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San Diego County's Wine Industry Matures With The Grapes

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Larger-than-life sculptures grab your attention the moment you cross the entryway to Salerno Winery in Ramona. As you exit your car, you hear music serenading the grapes. When you step onto the winery’s patio, you smell the aroma drifting from a brick pizza oven. Ben Maurer pours you a taste of Petite Sirah. Now all your senses are engaged. The wine exceeds your expectations and makes you wonder: What’s going on here?

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Talk with most people about California wine and they’ll mention Napa, Sonoma, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties.

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Harrumph. San Diego County’s San Pasqual grape growers earned American Viticultural Area designation a mere nine months after Napa Valley and less than two weeks after Santa Maria. In fact, in September 1981, it became the fourth AVA in the country (August, Mo., was the first).

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But getting the attention of consumers takes more than AVA designation.

Until the turn of the last century, San Diego vineyards were “pretty scattered and few in numbers,” says John York, co-owner of Hellanback Ranch and president of the Ramona Valley Vineyard Association. “One of the unique aspects of the wine business is the notion that a concentration of wineries is needed to form what people recognize as a wine region — a destination.”

But the tide may be turning. According to San Diego County Department of Agriculture’s 2012 crop report, released in August, wine grape acreage grew 81 percent over the last year — from 416 to 752 acres. More significantly, yield and value increased 478 and 512 percent, respectively.

“There are nearly 80 wineries in the county, with 23 tasting rooms concentrated in Ramona Valley and the immediate area and several more up in the Julian and Warner Springs area,” John notes.

“There are new wineries opening almost every month and vineyards being planted weekly,” says William Holzhauer, co-owner of Hacienda de las Rosas Winery and president of the San Diego County Vintners Association. “A drive along Highland Valley Road [Rancho Bernardo to Ramona], as well as along Highway 67 from Ramona to Julian, demonstrates acres of new vineyards being planted.

“The San Diego and Los Angeles areas were covered with grapevines in the early 1900s, but were replaced by citrus and avocados during Prohibition,” William continues. “Over the years, various counties across California updated or changed their ordinances to allow winery tasting rooms. The County of San Diego only recently changed its ordinance; and as a result, the [local] wine and grape-growing industry is making a huge resurgence.”

Founded in 1889, Bernardo Winery has been owned by the Rizzo family since Vincent Rizzo purchased it in 1927 — during Prohibition — from five business partners. The winery owns 10 acres of vineyards, but sources grapes from about 60 acres throughout the county, producing 11,000 cases of wine a year. In July, Bernardo hosted the third annual San Diego County Wine Country Festival.

“We are committed to making San Diego County a recognized winemaking and grape-growing region in California,” says Ross Rizzo Jr., winemaker and president of Bernardo Winery and president of the San Diego County Vintner's Association. “Ultimately, the success and camaraderie of all the wineries in San Diego is key in making that happen.”

Ironically, the county’s smallest AVA (San Pasqual) is home to the county’s largest winery. Orfila Vineyards & Winery, which operates tasting rooms in Escondido and Julian, owns 70 acres (it also purchases grapes from other regions in California) and produces 12,000 to 15,000 cases a year. It holds the further distinction of being the only winery in its AVA, though, according to Controller Martha Daley, a second winery may be on the way after having planted about an acre of grapes within the last couple of years.

Most area vineyards are planted to red wine grapes. Several of those pouring their wines at the San Diego County Wine Country Festival agreed that Rhone and Italian varietals do well locally. Many wineries have begun sourcing fewer grapes from California’s central and northern regions.

“Ramona now has so many mature vineyards that there’s not much call to go outside San Diego County,” Ben says.

The common consensus about what does not grow well here is Chardonnay. Local vintners still make the U.S. market’s best-selling white wine, but with grapes (and even finished wine) from regions to the north.

The other thing you won’t find in San Diego County are castle-styled and -sized wineries and labels owned by wine con-glomerates like Constellation Brands and E&J Gallo, which
look for yield, yield, yield. Blue-Merle Winery, which has vineyards in Hidden Meadows near Escondido, produces only about 24 cases a year. At the county wine festival in July, owner/winemaker Craig Justice poured his first estate-grown Tempranillo.

Altipiano Vineyard has a 2.5-acre vineyard (two-thirds of it planted to Sangiovese) and operates a tasting room just off Highland Valley Road in Escondido. In the transition from afternoon to evening on a Saturday, owners Peter and Denise Clarke are busy pouring their wines for visitors inside their tasting room and on a patio. They sell their wine only online and at the winery, but Peter says half of their wine club members are from out of state.

“We have had requests from distributors as far away as Florida to sell our wine, but we don’t make enough,” Peter says, noting that Altipiano bottles
500 to 600 cases annually.

Kim Hargett, co-owner of Mahogany Mountain Vineyard & Winery, attributes visits from people living as far away as The Netherlands (as well as costumed Comic-Con attendees) to a wine region brochure at the San Diego Convention Center. But she and others have noticed an increase in business from local residents.

“As more people discover us, more people will think about local wine as something that they can find in their proverbial back yard,” John says. “The common reaction I get from people who visit Hellanback Ranch is surprise that we’re here. They love the scenic backdrop and the mom-and-pop nature
of all our wineries.”


Cheers by Janice Kleinschmidt

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