By Rick Riozza
Although Middle Ridge Winery processes and bottles their wine in the Temecula wine country, it’s thetall pines and sweet smelling cedars of the popular artist community of Idyllwildthat is home to winemaker Chris Johnston and his wife Melody. It’s where they live out their life’s philosophy, “the conversation is as important as the wine.”
As a youth, Johnston attended the summer arts program at Idyllwild Arts Academy with a goal of becoming a concert violinist. It was the mountains, numerous art galleries, and special events featuring local artists and musicians that quickly won him over to the locale that continues to enlighten his creative spirit.
Johnston continues to experiment with fruit fermentation at his Middle Ridge Road home in Idyllwild. “My wife calls it the Innovation Lab — I call it my sanctuary,” says Johnston. “It all starts here. I’ve put my old college chemistry class instruction to good use; to me, it’s a fun hobby that’s out of control.”
Since moving to Idyllwild in 2005, Johnston has worked to find the perfect fruit fusions that will excite his palette. “I buy my own grapes, generally from Temecula, Paso Robles, Lodi, and lately from Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley, so I get to work directly with the growers and see what their growing practices are,” he said. “I want people to appreciate the care I put into this.”
Middle Ridge is a “micro-winery” that will produce about 1600 cases of wine this year. “It was ’07 before it was decent enough to win awards,” said Johnston, who has many first-place ribbons for his homemade boutique wines. The Middle Ridge 2006 Syrah and 2008 Pinot Grigio were judged as being among the best wines in the Temecula Valley and Cucamonga wine regions by a panel of wine judges and critics.
Currently, Middle Ridge offers a dozen varieties of wine that include a 2012 Pinot Grigio from Temecula’s Blue Creek Vineyard that is “light, crisp and lively with apple and pear aromas and hints of ruby grapefruit and lemongrass on the palate”; a 2009 Reserve Merlot from Paso Robles, “full of dark currant and black cherry aromas and flavors that is elegant and smooth with a touch of tobacco and spice on the finish”; and, the 2010 Old Vine Zinfandel from Cory Ranch Lodi, where Chris says “it’s made bordelaise-style, aged in French instead of American oak, the result is a thick, rich mouth feel and aromas that reach out and grab you—like wonderful lush raspberries, pomegranates and plums.”
Middle Ridge has a Tasting Room at the Crush & Brew in Old Town Temecula, an artisan restaurant and tasting bar featuring locally crafted wine and beer. Middle Ridge wine club benefits are honored here, including complimentary wine tastings and discounts on purchases of Middle Ridge wine.
As winery owners with an appreciation of the arts, along with a real connection to the Idyllwild community, the Johnston’s always wanted to start an Artist Series label. Fortuitously, along came the Idyllwild Deer Sightings, the first permanent public exhibit to grace the mountain community. The 22 life-size deer sculptures, painted by local artists, commemorate the art, history and culture of Idyllwild—exactly the type of project Chris and Melody wanted to honor.
Middle Ridge received the graces of the Art Alliance of Idyllwild and incorporated images of the painted deer on the labels of their 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon and they also offered a donation to the organization for each bottle sold. Of the 22 painted deer to choose from, a selection committee considered several criteria—composition, creativity, and originality along with visual impact for label design, six deer were selected, with each deer showcased on its own label.
On Saturday, June 21st, from 3:00-5:00pm, the Art Alliance of Idyllwild will host an open-to-the public wine release party and fundraiser at the Idyllwild Area Historical Society, located at 54470 N. Circle Drive, Idyllwild, CA 92549. Sponsored by Middle Ridge Winery, the festivities honor the artists of the AAI’s Deer Sightings sculptures, Idyllwild’s first permanent public art exhibit, with the official unveiling of the winery’s inaugural Artist Series wine labels.
Guests will be able to stroll through the Idyllwild Area Historical Society’s gardens, home to five of the twenty-two deer. The Historical Society also carries the maps showing the locations of the painted deer, and visitors are encouraged to pick one up for self-guided tours.
Live music will be provided and refreshments will be served. Tickets cost $25.00 and are discounted for members of the Art Alliance, Idyllwild Area Historical Society, and Middle Ridge Wine Club. For more information and to purchase tickets, go to the “Upcoming Events” page of ArtInIdyllwild.org.
The Art Alliance’s inaugural Sizzling Summer Gallery Tour follows the wine release party. Member galleries will be open to the public from 5:30 pm-7:30 pm, and attendance is free.
The event coordinators are calling this event, “The art of making wine meets Idyllwild’s visual arts in this unique wine release party!” It’s also a great time to get out of the heat of the valley—it’s usually 20 degrees or cooler up there!
Rick is your somm-about-town entertaining and conducting at wine events and tastings. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org