Though in its infancy, the industry is growing, making a name for itself
Vineyard worker Yobany Linares, 18, dumped grapes in to a large crate during the carignan grape harvest Friday at McCormick Ranch Vineyard, in Pauma Valley. The grapes will be made into a single-vrietal bottling for j° brix winery in Escondido. — Misael Virgen
From a trendy restaurant in New York to a hip wine shop in LA and an influential wine column in San Francisco, the fledgling San Diego wine industry is making a name for itself.
One place it’s still pretty unheard of? San Diego.
“Everybody thinks San Diego wine comes from Temecula. We are not Temecula,” said Maurice DiMarino, wine and beverage manager for the Cohn Restaurant Group.
What separates San Diego from Temecula, he said, and also makes it conducive to making good wine are the county’s higher elevations, its sandy, granite soil, multiple microclimates “and wind passages coming from the ocean that go from Fallbrook to Jamul.”
Though there are as many wineries in the county as there are craft breweries — about 115 each — the wine business is only in its infancy, probably where beer was 20 years ago. But those involved in the industry, and those watching it closely, say San Diego could be poised to become California’s next notable wine region.
“We’re coming up, we’re paddling out, we’re coming up to the wave, but we’re not there yet,” said Linda McWilliams, president of the San Diego County Vintners Association, a trade group, and co-owner of San Pasqual Winery in La Mesa.
“The quality of wine has improved markedly. In the last five years, it’s been by leaps and bounds,” she said. “We’ve always had some top-quality wines being made here. Others are still learning how. Overall now, the wine quality in San Diego can stand up next to anybody.”
In some areas, the growth has been dramatic. In 2010, for example, there was one boutique tasting room in Ramona; today there are about 25.
McWilliams said that sizable jump was the result of a county ordinance pushed by Supervisor Dianne Jacob that allowed rural wineries to, among other things, offer on-site sales and public tasting rooms.
In other areas, the increase has been steady. Between 2012 and 2014, the number of vineyard acres harvested rose 23 percent, from 752 to 923, according to preliminary figures from the San Diego County Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures.
Some of that expansion is a result of the enduring drought, with longtime farmers turning away from thirstier crops like citrus and planting grape vines, said Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, a nonprofit advocacy group for farmers.
Another crop of farmer, coming from the fields of science, technology and business, is also taking root, Larson said.
“It’s getting bigger all the time. There’s a lot of new investment in the wine business in San Diego County and a lot of folks who might not normally be into farming are getting into farming.”
An interest in all things local, artisan and craft has drawn these newbie winemakers to make a career switch, with an eye toward the booming success of San Diego breweries and the county’s other celebrated attractions.
“The tourists are already here — maybe give them a reason to stay another day tasting wine,” Larson said. “And we’d like to attract some of the 3 million people who live in San Diego County to the wineries as well.”
But it’s too soon to get drunk on the prospect of success, some say. Like any industry in its early stages, there are obstacles, not least of which is being recognized as a viable wine region — despite the county being the first place in California where grape vines were planted.
Looking to expose locals and tourists to San Diego bottles, DiMarino has held an all-San Diego tasting and has put some local labels on the wine lists of Cohn’s most high-profile restaurants, including The Prado and Island Prime.
“It’s hard to sell… You have to push it,” said DiMarino. “Most of the time when I say San Diego wine to customers they kind of roll their eyes.”
Jon Bonné, wine columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and author of “The New California Wine,” agreed it’s going to be a challenge for San Diego, known more for its hops than that other fermented beverage.
“Craft beer has come on so strong… (wine is) not just competing with Napa, it’s also competing with Stone.”
‘Winemakers to Watch’
This year’s heat, some early frost and lack of rain have sent farmers and vineyard workers into the field to harvest the earliest in memory. Challenging weather conditions have lead to lower yields — even with the increase in acreage planted, total grape production in 2014 was 4,246 tons, compared with 4,813 in 2012. But struggling vines and fewer grapes per plant can translate into more concentrated fruit and higher quality in the glass.
That’s the upside. The downside is that there aren’t enough grapes to meet the demand from all of the new and long-standing wineries, Larson said.
Out of necessity, or choice, wineries are supplanting the supply from grapes grown outside the county. Others purchase grapes that don’t grow particularly well in the arid, Mediterranean climate.
Trucked in fruit complicates San Diego’s quest for wine credibility, Bonné said.
“You’re trying to make a point of local wine and you’re making wine with grapes from Amador County?” he said. “The quality of local wine has to have real local tie that’s more than just being in a cellar.”
Misgivings aside, Bonné is high on several new endeavors.
Last year he named the husband and wife team behind Escondido’s Vesper Vineyards among his “2014 Winemakers to Watch.”
“Alysha Stehly and Chris Broomell of Vesper Vineyards are bringing San Diego County back into the conversation,” he wrote.
Production of wines from Escondido’s j° brix has recently increased from 800 to 1,000 cases as a result of getting picked up in several of America’s most elite wine and food establishments, including Chez Panisse in Berkeley, LA’s Silverlake Wine and Bar Amá; and New York’s critical darling, Contra.
On Friday, j° brix owners Emily Towe and Jody Brix Towe started the day at 4:30 a.m. at the McCormick Ranch Vineyard, in the Pauma Valley, for the harvest of carignan grapes from 35-year-old vines.
That grape, grown primarily in France and Spain, is considered one of the varietals that might one day be part of San Diego’s wine identity.
Right now, there’s a lot of experimenting to see what does best here (barbera? grenache? cabernet franc?) and because of the unique growing conditions, the grapes won’t taste like they do elsewhere.
That pioneering aspect seems like half the fun.
“People don’t have any idea what San Diego tastes like, which is exciting because there’s no preconceived idea,” said Emily Towe.
“The personality of the wines is different. There’s a little more of a sunshine quality… they’re earthier, there’s a different feel. You can tell, even if you can’t put it into words, that it’s made here.”
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