By: Steven Williamson |
Over forty years after Richard Break and Leon Borel first planted 56 varieties of wine-making grapes in five different locations for the newly formed Rancho California Development Corporation, the Temecula Valley has become recognized as a full-fledged appellation boasting more than two dozen wineries and more than 3500 acres of producing vineyards. A short drive east on Rancho California Road from historic Old Town Temecula takes you into Temecula Valley’s wine country. There the visitor will find wineries and tasting rooms ranging from the rustic to the elegant, from a quaint chateau to a lavish resort, from a "Mom and Pop" operation to the corporate conglomerate.
Just a few miles north of the Temecula Valley is another valley which, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, appealed to French immigrant farmers because it reminded them of the rich, rolling farmlands of their native France. Temecula ranchers and residents of the time simply referred to that valley as the "French" Valley and the name stuck.
Born in 1938 Leon Borel was the third generation of Borels to farm the French Valley. As a youngster Leon was expected to help with the family chores including the harvesting and producing of homemade wine from the family vineyard. Neither Leon, nor his father, nor his grandfather could have known at the time how this little family sideline would eventually lead Leon into fulfilling a founding role in the successful development of wine country in the Temecula Valley.
In 1961 Mahlon Vail had been successfully operating the enormous Vail Cattle Ranch for nearly six decades. He was in his seventies and his health was failing. With no immediate heirs Vail began actively seeking a buyer for the ranch. One of those potential buyers contacted Richard Break, an experienced farm manager and broker from Fresno. The buyer wanted his professional opinion on the feasibility of growing citrus on the property. After reviewing temperature records for the Temecula area kept by the University of California at Riverside, Break became convinced that the climate and soil conditions in the valley were better suited for the growing of wine grapes.
In 1964 Vail successfully completed negotiations on the sale of the ranch to Kaiser Industries and Macco Realty, who together formed the Rancho California Development Corporation. Throughout 1965 the development company mapped out its plans for a "Master Planned Community." The community would include commercial and industrial sites as well as residential and agricultural development. Equipped with his experience and his prior knowledge of the Temecula Valley, Dick Break was invited to come to Temecula for the purpose of planting a variety of crops throughout the valley as a test to find out what crops would do best and where.
Break accepted the opportunity, but needed a local farm manager to oversee the planting and day to day management of the groves and vineyards that he intended to plant. Most of the 200 residents living in Temecula at that time were ranchers or ranch hands. In the French Valley, fortunately, he found farmers who had been farming the land for generations. Leon Borel showed interest in the opportunity, so Dick Break gladly hired him to be his local consultant and farm manager.
Together Break and Borel began identifying plots of land for planting citrus, avocados, walnuts, and wine grapes. From among the dozens of winemaking grape varieties they selected 56 different varieties and chose five different locations for planting. With funding provided by Kaiser the two farmers began planting their test vineyards in 1966.
In the meantime the Rancho California Development Corporation, with 87,500 acres of land to develop, began aggressively advertising their plans for the growth and development of the property. The campaign attracted the attention of a number of notables including then California Governor Ronald Reagan, who purchased a sizable portion of the Santa Rosa Plateau.
Another Hollywood couple who saw an opportunity to pursue a long-held dream of retiring to a sizable estate with a comfortable Mediterranean style adobe was Vincenzo and Audrey Cilurzo. In 1967 they purchased 40 acres of property down a long dirt road known as Long Valley Road (soon to become Rancho California Road). On their many visits to their property they became acquainted with Dick Break, who spoke enthusiastically about the work that he and Leon Borel were doing growing winemaking grapes. Even today, the Cilurzos remember with fondness the many days when Dick Break would circle their property in his light plane and wag his wings before landing on a nearby mesa to wait for them to pick him up. His enthusiasm for the potential of wine-making grapes in this area convinced the Cilurzos to hire Leon Borel to plant a portion of their property in grapes also.
At that time there was a thriving wine industry in the Cucamonga Valley. Thousands of acres of vines were being dry farmed by a number of independent wineries. The largest of those was Brookside Winery which was doing its best to supply 36 retail outlets throughout the state. Urban sprawl made it impossible for the winery to expand its vineyard acreage in the Cucamonga area. The sudden availability of vast amounts of acreage in Temecula offered an immediate solution. Brookside purchased 460 acres of property from Kaiser and hired John Moramarco to plant and manage their Temecula vineyards.
One day Moramarco was driving along Rancho California Road when a car coming the other way began flashing his lights to flag him down. The car was driven by a local real estate agent with a customer in the passenger seat. The passenger was Ely Callaway who asked Moramarco, "If you were to choose the best location for planting wine grapes, where would that be?" Moramarco said, "Turn around and follow me." He took them to the crest of a small hill and declared, "This is where I would plant a vineyard." Callaway told him that if he was successful in purchasing the property, he would call him about planting his vineyard for him. It was Easter, 1968. It was Thanksgiving weekend when Ely Callaway invited John Moramarco to lunch at the Pala Mesa Resort to discuss the planting of his vineyard.
During that year Moramarco had been busy planting the Brookside vineyards, while Dick Break and Leon Borel were caring for the vineyards that they had planted for both Kaiser Industries and the Cilurzos.
Some of the test vineyards planted by Break and Borel would later become the foundation for future wineries. Among these were the vineyards and property purchased by Carl Keys, who later built a home and founded Keyways Winery on that property.
As work on the experimental groves and vineyards for Kaiser slowly wound down Leon Borel went to work for McMillan Farm Management Company for several years and later started his own company, Borel Vineyard Management. By 1984, with the steady growth in the number of new wineries popping up in the valley, Leon developed the desire to establish a winery of his own. Leon chose about five acres of his family’s property in the French Valley to plant a vineyard and build his winery. The location chosen was right on the main artery through the French Valley – on the west side of Winchester Road where East Benton intersects it. The location offered plenty of potential for "walk-in" traffic, even though it was out of the flow of traffic through the rest of wine country.
Through the late 1980s Borel produced wines with the help of local winemaker Joe Hart. Their first wines had to be produced using Hart’s own equipment and then transferred to the French Valley Winery after bottling. Once work was completed on the production facility, Hart continued to work with Borel as an on-site winemaking consultant. Leon’s son, Clay, began to take an interest and get involved in the winemaking process. Hart remembers with pride the French Valley Winery’s Chenin Blanc which became a multiple award winning wine in competition.
By 1990 there were a dozen wineries in Temecula’s wine country. Almost all were along Rancho California Road. Wineries were putting Temecula on the map as a weekend destination. Wine tasting was becoming the thing to do for locals, weekenders, and day-trippers from San Diego, Los Angeles, and Palm Springs. Callaway Winery, which had become virtually a household name, was a tremendous draw. Visitors leaving Callaway Winery could find another adventure just up the next driveway.
All of this public attention was having the added benefit of attracting the attention of more entrepreneurs and educated winemakers interested in getting into the business. It became clear that Temecula’s wine country was only just beginning to blossom. Prospects for the future were bright.
For the French Valley Winery, however, the very thing that had looked so promising – its location right on a major thoroughfare – became its handicap. Being the only winery in the French Valley and being so far removed from the Temecula wineries, it just could not generate the traffic needed to survive. In effect, the very person who had planted the first commercial vineyards and help launch the winery boom in Temecula found himself on the outside.
In the end, a well known, well liked, and well respected owner with award winning wines was not enough to sustain the winery. Leon and his wife, Arlene, eventually turned their attention to the prospect of retirement. Leaving their home to their son, Clay and his wife, Leon and Arlene moved to Richfield, Utah, where they lived until Leon’s death in August of 1996.
Today, the winery building is still in the same location and is occupied by the local Moose Lodge. What was the production room is now a Catholic Church. The five acres of vines which Leon planted when he established the winery have wasted away never having produced a single bottle of wine.