T - Don“This is not garage wine-making anymore. This isn’t amateur hour anymore.” Don Reha doesn’t pull any punches. He doesn’t worry about being politically correct. His focus when he arrived at Thornton Winery in 2003 was and remains to this day to produce the finest wines possible from the Temecula Valley.

Don and I had a chance to visit in his office at the winery after a delicious lunch at Café Champagne. I reminded him that when we visited during the first crush of the season he was optimistic that 2009 was shaping up to be the harvest of the decade. I wondered if his opinion had changed since then. After an unusually cool start to the summer (30 days below normal), the valley experienced a tremendous heat spike. Don explained to me that because of the normal heat the valley gets, acid levels in the fruit are lower than desired. The lower temperatures at the start of this summer allowed more acid to remain in the fruit, paving the way for optimal balance of acid and pH.

To make a long story short, Don said that proper irrigation was the key to saving this year’s harvest. Vines shut down when it gets too hot, so the heat put the focus on careful irrigation, demanding that vineyard managers monitor soil moisture content hour by hour and day by day. When all was said and done, Don said “I definitely think this was one of the vintages if not the vintage of the decade. I know it’s the best vintage I’ve seen since I’ve been down here, hands down.”

Don has seen much change in the Temecula Valley in the six years he’s been at Thornton. He says this area has grown more in that time than any other wine country has in twenty years time. He adds it had to happen because of the fierce competition. He was hired by John and Steve Thornton just before the ’03 Harvest Celebration. Don offered to fly down to be on hand for the weekend and was told by the Thorntons that wouldn’t be necessary as he hadn’t started the job yet. Don felt it was important that he be on hand to meet visitors coming to the winery, so he made his first appearance at Thornton before his official start date.

His background in the wine industry in extensive and impressive. He grew up on the family vineyards in Ukiah and started work at Fetzer in 1988, moving to Cline Cellars in 1995 band then to Renwood in 1999. At his first meeting of winemakers in the Temecula Valley, he offered to lend a hand to anyone who wanted advice on how to make better wine. “Half the winemakers in this valley just love me, the other half can’t stand me, but they all respect me.” When he attended a wine tasting event a few years ago, he tasted one wine and told Phil Bailey of Bailey Winery it was ridiculously bad. Bailey told him he wasn’t going to make any friends saying things like that to which Reha replied “I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to make wine.”

When he first arrived in the valley, Don says of a hundred wines he tasted, 65 – 70 were bad to the point they shouldn’t have been bottled, maybe 30 – 35 were OK and the rest were”wow”, a great example of the varietal. Today he says the numbers have nearly reversed and the majority of wines being produced here now are very good. What he says is sorely lacking in the region is a certified viticulturist. He believes it’s the best thing that could happen to the region and is the next step toward giving the Temecula Valley the push it needs to attain greatness.

Don Reha calls it like he sees it. I admire that. You never wonder where you stand with him. Thornton Winery is located at 32575 Rancho California Rd in Temecula.  Call them at (951) 699-0099 or visit them online at www.thorntonwine.com.