Lying halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles makes the Temecula Valley an easy escape for city dwellers hungry for the serenity of a day in the country. Temecula’s wine country is located a mere five miles off of the I-15 Freeway among citrus groves and vineyards. In the clear early mornings, colorful hot air balloons seem suspended in the skies overlooking this bucolic valley. Growing up I felt privileged to live in this idyllic countryside. However, utopia is an ideal, not a reality, and my youthful innocence has given way to real concern and awareness of the intrinsic hazards lurking here.
The bureaucrats and businessmen, who feed off our tourist trade, have masked the unattractive pitfalls of the wine country with romantic propaganda. The wineries and local government need to work together in providing a safer environment for the tourists they so eagerly recruit. According to the Automobile Club of Southern California, our state has some of the nation’s strictest laws for driving under the influence, which has contributed significantly to our state’s sharp declines in drinking and driving crashes (1). Yet, when visiting Temecula wineries, no concern regarding this matter is evident.
When questioned about their wine tasting protocol, representatives from all three of the largest tasting rooms, Thorton, Maurice Carrie, and Baily’s, revealed to me that no provisions are made for expectoration after tasting. The Taste of Wine, by Pamela Price, states that this is a necessary part of proper wine tasting: “There will be a sink or spittoon easy of access, possibly a few pieces of dry bread or dry biscuits to refresh palates . . . Serious wine tasting must be done like this” (36). Deviating from this conventional technique creates a situation in which the taster may easily consume enough alcohol to become legally drunk.
In our valley, most vintners offer a selection of five different wines and a commemorative glass for the average price of four dollars. Each individual sample is approximately one and one half ounces, totaling seven and one half ounces of consumed alcohol per tasting. John Dolour, proprietor of Vintage Vineyards Winery, told me that, “The typical tourist visits three wineries during their day visit to this valley. ” The National Center for Statistics and Analysis’s “Drink Chart Guide” shows that as little as eight ounces of wine over a two-hour period can raise the blood alcohol level to 0. 7%, which significantly impairs driving capabilities.
Tripling this amount, as many visitors do, guarantees that a 230-pound person would exceed the legal blood alcohol level of 0. 08% (31). These results clearly indicate that a day of wine “tasting” is no different then a night of bar hopping, and therefore necessitates a designated driver. The five-mile stretch of Rancho California Road that connects fifteen commercial wineries is in great need of improvement. Within the city limits, this road is well lit, has a median, multiple center turnout lanes, and stoplights at every intersection.
In addition to these safety measures, it is heavily patrolled by city law enforcement. Yet, once you cross the city limits, just prior to the first winery, Rancho California Road becomes a two-lane nightmare. In this mostly agricultural environment, where there are few residential lights, there are no streetlights. High beams are necessary for proper nighttime illumination on this blackened thoroughfare, but because of the curves that define this route one is never able to see clearly down the road.
Often, this leads to drivers taking a turn, only to be caught in the high beams of an approaching vehicle. Just last year, my girlfriend and I narrowly escaped a head on collision when a driver came barreling around a curve and directly into our lane. Reflective center-lane road dots could help in preventing this type of driver error. In his study, “Rural and Urban Crashes – A Comparative Analysis”, Joseph M. Tessmer compares the characteristics of crashes occurring in rural areas to the characteristics of crashes occurring in urban areas.
He notes that rural accidents have a larger proportion of vehicle rollovers, head-on collisions, and fatalities per crash than those in urban areas. One significant factor contributing to the severity of these crashes is the lack of adequate road illumination (1). To make matters worse, this area is full of wildlife which frequently dart across the road. Unsuspecting tourists often have to swerve or stop abruptly to avoid hitting opossum, rabbits, and coyotes. Such occasions dictate that the driver’s judgement and reaction time remain unimpaired.
Although this road has many cross-streets, leading to hillside residences, there are no stoplights or even stop signs to slow down the pace on this dangerous stretch. Signs indicate a 55-mile per hour speed limit, but with infrequent patrols by Riverside County Sheriff’s officers, I’ve noticed speeds of 70 mph and above have become commonplace. Local teens even use this road for late night drag races. All of these unsafe road conditions require even the most proficient of drivers to be especially careful, so when an inebriated driver takes to this road they are courting disaster.
Although each person must take responsibility for their own actions, it is my opinion that the winery owners and the city of Temecula should bear some responsibility in seeing that the activities they promote are in accordance with public safety. In order for this to happen changes must be made. Ideally, the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association could offer incentives to each visitor who agrees to act as a designated driver. A complimentary bottle of wine could be given to that person to enjoy in the safety of his or her own home. Spittoons should also be provided and proper wine tasting technique encouraged at every winery.
Most vintners already show a brief video on how their wines are made. It would be so simple to add a few extra moments at the end of the tape advocating safe tasting practices. Even though the wineries lie outside of Temecula, the city reaps the benefits of this lucrative tourist attraction. The Temecula Chamber of Commerce acknowledges that “the wine country serves as a hub for the city’s tourism,” and boasts that tourism has enjoyed a 635% increase from 1991-1999 (53). Therefore, providing a volunteer transportation program, or trolley for those tourists wishing to tour the valley and make a day of wine tasting would serve them well.
I realize that visitors flock to Temecula because of its rural nature, and to enjoy our country atmosphere. However, a few well-placed streetlights and stop signs could mean the difference between life and death for tourists and citizens alike who travel Rancho California Road. These improvements are surely not insurmountable if the city and merchants team up to improve the odds for a safe touring experience. If no changes are made, I can only assume that the city of Temecula feels its responsibility for the safety of its visitors ends at the county line.