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 (surprising many), grapevines began to grow on the hillside overlooking Cummings Valley in the Tehachapi Mountains. And then there was wine!
That’s the abbreviated version of the birth of Tehachapi’s wine industry — and 20 years after Bob and Patty planted their grapevines, there has been a transformation of the region formerly known mostly for trains, a really big earthquake, a prison and wind.
Five tasting rooms are open year-round and more are planned — in addition to more vineyards. Entertainment abounds, and on Feb. 12 a company offering wine tours will launch. Most tasting rooms plan special events with entertainment and food offerings during the weekend prior to Valentine’s Day.
‘Tehachapi Mountains’ wines
The aforementioned Bob and Patty are the Souzas. In 1990, they bought 60 acres in Cummings Valley, including a Victorian house. At the time, they worked as insurance brokers in the San Fernando Valley, commuting until their eventual 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 altitude well above any other viable vineyard in California was serendipitous. From 5 acres planted in 2002, they went on to win awards for their wines and opened Tehachapi’s first wine tasting room in 2008.
Ten years later, they retired again, but their award-winning Tehachapi Wine & Cattle Co. label continues under the equally loving ownership of another couple, Mike Van Atta and Beth Hamilton.
Next on the Tehachapi wine frontier was Chuck McCollough, a retired petroleum engineer who knew his geology. He could see that the rounded hills to the north of a piece of land he 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 back in 2008, he (with some friends and neighbors) planted 6,310 grapevines there, naming the property Triassic Legacy Vineyard. The first fruit was harvested in 2010, and in April 2013 McCollough unveiled his "Primordial," a blend of 68 percent zinfandel, 18 percent syrah and 14 percent viognier.
Having accomplished his goal, McCullough sold the vineyard and tasting room to Jim and Sally Arnold. Jim was 69 and Sally was 63 when they bought the operation now known as Triassic Vineyards. They soon discovered that vines are like children, requiring year-round supervision. The tasting room, Sally once shared, is their 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 worked through the federal process of obtaining designation as an American Viticultural Area, a yearslong effort that met with success 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, vintners identify their wines as part of a region with specific qualities — in this case, distinguishing properties of topography and climate.
As Arnold explains, Tehachapi's elevation means the fruit grows closer to the sun and gets stronger ultraviolent rays, which thicken the skins of the grape. This results in a darker color in the wine and tannins not found in wine grapes grown at lower elevations.
Tehachapi also has more sunshine to ripen the grapes, with warmer temperatures in the daytime during the growing season and cooler nights. And despite the high elevation, warm air from the neighboring valleys helps protect the vines from serious frost damage.
Tehachapi’s wine scene
Although the AVA is a large region encompassing much of the Greater Tehachapi Area, most of the current activity is centered in the Cummings Valley, accessed via Highway 202 about 10 miles west of the city of Tehachapi. Here you will find the two original vineyards and tasting rooms — Tehachapi Wine & Cattle Co. and Triassic — as well as 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 produced from grapes grown in the Tehachapi Mountains — or actually made on the property — the related venues host a range of activities and events.
• Mike and Michelle Dorner began Dorner Family Vineyard on the southern side of the Cummings Valley in 2011 as a hobby, inspired by a trip to Europe. With encouragement from the Souzas, they expanded their plantings in 2012 then went on to develop a wedding venue, tasting room and a 3,000-square-foot winery. Recent events included “Comfort Food Fridays” and holiday-themed activities are held throughout the year.
• Rancho de Los Viajeros Vineyards’ tasting room currently is open by appointment only. Owner Ilda Vaja planted her malbec grapes with love after discovering that Tehachapi’s growing culture is very similar to that of her native Argentina, where the deep-red wine grapes are very popular.
• Tehachapi Wine & Cattle Co. is host to numerous events throughout the year. The summer concert series is always popular with entertainers brought in from as far as Nashville to perform on the sprawling 60-acre property, Van Atta said. Murder mystery dinners are another favorite activity at the winery and a special Valentine’s dinner is planned.
• Tehachapi Winery is the largest producing winery in the area, with 18 active acres of vines on a 42-acre property. Owner Mike Chan, who bought the property in 2014 and began the vineyard with 3 acres of syrah, is actively involved in the operation. Working with him since the beginning is Marc Nail, who oversees all grape-growing and winemaking operations. Current activities include live music and a food vendor every Saturday. Various events are planned around holidays and the venue hosts private parties, as well.
• Triassic Vineyards’ tasting room, as Sally Arnold noted, is like a guest house with the adjacent patio (covered and heated during the winter) offering expansive views of the vineyard and surrounding valley. Live music, food available from local restaurants and special holiday events are among the offerings.
Husband and wife team Chris and Clare Scotti recently launched a new travel company, Discover Tehachapi, with a focus on weekend wine tours. The company’s first tour offering, priced at $125 per person, is a five-hour tour including three winery visits with tastings included, lunch prepared by a local eatery, snacks and water during the tour and temperature-controlled storage for wine purchases. Initially, each tour will include rotations of three of four tasting rooms — Dorner Family Vineyard, Tehachapi Wine & Cattle Co., Tehachapi Winery and Triassic Vineyards. Another tour option to include Rancho de Los Viajeros Vineyard is in development.
Each Thursday, Discover Tehachapi posts an informational feature, “This Week in Tehachapi Wine Country,” on its Facebook and Instagram pages with the latest information from each of the venues.
Reservations may be made online with pickup in Tehachapi and gift cards are also offered.