Friday, Oct 12 2012 02:20 PM

Local grape growers thrilled about this year's harvest

Related Photos

Worker Jose Savala from Bakersfield fills up a bin with Zinfandel grapes during the Triassic Legacy Vineyard harvest. Each bin weighs 800-1000 pounds. Photo by Matthew Martz

Ilda Vaja of nearby Rancho de los Viajeros Vineyard, lends a hand with the harvest at Triassic. Photo by Matthew Martz

Chuck McCollough, owner of Triassic Legacy Vineyard was thrilled with this year’s grape harvest that netted a record yield of 18 tons. Photo by Matthew Martz

A 2008 New York Times headline clipping that reads "Wine takes over town, prosperity follows," pretty much sums it up for Cummings Valley winegrower Chuck McCollough,, who is convinced that Tehachapi is poised to become the "next Napa."

Sprouting up atop sunny side slopes high in the Tehachapi Mountains, local vineyards escape the marine layer effects of their lower-elevation cohorts, and as a result, they are often the first to begin harvesting their crops.

But even though their bounty was picked two weeks ago. It will still be a while before they find out just how flavorful those grapes turn out to be.

Filled with the scent of ripened fruit, and surrounded by volunteers and paid pickers, McCollough, glides through tightly ruled grapevines, skillfully using a set of razor-sharp garden shears to liberate the fruits of a year's hard labor and a lot of good fortune.

An old French aphorism says, "the vines must suffer in order to produce great art."

And perhaps no one knows that better than McCollough,, who is beaming from beneath the brim of his over-sized straw hat, as this season's 18 tons is a record yield for the fledgling Triassic Legacy Vineyard, just one year after its entire crop was wiped out by hungry birds.

"It's a good year compared to the last one," says the former geologist, "It's not an easy business to be in."

That's because there are very few places on the globe that are suitable for quality wine production, especially places that endure sweltering summer highs and bone chilling winter lows that can sour grapes on the vine.

Still, that hasn't kept budding vintners like McCollough, from planting their crops in the tough, often rocky soil of Tehachapi.

How it all began

Call him an American version of a "garagiste," a term once used to describe a handful of vintners who challenged traditional wine making styles in Bordeaux, France back in the early 1990s. But Bob Souza is Tehachapi's original master oenophile.

Established in 2002, the Souza Family Vineyard is the refined result to Souza's perseverance to boldly grow where no vintner had grown before -- establishing the first commercial wine vineyard ever planted in Tehachapi.

Pushing the boundaries, Souza not only succeeded in eventually harvesting his grapes, he also made an exceptional wine, and has received gold, silver, and bronze medals for his Primitivo Zinfandel, which is affectionately known as "High Mountain Zin," because the grapes that are used are grown at an elevation of 4,000 feet.

This year, Souza kicked off the 2012 wine harvest with more than 12 tons of Primitivo Zinfandel fruit, picked on Sept. 25, and said this year's yield is around 35 percent higher than last season.

"Tehachapi is prime growing country," he said. "Proof?"

"Being medal wine winners from the first harvest and beyond."

Following in the footsteps of Souza

Nationally, there has been a huge resurgence in viewing local wineries as an artisan craft, paralleling the microbreweries' movement of the early 90s.

The upswing is anticipated to continue, and the Tehachapi Valley is no exception, currently boasting five new individual vineyards that have been established over the past two years.

The first, Rancho de los Viajeros Vineyard just off Highway 202, which planted its first 1.25 acres in May 2011.

For more than a year, apprentice viticulturist Ilda Vaja has been working her magic, and says she is excited about the estate's Malbec grapes, a highly celebrated varietal grown in Vaja's native Argentina, which will be ready for next year's harvest.

"We hope to make Tehachapi a wine destination," she said. "When you go to places like Napa, you can visit a lot of different tasting rooms in one place, and the more wineries we have, the better we will be."

Another newcomer is Oak Creek Vineyard, a 20-acre property on Old Ranch Road in Cummings Valley, with its small but scenic rolling hillside grape vines surrounded by majestic oaks.

Inspired by a the wine of western Europe, Mike Dorner and his wife Michele have a half-acre with 250 Riesling and Zinfandel vines, harvested last week.

Further to the west, the grapes of a pair of small "hobbyist" winegrowers find their way into vintages made under the names of some other labels. The Adams Family and Nash Family Vineyards are in Bear Valley, surrounded by the rising mountain peaks.

Finally, Clifford Meredith was excited to harvest his first crop on Sept. 27. His vineyard is on Highline Road.

Although small by comparison to other plantings in the region, Meredith's 4,242 vines produced one bin each of Riesling, Cabernet, and Syrah.

"This all started as just something to do," he said. "I always liked to grow things like fruit trees."

"But once you get up to 4,000 plants, it's not really a hobby anymore."

The future of Tehachapi vineyards

Along with the grape vines that are being planted in increasing volume, many of the growers have plans to build their own wine tasting and gift shops, as well as cottages. Some are already in operation.

Oak Creek's Dorner says he also has ideas for a microbrewery, while others work on plans that would enable growers to crush the grapes and bottle the wine locally.

It's that same sort of enthusiasm and imagination that prompted renowned viticulturist and wine industry consultant, Ralph Jens Carter, to submit a 2007 petition to the U.S. government to establish nearly 42,000 acres throughout the valleys of Cummings, Brite and Tehachapi, as an American Viticulture Area Appellation.

That application has been reviewed by the Treasury Department, with final approval on hold until at least 80 acres are under cultivation. That's a long way from the roughly 20 acres currently established.

However, once an appellation is granted, the brand of Tehachapi Wines will have added quality and uniqueness, as local winegrowers would be allowed to put the words "Tehachapi" on their labels instead of "California."

"Napa and Santa Barbara have had a corner on the California wine tourism industry for far too long," said Dave Hook, Interim Executive Director of the Board of Trade.

"It's always hard to build something ground up, especially something that's so dependent upon visitors," he added. "In this case we've been fortunate to have people who are passionate about what they do. They've created a great product, a great atmosphere, and they've laid the groundwork for something special."

Hook also says he expects all that hard work to pay off, as Tehachapi gains its reputation as a destination for a growing segment of travelers known as "foodies," who not only want to drive up and look at the scenery, but experience something specific.

And it appears that Tehachapi's wine culture could be leading the way.

"Tourism is big business, and the wineries are certainly a part of that," Hook said. "People visiting the wineries, need a place to sleep, they need a place to eat, they want to experience some enjoyable down time, and they buy things to remember that experience by."

"All of that provides a welcome economic jolt."

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