As we walked from the parking lot into the tasting room at Robert Renzoni Vineyards and Winery, the first thing that caught my eye was the sign – Cilurzo Award For Winery of the Year. Vincent and Audrey Cilurzo planted Temecula’s first wine vineyards in the 1960s. Robert was humbled to receive the award. “It’s quite a tribute, to get voted by your peers is pretty cool.”
The last time Robert and I sat down together for an extended visit was in 2009, shortly after he opened the winery. His tasting room shared space with his production facility. Robert’s focus, though, is razor-sharp. At the time there was an artist’s rendering of the current tasting room, open now for three years. It may as well have been a photograph. He sketched the design on a cocktail napkin and fears that sketch may have been given to the contractor and is, alas, gone.
He took a year off from running his operation to oversee the construction of his dream. It was “nerve-wracking, but fun and exciting” he told me. “All one bundle of hell.” Had he not been on site every day, he says, multiple errors would have gone unchecked. When I asked if three years in he was pleased with where things are, he said he was, but they are already set for a major expansion. The kitchen will soon triple in size. Mama Rosa’s Trattoria serves a thousand lunches on a typical weekend and around 200 each weekday.
Francesco Cusimano, chef/owner of Rustico in Murrieta, is his consultant, but don’t think for a second that Mama Rosa’s is Rustico Two. Every dish is unique to the winery. Some are the result of a collaboration between Renzoni and Cusimano, some are from Executive Chef Felix who just turned 27. “The chicken wings are mine” he said. All the ingredients are from Italy and can’t be found in any local market. The pasta is homemade. The bread is delivered daily by FedEx from New Jersey. There’s lots of arugula because he loves it. “People still like simple. They still like comfortable.”
At the heart of it all is the winery. “The wine comes first” he said. “We want to be known as a winery with a nice fun restaurant.” His is the only winery on De Portola Road that isn’t also a wedding venue. Instead he told me, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, he may offer divorce parties. When asked why he doesn’t open his grounds for weddings, his response was “I sell wine. That’s what we do.” There’s live music on the patio weekends. Misters provide cooling relief from the summer heat. In addition to Renzoni wines, you’ll find Peroni, Ironfire and Wiens beers on tap. I tried the Tre Salame pizza with pepperoni, Calabrese picante and sopprasseta and it was incredibly good.
Other plans include a 6,000 square foot expansion, including a storage building which will make them fully self-contained. The cellar will be fully renovated so it will look like it was “plucked from the Napa Valley or Bordeaux” in an 1800s style. He says it will be the cellar of Southern California. The picnic grounds up top will reopen soon with new pergolas and coverings, misters and a repainted wine house.
Robert gives his staff a tremendous amount of credit for his success, saying he’s been blessed. From a crew of four part-timers nine years ago, he now employs 46 people. Prior to opening the winery, he told me he’d never really won anything. He’s from Buffalo, New York, a town that lost four Super Bowls and three Stanley Cups. He was terrible at school. He excelled at soccer, but injuries kept him from pursuing a career in it. He went into the family business, but lost that after four years when the business was sold. He moved to Los Angeles to try his hand in the music business, but that didn’t pan out either. It was then he had a “come to Jesus” meeting with himself.
He set his sights on the winery. Failure “was not an option.” For six years he worked 12 to 14 hours a day, a minimum of six days a week “wearing 17 different hats. I busted my ass” He’s always had a work ethic, and every time I’ve seen him, he’s constantly looking for anything out-of-place, pouring wine for a customer if he notices the rest of the staff is busy, paying close attention to the small stuff. He remembers his parents telling him when he was a young boy that if he worked hard enough, he could accomplish anything. “I’m living proof,” he says.
It all began with a $150,000 loan from his father Fred. He got the winery up and running for $500,000 and a lot of sweat equity. He paid more than that in fees and permits alone for the new building. After the doors opened in 2008, he would ask his dad each month how much money he could afford to spend. Every penny went into buying the best equipment he could afford. He now owns more than a million dollars worth of equipment, all paid for.
He’s been on the board of Visit Temecula Valley for the past six years and was vice president of the board of directors of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association for three years. He has clearly earned the admiration and respect of his peers as evidenced by the Cilurzo award.
28 year old Olivia Bue was promoted to lead winemaker in January, part of the young team he’s assembled. “We’re really on fire lately,” he told me. Wine Enthusiast gave his Estate Sonata “best of year” for 2016, garnering 91 points, the only Temecula wine to receive best of year accolades. Several of his wines have been receiving scores of 90+. “I believe in simple philosophies. I never turn past page 1 of Marketing 101.” He puts every nickel he can into producing the best wine possible and buys the best equipment he can in order to give his crew the best tools.
Telling his story, he says is almost surreal. Mario Lopez stopped by recently to do a segment for Extra TV, one of many celebrities that visit frequently. He makes a point of stopping by the winery on holidays when it’s closed, grabbing a glass of wine and heading to the picnic grounds. He looks over the property and remembers when there was nothing there. He wants visitors to feel it’s a warm, friendly winery with a knowledgeable staff. “If this wasn’t my place, I’d come here.”
photos by Tom Plant and Kat Ellis
Tom Plant launched WINEormous in 2009 and is a member of the International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association. Based in Temecula, California, he offers intimate winery tours for no more than seven people. Tour details and pricing are available at www.temecula-tours.com. Call now to book your Temecula Winery Tour at (951) 907-9701. Ask about special discounts. WINEormous is the recipient of the Wine Tour Operator of the Year award for 2017 for the UK’s Luxury Travel Guide.