilson family.”
That might seem like an impossible task in a winery that is equipped with eight bars, but the Wilsons keep the atmosphere light and friendly. A tented outdoor patio also includes a bar, and provides a pleasant setting for guests who enjoy the outdoors.
When it comes to hiring personnel to greet guests and help them learn about wine, McCormick seeks outgoing, friendly people. “Everybody here has a passion,” he said. “Personality and an outgoing, friendly smile that comes from inside is at the top of the list when we look for staff. Wine knowledge is also important, and people who will mesh well with the model we’ve created here.”
McCormick explains that training the tasting room staff is an ongoing process. “We’re always training and updating because our wines are changing throughout the year based on what our winemaker Gus (Vizgirda) is bringing out of the barrel,” he said. “The staff are always tasting wines that will be introduced to the public.”
McCormick noted that the entire winery staff are currently undergoing training through the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association to learn more about Temecula area wine and wine in general. “The more they know in a broader sense, the more they can talk with guests about what makes Temecula wines unique and special,” he said.
Although Wilson Creek draws a diverse demographic, McCormick has observed some changes in who’s coming into the winery. “I’ve noticed that we have younger people in their 30s and 40s and not as female-oriented as in the past,” he said. “It’s a good mix of people who are interested in learning about wine.”
McCormick points out the fact that wine tasting is just that – people try a variety of wines and won’t necessarily like everything they try.
Those who are new to tasting wine can be easily intimidated on a first time tasting, but Wilson Creek works hard to make sure each guest has a positive experience.
“We produce such an array of wines here,” said McCormick. “The novice wine drinker typically goes for the sweeter wines and works their way toward bolder wines.
A big draw of Wilson Creek Winery is the expansive outdoor area where guests can explore and relax. Guests can get their wine and enjoy it outside, or they can purchase a bottle or glass. Weekend guests enjoy wine slushies and can dine outdoors. Wilson Creek has a full-service restaurant and serves lunch throughout the week, and also serves brunch on Sundays. “Our menu is coordinated so that they can test their palates,” said McCormick, “and there are flavors for every wine drinker.”
Wilson Creek Winery offers tours on weekends, three times a day. “People on the tours often have very limited experience with wineries,” said McCormick. “They get to see production, maybe taste wine right out of the fermentation tank, or even taste wine out of a barrel. They also have a chance to walk through the vines and learn about that side of production.” McCormick believes that guests who take the winery tour get a unique, behind-the-scene feeling and gain respect for the process and the wine they’re enjoying. “Tasting a wine out of the tank that no one has tried and isn’t even in a bottle yet is a cool story for them,” said McCormick.
The Wilson Creek Wine Club, which McCormick also manages, is the Wilson family’s way of extending their hospitality. Members receive exclusive selections and complimentary tastings for themselves and up to three guests on each visit to the winery.
“We have some great new red wines that are just being bottled,” said McCormick, explaining what’s new for summer. “We also have some new white wines that are just coming into the tasting room.” Upcoming summer events include a Journey tribute band and a crawfish boil and music by a blues band.
by Sally Colby