San Diego County's Wine Industry Matures With The Grapes
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?
Talk with most people about California wine and they’ll mention Napa, Sonoma, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties.
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).
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
A tour of urban wineries by train offers a fun way to spend an afternoon
Standing at the train station in Carlsbad, I count 14 people around me. They stand in pairs or small groups and write their names on nametags. I’m alone, but I’m about to embark on a “wine train tour” with them. Marti Bommarito explains how the day will go. She’s been a guide for La Jolla Wine Tours for two years and has completed the level II sommelier course.
Marti provides a history narrative on a portable speaker as she guides her flock to Fresco Trattoria & Bar. A long table in the dining room is set with bottles of wine, breadsticks and place settings. Although it’s 2 o’clock, it’s “early in the day” for strangers to become a group of one. Wine and food help break the ice, as we learn that six people at the table are friends from Colorado, Arizona and California. A young woman from Kentucky is here visiting her friend from La Jolla. Two birthdays are being celebrated, and a couple from Vancouver is celebrating their 10th anniversary.
Marti talks about the Italian wines being poured — a 2011 Castello d’Albola Pinot Grigio, 2010 Da Vinci Chianti and 2012 Michele Chiarlo Barbera d’Asti — as we enjoy the pairing repast of caprese salad, eggplant Parmesan and ravioli with sautéed spinach and cream sauce.
After another narrated, short walk, we arrive at Witch Creek Winery, where we are allowed to select five wines to try. Marti hands out bags that will hold six bottles to make the day’s purchases easy to carry. Before leaving, we get a peek behind the tasting room to see where the wines are made with grapes sourced from points north in California and Valle de Guadalupe in Baja.
Back on the train, Marti directs the tour group into one car and begins a trivia game about wine (i.e., Question: What country still crushes grapes by foot? Answer: Portugal. Prize: a corkscrew).
At Solana Beach, the group disembarks and walks up Cedros Avenue to Carruth Cellars, which already has a handful of visitors. We gather around wine barrels set on end to serve as tables and a gentleman comes around to pour us tastes of Sauvignon Blanc; Chardonnay; Pinot Noir; Tempranillo; a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Barbera, Tempranillo and Petite Sirah; and Zinfandel. Carruth sources its grapes from California regions, including Napa Valley; Sonoma, Yolo and Lake counties; and Paso Robles.
Fortunately, Marti watches the clock and let’s us know when it’s time to buy and go. Her sense of timing seems well honed, as we don’t miss a train or have to wait long.
By now, we’re one big happy family — much less subdued than at 2 p.m. We’re talking and laughing like old friends. A fireman from Temecula teaches me a “secret handshake.” At least one member of the group cracks open a bottle of wine (Marti carries a corkscrew and plastic glasses for such occasions). She notes that she’d purchased the wine for someone else, but … well, there it is and it’s another 30 minutes to our final stop in Old Town San Diego.
A short walk from the depot takes us to Hacienda de las Rosas, where again we may select five wines to try. All the grapes for this winery are grown in Ramona. There are three small rooms at Hacienda and an exhibition of photography. The group disperses a bit. Marti sticks around to make sure everyone who needs to get back to the train gets there in time. As 7 p.m. approaches, I make my way to the transit station.
Once onboard the trolley, I pull out my phone and call a friend. Talking when I should be paying attention, I miss my stop. Where is Marti when I need her?
Filling a Niche
After Shira Bliss lost her job as a mergers and acquisitions consultant in the 2009 recession, she started her own company with Paul Anthony Vild: La Jolla Wine Tours (lajollawinetours.com).
“Our goal in starting the company was to benefit the San Diego economy and create jobs for people, including me,” Shira says. “Now we have several tour guides and office personnel and are helping boost business for wineries and brewpubs.”
The inspiration for wine train tours came from Adam Carruth. After opening a winery and tasting room in Solana Beach in 2010, he put together a map for a self-guided tour of wineries using the North County Transit District’s Coaster train as a mode of getting to wineries up and down the local coastline (wineryrailtrail.com).
“We said, ‘Hey, that’s a great idea. How about we put together a guided tour and bring people to your winery?’” Shira recalls.
Now she’s bringing 40 to 50 people through Carruth Cellars every week. La Jolla Winery Tours pays the tasting fees for each customer, and about a third of those who visit buy wine, Adam says.
Train tours run Monday through Friday, with an average of 10 people per tour and one to two tours per day. About 60 percent are out-of-town tourists, though on holidays more locals than tourists take the tour. The beer train tour stops at The Beer Company, Pizza Port, Union Kitchen & Tap, The Compass and D Street Bar and Grill.
La Jolla Wine Tours — which also operates chauffeured wine and beer tours to outlying San Diego County wineries and breweries — pays it forward by donating a portion of its proceeds to Shakti Rising, a nonprofit helping women recovering from addiction, sexual abuse, violence, depression and low self-esteem.
Cheers: By Janice Kleinschmidt
San Diego International Wine Competition marks its 30th anniversary
In March, more than 30 individuals in wine-related professions — including winemakers, sommeliers, restaurateurs and retailers — gathered at a San Diego hotel for two full days and tasted their way through about 1,700 wines. On June 9, more than 800 individuals are expected to gather at Liberty Station for three and a half hours (3 to 6:30 p.m.) to taste the medal-winning wines in the San Diego International Wine Competition.
According to Robert Whitley, director of the competition for the past 10 years, consumers benefit from the consensus reached by wine industry experts “because the average person doesn’t have time to research wines,” and wineries that enter the competition consequently benefit “because consumers follow the winners and buy their wines.”
And everyone benefits from the annual Wine & Roses tasting that runs in conjunction with the competition. The event raises funds to send children to summer camp who otherwise would not have the opportunity to enjoy one of life’s essential childhood experiences. The Social Service Auxiliary of San Diego owns the rights to Wine & Roses, and a portion of ticket sales goes toward the Camp Oliver program supported by the Sisters of Social Service.
In addition to offering a charitable component (unlike most commercial, marketing-oriented wine festivals), Wine & Roses distinguishes itself by acquiring a one-day license to sell the medal-winning wines on site, which saves attendees from having to seek out wines later in retail outlets or ordering bottles from winery websites to be shipped to them.
Wineries that win medals are asked to donate cases for sale in the pop-up shop, which stays open 30 to 60 minutes after the tasting ends. But those who know what they want after viewing the list of winners online (sdiwc.com) usually do their buying before the tasting begins. The shop opens at 1:30 p.m., and sales begin at 2 p.m.
“People line up, and there are discounts. They like to go for the gold-medal wines,” Robert says. “We typically sell 400 to 500 cases. If we have wines that are left over from the sale, we put them in storage and bring them out next year at a super discount.”
In blind-tasting flights ranging from two to 11 wines, competi-tion judges select best of class (best of specific varieties), best of show (in the categories of red, white, rosé, sparkling and dessert wines) and wine of the year (the wine with the most votes from all categories combined). Robert selects the Winery of the Year.
“I look at the results and decide who had the strongest performance overall,” he says, explaining that it’s not based on the percentage of medals. “It’s the quality of the medals,” he says. “I look at the results and say, ‘These guys really nailed it this time. They had a great competition.’”
Entries came from places most wine lovers would least expect, including New Jersey, Virginia, Georgia, Missouri, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Michigan and Wisconsin. In fact, the 2013 Wine of the Year is a Dry Riesling from Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac, Wis. (albeit the grapes came from Washington state). The Best of Show Rosé award went to Canyon Wind Cellars of Grand Valley, Colo. Robert honored Beaulieu Vineyard in Napa Valley with the Director’s Award 2013 Winery of the Year.
Notable to locals, Milagro Farm Vineyards & Winery in Ramona garnered silver medals for its 2012 Rosé of Sangiovese and 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon and a platinum medal for its 2012 Sauvignon Blanc.
In addition to wine and food, the June 9 event includes musical entertainment and a silent auction.