Enjoy Temecula Valley's Thornton Winery

by Gino L. Filippi 1/25/08

published in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

Last week, on a clear and sunny afternoon, I traveled south approximately 50 minutes to the nearby Temecula Valley (TV) winegrowing region where I met up with my friend of the vine, Linda Kissam.  I’ve know Linda several years, since our early days among the vines with the TV Winegrowers Association.  Today, she serves as the Media Director for the beautiful Thornton Winery.  My mission was to meet Winemaker Don Reha (Ree-ah), tour the winery cellars, taste new releases, and dine with the father and son owners, John and Steve Thornton at their Café Champagne. I know, it was an arduous task. However, I was up for the job!With over 20 wineries now calling TV home, I’ve always considered Thornton Winery to be of the most inviting. Its elegant French-style chateau overlooks the vineyards and is easily recognized on the south side of Rancho California Road as you enter wine country. The winery, which originally opened in 1988 as “Culbertson”, continues its present-day operation utilizing traditional techniques and modern equipment - to reach perfection with their blends of Méthode Champenoise Sparkling wines. In 1993, the winery began producing non-sparkling, premium wines and their effort has earned many awards and medals for winemaking excellence.  Over the past 20 years, the Thornton family (Sally, John and Steve), have increased their business and added unique premium varietals which emulate classic wine styles of Europe’s Mediterranean and Rhône regions.  The winery produces approximately 20,000 cases annually with 50% devoted to sparkling wines including vintage Brut Reserve, Brut Reserve Natural, and non-vintage Brut, Blanc de Noir, Cuvee Rouge, Cuvee de Frontignan and sparkling Muscat. The balance of the production includes vintage whites; Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Moscato.  Reds; Estate Syrah, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and special blends of these two Bordeaux varietals, plus the well-know Italian varietal Nebbiolo and a super tasty Late Harvest Zinfandel. I found the 2005 Estate Syrah much to my liking. More on this one later!Our tour began in the bottling area where Winemaker Don Reha described the extensive “hands-on” process of fine sparkling wine production. Reha, from Renwood California, was raised on his family’s vineyards. He joined the Thornton team in 2003, replacing Jon McPherson, who moved to South Coast Winery.  Reha was educated at UC Davis and worked for Fetzer Vineyards, Cline Cellars, and Renwood Winery in Amador County where he served as Director of Winemaking.

I asked Reha about his philosophy on premium winegrowing and production – whether sparkling or still?  “I prefer working with the grapes of our valley. I have been most passionate about Zinfandel, Rhone and Italian varietals, however, we do not limit ourselves here at Thornton. My philosophy is that each wine must reflect distinct varietal expression. No two varietals should be produced in the same manner or style. Each step in the vineyard and in the winery is most important. We seek to extract the highest quality and uniqueness of each specific wine," stated Reha.

My personal highlight of the tour was the caves, home of over 630 fine American and French oak barrels. Although Thornton’s caves are not natural, they are engineered into the hillside and provide an ideal aging environment for their finest vintages. Linda shared with me that it is also a popular dining area for winery customers.  Speaking of dining, after the tour, Linda and I were escorted to Café Champagne where John and Steve greeted us with a chilled glass of 1999 Brut Reserve.  Reha shared with me that only the finest cuvees were selected for this limited production wine, each with its own signature character and varietal statement. The blend is 60% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot noir and 10% Pinot Blanc.  The wine was bottle-aged over 6 years. “The pinot noir brings more richness to the blend,” commented Reha. “Perhaps one of our best-ever sparkling wines”, stated John Thornton.The luncheon at Café Champagne was outstanding. With the suggestion of our very attentive waiter, I ordered the special Italian risotto with seafood and Porcini mushrooms. The entrée was outstanding featuring lobster, large shrimp and a delicate cream sauce. Wow!Linda explained that their popular Chef, Steve Pickell, brings a strong background in Contemporary Fusion Cuisine cooking techniques combined with a talent for putting a fresh spin on regional specialties. Pickell was appointed Executive Chef at Café Champagne in 1993, and has brought his imaginative, sophisticated cuisine to winery fine guests for over twelve years.  Twice voted  “Chef of the Year, he won the prestigious California Restaurant Writers Association (CRWA) “Chef of the Year” award in 2003 and the Southern California Restaurant Writer’s Association “Chef of the Year” in 2005.   "We salute Chef Pickell for bringing a recognized level of excellence and acclaim to the art of Wine Country cuisine. His demonstrated innovation and dedication exemplifies Thornton Winery’s standards of excellence,” explained John Thornton. Chef Pickell’s menu philosophy is complemented by Winemaker Reha’s concept of winemaking.  Their combined expertise showcases the regional characteristics of local grapes that make up the distinctive flavors of Thornton Method Champenoise Sparkling Wines and premium varietal wines.  This combination has made Thornton Winery’s Café Champagne a consistent award winner year after year.  Gino’s Picks @ Thornton WineryThornton BRUT 1999  - 60% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir, 10% Pinot Blanc. This sparkler is aged to meld the dynamic fruit and yeast character to perfection.  Very fine. Rich fruit, subtle yeast spring forth in the aromas while the flavors are crisp and up-front. Truly a sparkling wine that pairs with a wide range of foods and can be enjoyed anytime. $39. per bottle.2005 Thornton Estate Syrah  - Grown on the property with special attention from Winemaker Reha. Dusty berry and black cherry aromas with a touch of white pepper. The aromas are quickly followed with an unmatched richness of plum and anise flavors that are perfectly balanced with a soft backbone of silky tannin structure and multi-faceted cocoa and berry fruit nuances. $59. per bottle.2005 Thornton Muscato  - Produced from Muscat of Alexandria grapes, the wine offers pronounced floral fruit aromas and flavors. Rich  Produced from Muscat of Alexandria grapes, the wine offers pronounced floral fruit aromas and flavors. Rich, crisp with balanced sweetness and freshness. Spicy melon fruit and banana characteristics on the palate. This wine demonstrates wonderful varietal character and most friendly with fruit, spicy Asian cuisine or garlic shrimp scampi. $21. per bottle.2004 Late Harvest Zinfandel  -  Take my word for it and just try this super tasty, sweet sipper.   Take my word for it and just try this super tasty, sweet sipper.  Rich, velvety, silky goodness. $18. per half bottle (375mls).Thornton Winery welcome visitors daily. There is an extensive gift shop, tasting room, and award-winning Café Champagne.  The winery’s 20th annual Champagne Jazz Series continues to provide a stellar lineup of nationally renowned contemporary jazz artists.  For complete information, please contact the winery at 951-699-0099 or go to www.thorntonwine.comOff the Vine “Thanks” to Linda Kissam for a delightful afternoon in Temecula Valley Wine Country!
Gino L. Filippi can be reached at Ginoffvine@aol.com

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