Meet The Balanced Winemaker

(L to R) Buzz Olson, Kimberly Olson, Etienne Cowper

It’s really cool when I get to spend some quality time with a really smart winemaker. Such was the case when I sat down with Etienne Cowper, winemaker for Tesoro Winery in Temecula Valley to talk a bit about him, the wines he loves, the region he is such an integral part of, and his summer releases.

Etienne has been a winemaker here, there and everywhere: New Mexico, Napa, and Temecula Valley to name a few. He’s worked at large wineries and small wineries. His favorite? Small, hands-on types of wineries. Wineries where the owners put the wines first. He believes he has found that at Tesoro Winery.

His experience and dedication show in his focus and commitment to crafting great wines. He’s absolutely committed to producing premium wines that are balanced. When asked what the Temecula wine profile is, he quickly answered, “ We have a long growing season here that allows the varietal characteristics to develop slowly and fully. We get an intense fruit flavor from our grapes that has a unique broadness to it not found elsewhere.” Following that thought, I asked how that profile works into his winemaking philosophy. “It’s simple really,” he stated. “I don’t need to go overboard. The grapes can and should speak for themselves. All I need to do is gently coax them to greatness by using complementary tools.” So what I learned from Etienne was that it seems the right barrels, sometimes no barrels at all, the precise yeast, the proper amount of aging and patient owners – all play a part in the final premium product.

It all sounds so easy when he explains the process to me, but I know from years of working with this appellation that not everyone feels Temecula has lived up to its potential. Mr. Cowper addressed that concern by sharing with me that he believes Temecula Valley has come a long way in the past 8 years or so, and that it’s now the right time to refine and build on what has brought so many awards to it. He explained, “We have won a lot of awards, but we still lack a distinct identity. We make everything from soup to nuts. Pretty much if a customer asks for it, we make it. I think we can all do a better job narrowing our focus to Mediterranean varietals that suit our terroir” he said. Some of his suggestions include Viognier, Rousanne, Cortesse, Marsanne, Syrah and Malbec.

As we moved on to the tasting portion of my visit with Etienne, owner Buzz Olson joined us. I asked him what it was about Etienne that made him hire him as the winemaker. “His wines are impeccable. He has a passion for balanced wines with a beautiful nose. His wines capture the biggest share of a person’s palate. There are no wimpy wines coming from this man.” Kimberly Olson chimed in to let me know that rarely do they get tasters that dislike any of their wines. “We give Etienne free reign to do his magic, and it’s paid off big time.” The Olson’s are “wine first” types. They expect clean, balanced wines that customers love. Etienne believes in letting the fruit speak for itself in a balanced, clean, fresh presentation. No flaws, just perfection. I think we have a perfect balance of owner focus and winemaker technique. I’d say it’s a perfect match.

We tasted three new summer release wines. For me, the game starts with the nose. You can lose me or engage me with the first swirl and sniff. All three were winners. They will be released in early June. My advice? Run to the tasting room. These are great wines.

2009 Viognier: Classic California Viognier full of spice and tropical accents. With a nose to die for, there is an amazing balance and smoothness you’re going to enjoy. About 1% or less residual sugar. Should price out at about $25.00.

2007 Syrah: Bringing out the best of the owners estate grapes, this is a smooth, leaner version of Syrah but still heaped with dark fruit flavors. I also “got” spicy vanilla, cinnamon, mace and licorice. Etienne says pair with pork roast, lamb chops and game hens. Heck, I say sit out on your patio and toast the moon. Look for it to price out around $30.00.

Il Terrazzo Rosso, “Terrace Red”: Serve this one cold. Done in a kind of Nouveau style from Syrah grapes, the color is stunning. This is dancing wine. The nose is amazing, presenting notes of Santa Rosa plums, and spiced crab apple. It’s an off-dry beauty that will go well with ripe cheese or a fresh crisp summer salad complemented with blueberries or cranberries. The boss says the price will be at the $30.00 mark.
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