Where Hot Air Ballooning and Award-Winning Wines Come Together
By Tom Plant
David Bradley grew up in Lawrence, Kans. next door to a hot air balloon pilot. The pilot’s wife didn’t like going up in balloons, so he asked young David if he’d like to learn how to fly a balloon. David jumped at the opportunity and quickly developed a passion for ballooning.
Today David and his wife Gail own and operate California Dreamin’ hot air balloon adventures. They also own Vindemia Vineyard and Winery. We sat outside on David’s patio behind his tasting area and settled in for a good visit.
An Idea is Born: Combine Balloon Rides with a Winery
In 1985 he was flying balloons for Great American Bank. At the time, Van Roekel winery was on the market and David thought, “Man, I wish I could buy that.” The property was listed at $485,000 – out of his budget at the time. He knew, though, that owning a fixed asset was a good way to make money. He thought if he could combine his balloon rides with a venue passengers could visit, like a winery, it would be ideal.
In the early 90s, David landed his balloon in a vineyard in the Temecula Valley. He struck up a conversation with the vineyard’s owner, Roberto Ponte. Bradley wanted to know why the vineyards were laid out the way they were, why he was growing specific varietals and a few other things he could share with his passengers. He had the winery bug pretty good at this point.
Let’s Start a Winery
By about 1993, Pierce’s Disease was beginning to rear its head. Growers couldn’t figure out why the vines were struggling. David began to seriously consider buying a vineyard/launch site again. He finally purchased 10 acres called Los Nogales near South Coast Winery. At the time he had landed on the property he now owns about five times and it reminded him of Europe. The owners had planted Chardonnay vines there only to see them wiped out by Pierce’s Disease. Frustrated, they decided to sell. Bradley calls what happened next a magical event. He made a phone call and bought the property before it ever hit the market and thought, “Let’s start a winery.”
Kentucky Derby Dollars Purchase Wine Barrels
I wasn’t aware until my visit with David that there is a hot air balloon race each year in conjunction with the Kentucky Derby. The cash purse rolls over to the next year each time there isn’t a winner. There was no winner in 2002, so when Bradley won the race in 2003, he picked up the first place prize of $6,000. From Churchill Downs he drove to Lebanon, Ky., bought 10 wine barrels and had them shipped home. Wife Gail called him when the barrels were delivered and he told her, “We’re opening a winery.” David says Gail is a huge part of the equation and has been supportive from the start.
He only had one problem. He had no working knowledge of how to make wine. He talked to his friend Roberto Ponte and felt his barrels could mask the “tarry” smell of Syrah. By now, he had a team of mentors including Roberto, Jon McPherson, Peter Poole, Marshall Stuart and Dr. Enrique Ferro. One significant advantage he felt he had was that winemakers were accessible and seemed interested in people asking questions. He took note of the sense of pride they had in what they do and felt the strong bond they shared.
Now Bradley was fully immersed. For him it was “seat of the pants” learning. He became aware of everything. Like hot air ballooning, he believes anyone can do it. It just takes passion, curiosity and commitment.
With more than 10 years in now, Bradley is crafting award-winning wines. His 2009 Petite Sirah picked up silver in Sunset Magazine’s 2013 International Wine Competition, in the 2014 competition the 2011 Petite Sirah picked up gold as well as a gold in The San Francisco Chronicle 2014 Wine Competition. His 2009 Syrah won gold in Sunset’s 2012 competition. Wine Enthusiast awarded the 2012 Regatta de Blanc Viognier 89 points.
Better Wines Start in the Vineyard
David is passionate about wine and worries that with so many tourists visiting Temecula, the temptation to relax is a possibility. Anytime you relax, he notes, you lose. The drive to make better wines starts in the vineyard. Careful attention to rootstock is critical. He doesn’t feel enough attention is paid to mid-harvest and believes what you do in the vineyard then is every bit as crucial as what you do at harvest.
A financial commitment to reduce crop loads and pull leaves is a necessity he feels other growers aren’t making. It’s a price he believes needs to be paid. There are no shortcuts. He says he’ll bet the entire future of the winery on it. He asks that he be judged on the decisions he’s made, both his failures and his successes.
Temecula is Rich With Success
He bristles when it’s suggested Temecula wine country doesn’t have an identity. He feels the region is rich with success and points to Callaway and Culbertson’s early successes, especially with the quality of Methode Champenoise produced early on.
David keeps fermentation handbooks with extensive notes on each harvest, what he did and what worked. He’ll use everything in his “bag of tricks” and likes to manipulate things. Once harvested, the fruit stays under his control until fermentation begins.
A Wine Goddess from Portugal
Last year he was blessed to have Maria Suzette Melo from Portugal working alongside him for three and a half months. He calls her the “Wine Goddess.” She is doing a study on Syrah berries and her presence, he says, altered the future of Vindemia. The single most important day of the year as far as he is concerned is Grape Day, presented by the Temecula Winegrowers Association. Experts from around the state discuss irrigation, pruning, rootstock and pests.
Stay at Vindemia’s Bed and Breakfast
If you like, you can stay on the property. David and Gail operate La Vindemia, a bed and breakfast adjoining their home. David’s mission statement is simple but powerful. He wants every bottle a guest opens when they get home to exceed the memory of how it tasted at Vindemia.
Vindemia Vineyards & Winery is located at 33133 Vista del Monte Road in Temecula. They’re open Friday through Sunday in their picturesque open-air tasting room. (951) 699-0601.
Feature Photo at top:
The Tasting Patio at Vindemia Vineyard and Winery. Photo by Tom Plant.