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Temecula Valley Wine Pioneer: Audrey Cilurzo

Photo of older woman with red shirt and blond hair

It was a simple gift. Decades later it proved to be partly responsible for the nearly 7,000 tourist-related jobs and the near billion dollars visitors spend annually in the Temecula Valley.

In the 1960s Audrey Cilurzo bought her husband Vincenzo a home wine-making kit from Sears. From this gift the seeds – actually vines – for their experiment planting wine grapes in the Temecula area were sewn.

Audrey passed away on July 15th, several days short of her 94th birthday, in Santa Rosa. Vincenzo died in 2016. Following his passing Audrey moved to Santa Rosa to be close to her son Vinnie and his wife Natalie. 

“It was my dad’s vision to plant the first commercial vineyard in Temecula in 1968, but my mom was right there next to him in executing everything in those early years from initially planting the grapes to everything it takes to tend to a vineyard,” Vinnie told me recently. 

There were many who doubted wine grapes could successfully be grown in the region. 

Vincenzo and Audrey met on the set of the Roy Rogers & Dale Evans television show in the early 1960s. Vincenzo was an Emmy award-winning lighting director. 

In the mid-1960s while living in Los Angeles, they were on a waiting list for a McDonalds franchise in Escondido.

After a trip to that city they stopped in Temecula on the way home.

Both liked the small town feel of area – the population was about 350 – so they bought 100 acres along Long Valley (now Rancho California) Road along with a ramshackle house and an old barn.

Their plan was to grow grapes and sell them to wine producers. 

“What I always think about is the fact that they initially had nobody to sell their grapes to, at the time that was a huge risk for both of them,” said Vinnie.

After selling grapes to others for a decade, in 1978 Vincenzo and Audrey opened their winery and tasting room. 

“My dad was still working in Hollywood so he was gone four days a week which left my mom to run the winery as well as raise my sister Chenin and I,” Vinnie said. “While making sure everything was buttoned down at the winery, she never missed taking me to a basketball or soccer game or taking Chenin and I to a 4-H event.”

Most weekdays Audrey left a note on the barn door telling visitors to come up to the new house they’d built on the hill above and knock if they wanted to sample Cilurzo wines.

“We were just happy if anyone showed up,” she once told me.

On weekends Audrey, who had been a teacher, offered wine tasting lessons in a classroom setting inside the winery.

Audrey also served on the local school board for years and worked to promote the fledgling wine region.

“I remember the early wineries having a camaraderie to work together to promote the region,” Vinnie said. “My mom was always there to spearhead some of these actions to ensure Temecula was eventually a well-known destination.”

The Cilurzos sold their winery in 2004. 

Today at least 50 wineries fill the rolling hills east of Temecula.

“When my folks planted the first commercial vineyard in Temecula in 1968, I don’t think they could have ever imagined what the Temecula wine industry would become and what it is today,” Vinnie said. 

In 2018, during one of her last visits in Temecula, Audrey attended the annual Xenia Hospitality Awards presented by Visit Temecula Valley. She was there to present the Cilurzo Award for Winery of the Year.

Frail, and carrying a bouquet of flowers, Audrey received a standing ovation as she stepped to the microphone. 

In the audience at the Pechanga Resort were hundreds of people who make their living in the local tourism industry working at wineries, hotels, restaurants, and other related businesses.

“When Vince and I first decided that we were going to plant grapes we got some cuttings from UC Davis and we wanted to know which grapes they thought would be best for the valley,” she told the audience. “And we were told in very velvet-colored words that under no circumstances should you plant grapes in Temecula.”

Written by John Hunneman

For three decades John Hunneman was a reporter and columnist for both The Californian and Riverside Press-Enterprise newspapers. He retired in 2020 after serving as the Communications Director for California State Senator Jeff Stone.

John currently serves on the City of Murrieta Parks and Recreation Commission and is on the Board of Directors of The Nature Education Foundation at the Santa Rosa Plateau.

He recently concluded two years of service on the Riverside County Civil Grand Jury.

John is a proud Vietnam-Era U.S. Navy veteran and a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

He and his wife Yvonne have lived in Murrieta for 35 years. Both of their sons graduated from Murrieta Valley High School.

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