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Expecting the Unexpected

Souza Family Vineyards in Tehachapi

You never know quite what to expect at Souza Family Vineyards in Tehachapi. If you don’t believe me, just ask owners Bob and Patty Souza. They’re as baffled as anyone.

During a recent visit, a Bentley drove up and disgorged four people, including a classical guitarist from Colombia, who first sat with his companions in the Souza’s barrel room, which also doubles as a banquet hall, and sang classical Spanish songs while enjoying the Souza’s trademark “Tehachapi Wine & Cattle Co.” primitivo.

He then moved into the tasting room where he regaled visitors with tune after tune. And the guy was good! After each song the tasting room erupted with applause. A wine-tasting and impromptu concert all rolled into one.

When the smiling troubadour left, he told Bob, “You should hire me every weekend.”

That’s the way it is at Souza Family Vineyards: expect the unexpected.

But the tasting room lends itself to that. It’s designed more like a European tasting room, where thoughtful evaluation of a wine’s merits is the norm, rather than the large bars typical in California designed to handle big crowds.

The Souzas’ bar is small: it can accommodate a half dozen people or so. A few feet from the bar area are three cocktail tables, each with four tall chairs, where guests can sit and enjoy a cheese platter with Tuscan bread and summer sausage along with their wine. In the southeast corner of the room is a fireplace with overstuffed chairs in front. Tasting-room employee Marilyn Kish takes care of visitors, coming to each table and chair, pouring the next selection.

The view out the windows is splendid: mountains—still snowcapped in early spring—surrounding the Cummings Valley. The gift displays that take up the rest of the room have a wide array of winery trinkets; shirts, caps, glasses, and such.

Souza still can’t quite believe it. “It’s incredible, amazing,” he said. “People are coming to us from all over.” Which is all the more astonishing since the winery is a half-mile down a dirt road.

Patty & Bob Souza

A couple walked in, and Souza asked where they were from. Long Beach, was the reply. “I’m not surprised; a large percentage of our visitors are from Orange County. The other day we had a couple of B-1 pilots in here (Edwards Air Force Base is not far). It’s not unusual to have 50 to 60 people in here at one time. We’ve had guests from Finland, Sweden, Canada, Texas, Illinois, Washington, Hawaii. One guy said he was from Mars.

“I have to tell you this has exceeded all our expectations. We’re busy every weekend.”

Probably nothing, though, has matched their opening weekend. “We opened Friday, July 4, 2008, and our first day we had a thousand people come. That Saturday we had another 400, and on Sunday we had 700. On opening day, cars were parked all the way down the dirt road, almost to the pavement; people walked a half-mile to the tasting room.

“We’re drawing from a long way off,” he continued. “We’re getting less from Los Angeles than I thought, and more from Bakersfield than I thought.

“We’ve hit a niche here that no one knew existed, just this pent-up demand. People don’t have to go to the Central Coast to taste good wine.”

All this because the Souzas paid no attention to convention and decided to plant a vineyard near Tehachapi.

The Souzas moved to Tehachapi in 1990 because they wanted to get away from the Los Angeles rat race. They bought the Elijah Stowell Estate, an 1888 Victorian home and outbuildings on 60 acres on the north side of the valley. After restoring the old home, they decided that they would plant a vineyard, but of course common wisdom said that was impossible.

The Cummings Valley is at about 4,000 feet, and the best minds in the wine business said this was not wine country. Well, why not? thought the Souzas; don’t know why it can’t be wine country, just because nobody else has tried it. It has cool nights and plenty of summer sunshine, the perfect recipe for wine-grape growing. But it’s 4,000 feet up, they were told. So what?

They consulted with Sunridge Nurseries in Bakersfield, and chose to plant primitivo, a close relation to zinfandel. They put in four acres on an upslope to the west of their home, so the vines catch more direct rays from the morning sun. Friends and neighbors pitched in. After all, it was quite a novelty having a Tehachapi vineyard. In 2005, their first crop was ready, so they trucked it to Paso Robles to crush and ferment it.

The local Albertson’s agreed to sell it, plus three Tehachapi restaurants included it on their wine lists. Bakersfield restaurateur Ralph Fruguglietti, whose popular Frugatti’s Italian Restaurant focuses on regional wines, added the Souzas’ wine to his list. He liked it so well, he encouraged his diners to try it, including me. I liked the wine as well; it’s balanced, flavorful, not overpowering, and its natural acidity from its mountain origins makes it a great match with food.

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Fruguglietti convinced the Souzas that in markets outside Tehachapi, the place name would be a detriment to sales; unlike Napa, Sonoma, or Paso Robles, to name a few places, Tehachapi had no cache as a wine region. So the Souzas developed two labels for their one wine: the label for the Tehachapi market is Tehachapi Wine & Cattle Co.; for the rest of the world it’s Quattro Stagioni, which means four seasons in Italian (Tehachapi refers to itself as “The Land of Four Seasons”).

While the strategy may well have helped the Souzas’ sales, it didn’t do much to advance Tehachapi as an appellation. But serendipity came into play. The Souzas wanted to know how their wine stacked up against others, so they entered the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, held in January 2007. Their wine won a silver medal, and suddenly the world wanted to know about this Tehachapi wine.

Shortly thereafter, a woman came in and bought a case of their first vintage—and sold it on e-Bay for $200 a bottle as a collectible. “At first I was mad about that,” Souza said. “But then Patty said, ‘She just set the ceiling for us.’ And you know what? She’s right.”

That success helps explain why the world is finding its way to the Souzas’ tasting room. Their success has put pressure on their inventory; at press time, they were almost out of 2006, and they really hadn’t wanted to start selling 2007 yet, but had no choice. The 2006 has raspberry and bright cherry mouth-filling flavors. At 13.5 percent alcohol, it’s a nicely balanced wine. The 2007 comes in at 13.1 percent alcohol, and is tighter than the 2006, though it shows potential as it begins to come into its own. Souza thinks it will be every bit the wine the 2006 is, perhaps more.

He and Patty still pinch themselves, not believing what’s happened in a few short years. “We’re living the dream,” he said. “Everything we’ve tried has worked.”

Article appeared in our 26-2 Issue - June 2009