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Thornton Winery

Central Coast AVA

Continuing to build on their reputation for making outstanding wines

This year’s Champagne feature takes us to one of our all-time favorites, Thornton Winery. This small winery is simply the best, undiscovered Champagne producer in the country. It is amazing to us that Thornton has not yet been elevated to high-profile status by those who control such things in the wine media. Perhaps it’s because American Champagne (sparkling wine) is not embraced nearly as much in this country as say Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Chardonnay. Perhaps it’s because small wineries tend to get lost among the 1,000 or so located within California. Or maybe it’s because Thornton Winery is located in the southern California wine country instead up north where the better known wineries tend to reside. And it could be because most of the winery’s distribution stays in California. Surely it’s all of those reasons. But once you’ve discovered this interesting winery for yourself, we think you’ll agree it’s one worth remembering.

Thornton Winery sparkling wines have won more awards and medals than any other American producer. With that kind of statement you’d think the winery would be selling tons of wine. Not so. Owner John Thornton keeps the production level small and manageable yet offers almost two dozen different wines. So each wine produced is truly a very limited bottling. “We’re at a size that we can make small batches of many different wines and still make a little money at it,” says owner John Thornton. “Running out of wine is frustrating at times but it’s still more fun than making a huge amount of just three or four wines,” he adds.

If you ever visit the Thornton Winery in the southern California wine country of Temecula, you will quickly see that having “fun” is an important objective. John Thornton and his wife Sally have created a unique destination-winery that attracts visitors from all over California. The centerpiece on their 20-acre property is the winery production facilities where talented winemaker, Jon McPherson crafts all of the Thornton wines. Naturally, tours and tastings are offered every day, throughout the day. They also run a contemporary-style, first-class restaurant called Café Champagne. The eatery has earned numerous restaurant industry awards and provides a venue for fabulous winemaker dinners. Another compelling reason to visit is to attend one of the winery’s year-round special events. During the summer the winery puts on a popular jazz concert series featuring major artists such as David Sanborn, Rick Braun and Hiroshima. Events in other seasons include dances, grape stomping parties and various theme dinners. Add to that a gift shop, Champagne tasting lounge, banquet and wedding facilities, and you have a place that’s fun!

Despite all the peripheral fun and festivities, Thornton Winery has made serious inroads with their still and sparkling wines. The winery’s roots began in the late 1970s as a hobby of businessman John Culbertson. Culbertson owned a Houston-based company called Martech International that specialized in supplying diving and exploration services to the oil industry. Over a number of years Culbertson fine-tuned his winemaking hobby to the point where the wine community finally began to take notice of his nicely crafted sparklers. He approached his friends and fellow wine enthusiasts John and Sally Thornton of San Diego, with a plan to expand the operation by building a new showcase winery, restaurant and entertainment area. The Thorntons liked the concept and became major investors in Culbertson’s new endeavor in 1987.

By the end of 1988 the new facilities were nearing completion, but the project was taking much more capital than originally expected. The Thorntons believed fully in the project though and continued to finance the expansion. By 1991 the new operation had still not begun to gel financially and required even more infusions of cash. Ultimately, the Thorntons acquired 100% interest in the winery and finished the transformation.

Throughout this period of expansion and uncertainty, the winery continued to build on their reputation for making outstanding wines. Jon McPherson took over the winemaking duties in 1987 and year after year was demonstrating his exceptional talents. His expertise broadened in scope when in 1992 Thornton Winery acquired Brindiamo Winery which provided an avenue for producing still wines to accompany the sparkling wines. Over the next few years the label name phased from Culbertson over to Thornton. “The still wines have complimented our Champagne,” says John Thornton. “The majority of Champagne sales happen during the last few months of the year. So not only do we have a more balanced revenue stream throughout the year, we also have a wider variety of offerings.”

Today the winery produces six different styles of sparkling wine, ranging from Brut and Blanc de Noir, to Blanc de Blanc and Brut Reserve. Thornton also produces ten to twelve non-sparkling, specialty wines each year. Special, because they are not mass-produced mainstream wines. Thornton wines take a decided lean toward Rhône and Italian varietals that emphasize the Temecula Valley’s Mediterranean-style climate. Wines such as Côte Red (a Rhône-style blend), Pinot Blanc, Viognier, Muscato, and Carignane, are just a few examples of their award-winning premium varietal wines.

Most of the grapes are purchased from other growers throughout California. “Buying grapes gives us a lot of flexibility in deciding the wines we want to produce,” says John. “It’s a big reason we can afford to make a myriad of specialty wines in small quantities,” he reveals.

A large percentage of the winery’s total production is sold right there at the winery and its surrounding facilities. The growth rate ahead figures to be about 5%–10% per year. “We don’t want to be as big as a Gallo or Mondavi,” says John. “Our goal is to make the highest quality wines we can and make the business support itself,” he continues. “We want to provide as delightful an experience as possible when people come to visit,” adds Sally Thornton. “Attracting people to the winery helps the other wineries in the area as well as the community.”

Map of the area

Jon McPherson - Winemaker

Picture of Jon McPherson - Winemaker

Jon McPherson came to California from Texas in 1985. "At a very early age I knew I wanted to be in the wine business,” recalls Jon. "And one of my goals was to specialize in making sparkling wines,” he continues. "I enjoy drinking Champagne, it's intriguing, and in my opinion more exciting to drink than still wine,” he finishes.

Jon has done a lot more than just be in the wine business and make sparkling wine. In his 2 years as assistant winemaker and 8 years as winemaker for Culbertson and Thornton Winery, he has managed to turn the California sparkling wine market on its ear. Reaching his full stride in the 1990s, Jon McPherson's collection of sparklers have won more awards and medals than anyone in the country.

Jon's dad, Clinton McPherson, was a chemistry professor at Texas Tech University. And being a wine enthusiast, he was naturally interested in wine chemistry. He researched and experimented with various types of grapes that were being grown in the university's experimental vineyard. When the school plowed it under to make room for more buildings, Clinton started a vineyard of his own. As often happens with wine enthusiast turned wine professional, once you take the plunge there's no turning back. Clinton went on to start a full-fledged winery in 1976, in Lubbock, Texas, called Llano Estacado. He has since founded the Texas Grape Growers Association and been a driving force behind the growth of the Texas wine industry.

As a child, Jon grew up helping his father with various chores around the winery, helped plant the grapes and even learned how to make the wines. This early exposure and influence set a clear path for the future. Jon attended Texas Tech and earned a degree in Food Science with a minor in Chemistry. In 1985 he was offered the job of assistant winemaker at Culbertson Winery, a small, new champagne winery in southern California. Two years after his arrival he took over the head winemaking duties.

Through the end of the decade Jon turned out one medal winning sparkling wine after another. When ownership changed in the early 1990s Jon continued to dominate the sparkling wine scene without skipping a beat. And with the advent of the Brindiamo wines he has broadened his expertise as "winemaker for all wines.” Jon himself sources all the grapes he uses in his wines. I prefer the central coast areas for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,” he points out. ‘And the area around the winery in Temecula is ideal for the Rhône and Italian-style wines we're making,” he says. An increasing number of wineries are leaning toward the Rhône and Italian-style wines as are consumers who are looking for alternatives to the mainstream Chardonnays and Cabernets. Look for Jon McPherson and Thornton Winery to be among the leaders in this arena.

John and Sally Thornton

Picture of John and Sally Thornton

John and Sally Thornton thought a winery would be an interesting investment and a fun diversion. "The opportunity came to us and we thought it was a good idea,” states John. But what started as a more or less passive investment turned into a passion. The wine business does that to people. "We kept putting more and more money into the winery until we found ourselves owning 98% of it,” continues John. "It was a situation that evolved and happened gradually,” says Sally Thornton. "It progressively needed more time and attention.”

But don't let their modest remarks about how Thornton Winery came about fool you. Thornton Winery didn't just happen. Their involvement and ultimate success in the winery is a reflection of a strong can-do attitude the Thorntons both share. "If you're going to do something why not do it the right way” says Sally Thornton rhetorically. And the Thorntons are no strangers to success and achievement. Over the last thirty years they have been intimately involved with over two dozen successful business ventures as well as numerous civic organizations and community projects.

John Thornton was born and raised in Long Beach, California. He attended Pomona College where he earned a degree in Economics. Out of school he entered the Navy, attaining the rank of lieutenant. After the Navy he went back to school, this time earning an MBA from Harvard Business School.

His business career began in 1957 when he went to work at Rohr Corporation, a southern California company that made parts for aircraft engines. For eight years he worked in a variety of positions including sales, contract management and handling their computer systems. In 1965 John left Rohr Corp. to help a friend run what was then a small electronic instrument company, called Wavetek. For the next 20 years as president of Wavetek, he orchestrated their growth from under a half-million in sales to over eighty-five million. During that period he invested in and helped direct a handful of other companies too. One of those companies was called Micom Systems, in which the Thorntons became majority stockholders in 1976. As Chairman of the Board he guided Micom over the next dozen years from $400,000 in sales to $240,000,000.

Sally Thornton has been an active participant in these extraordinary achievements too. She served on the board of Micom Systems as well as other companies in which the Thorntons have invested. She is currently serving on the board of both Mitek Systems (another Thornton investment) and Thornton Winery.

Sally's leadership and involvement in the San Diego community over the years has been nothing short of astounding. She has spearheaded numerous charitable fund raisers, advisory boards, committees etc., for a myriad of causes such as hospitals, museums, public broadcasting, and various organizations that are fighting diseases like Arthritis, Cerebral Palsey and Epilepsy. This year Sally was named the San Diego Leukemia Society’s Woman of the Year. The list of achievements and contribution of time and effort is literally too voluminous to print.

Growing up in San Diego both of Sally's parents were also overachievers. Her dad was a nationally known oral surgeon and her mom was an amateur golf champion. Both were very involved in the community and were also food and wine enthusiasts. "At a very early age I was exposed to an incredibly wide variety of foods,” recalls Sally. "It fueled a lifelong enjoyment of mine, that of pairing food and wine,” she continues.

It is obvious that the pairing of the Thorntons and their winery has been the right combination too. With the winery, restaurant and entertainment events, they have created a fabulous venue for the enjoyment of food and wine. Let's hope for other wineries to "just happen” the way Thornton Winery did!