Like all good stories, this one begins with love.
Bob loved Patty. And Patty thought they should plant a vineyard. So Bob started digging holes – 5,000 holes in four months. Patty loved Bob so she helped – as did some friends and neighbors. Eventually (surprisingly to many) vines began to grow on the hillside overlooking the Cummings Valley in the Tehachapi Mountains. And then there was wine!
This is the abridged version of the birth of the Tehachapi wine industry – and 20 years after Bob and Patty planted their vines, the region previously known mostly for trains, a really big earthquake, a prison and wind has changed.
Five tasting rooms are open year-round and more are planned – in addition to more vineyards. Entertainment abounds, and on February 12, a wine tour company will launch. Most tasting rooms schedule special events with entertainment and dining the weekend before Valentine’s Day.
Wines from the “Tehachapi Mountains”.
The aforementioned Bob and Patty are the Souzas. In 1990 they bought 60 acres in Cummings Valley, including a Victorian home. At the time, they worked as insurance brokers in the San Fernando Valley and commuted until their final retirement in 2001.
“Fortune favors the Bold” is a translation of a Latin proverb, but more importantly, it became Bob Souza’s motto. And Patty’s suggestion that they grow grapes at an elevation well above any other viable vineyard in California was a happy accident. Of 5 hectares planted in 2002, they were recognized for their wines and opened Tehachapi’s first wine tasting room in 2008.
They retired ten years later, but their award-winning Tehachapi Wine & Cattle Co. label is carried on by another couple, Mike Van Atta and Beth Hamilton.
Next to the Tehachapi wine frontier was Chuck McCollough, a retired petroleum engineer who was knowledgeable about geology. He could see that the rounded hills to the north of a piece of property he had bought in the Cummings Valley date back to the Triassic period, and it was a love of the land that inspired his vision.
In just one day in 2008, he (with some friends and neighbors) planted 6,310 vines there and named the property Triassic Legacy Vineyard. The first fruits were harvested in 2010, and in April 2013 McCollough introduced his “Primordial”, a blend of 68 percent Zinfandel, 18 percent Syrah and 14 percent Viognier.
After achieving his goal, McCullough sold the vineyard and tasting room to Jim and Sally Arnold. Jim was 69 and Sally 63 when they purchased what is now known as Triassic Vineyards. They soon discovered that vines are like children and need to be supervised all year round. The tasting room that Sally once shared is her guest house where extended families come to visit and see how the vines are doing.
Jim Arnold is also President of the Tehachapi Wine Grower’s Commission. The group has gone through the federal process to obtain American Wine Region designation, a year-long effort that was successful in December 2020. Tehachapi Mountains is one of 142 AVAs in California and the only one in Kern County.
By including the term “Tehachapi Mountains” on their label, winemakers are identifying their wines as part of a region with specific qualities – in this case, distinctive features of topography and climate.
As Arnold explains, Tehachapi’s altitude means the fruit grows closer to the sun and receives stronger UV rays, which thicken the grape’s skins. This results in a darker color in the wine and tannins not found in grapes grown at lower elevations.
Tehachapi also gets more sunshine to ripen the grapes, with warmer daytime temperatures during the growing season and cooler nights. And despite the altitude, warm air from the neighboring valleys helps protect the vines from severe frost damage.
The Wine Scene of Tehachapi
Although the AVA is a large region encompassing much of Greater Tehachapi, most current activity is centered in the Cummings Valley, accessible by Highway 202 approximately 10 miles west of the town of Tehachapi. Here you’ll find the two original vineyards and tasting rooms — Tehachapi Wine & Cattle Co. and Triassic — as well as the Dorner Family Vineyard, Rancho de Los Viajeros Vineyard, and Tehachapi Winery.
“Each of us has different strengths and we offer different experiences,” Arnold said. In addition to selling wine made from grapes grown in the Tehachapi Mountains or actually produced on the property, the associated venues offer a range of activities and events.
• Mike and Michelle Dorner founded Dorner Family Vineyard on the south side of the Cummings Valley in 2011 as a hobby inspired by a trip to Europe. With the encouragement of the Souzas, they expanded their plantings in 2012, then built a wedding venue, tasting room and 3,000-square-foot winery. Recent events have included Comfort Food Fridays and holiday-themed activities throughout the year.
• The Rancho de Los Viajeros Vineyards tasting room is currently open by appointment only. Owner Ilda Vaja planted her Malbec grapes with love after discovering that the Tehachapi cultivation culture is very similar to that of her native Argentina, where the deep red grapes are very popular.
• The Tehachapi Wine & Cattle Co. hosts numerous events throughout the year. The summer concert series is always popular with entertainers who have traveled from Nashville to perform on the sprawling 60-acre property, Van Atta said. Crime dinners are another popular activity at the winery, and a special Valentine’s Day dinner is planned.
• Tehachapi Winery is the largest producing winery in the area, with 18 hectares of vines on a 42 hectare property. Owner Mike Chan, who purchased the property in 2014 and started the vineyard with 3 acres of Syrah, is actively involved in the operation. From the beginning, Mark Nail works with him, who oversees the entire vine growing and winemaking process. Current activities include live music and a food vendor every Saturday. Various events are planned around the holidays and the venue also hosts private parties.
• The Triassic Vineyards tasting room, as Sally Arnold noted, is like a guest house with the adjoining patio (covered and heated in winter) offering expansive views of the vineyards and surrounding valley. Offerings include live music, food from local restaurants and special holiday events.
Husband and wife team Chris and Clare Scotti recently launched a new travel company, Discover Tehachapi, focused on weekend wine tours. The company’s first tour offering, priced at $125 per person, is a five-hour tour that includes three winery visits with tastings, lunch prepared by a local restaurant, snacks and water during the tour, and temperature-controlled storage for wine purchases. Initially, each tour will include rotations of three out of four tasting rooms – Dorner Family Vineyard, Tehachapi Wine & Cattle Co., Tehachapi Winery and Triassic Vineyards. Another tour option that includes Rancho de Los Viajeros Winery is under development.
Every Thursday, Discover Tehachapi posts a “This Week in Tehachapi Wine Country” information feature on its Facebook and Instagram pages with the latest information from each of the venues.
Reservations can be made online with pickup in Tehachapi and gift cards are also available.