Festival showcases San Diego wineries

Rancho Bernardo festival promotes San Diego County’s wealth of vintners

By Lori Weisberg – May 17, 2015

— When Kiran Gupta told her husband that she was spending Sunday afternoon with some girlfriends at a Rancho Bernardo wine festival, he seemed puzzled. How could that be, he told her, there aren’t any wineries in San Diego.

Like her husband, Gupta was unaware of the dozens of wineries that call San Diego County home, but after walking the festival and falling for a Grenache from Ramona, she plans to start paying a visit to the local vintners.

Mission accomplished.

Winemakers participating in the San Diego County Vintner Association’s wine and food festival at the Bernardo Winery say they’re hoping the annual event will raise public awareness about the more than 100 largely boutique wineries that populate the county, from Fallbrook to Campo and Julian.

“This is just a nice, relaxing day, but we also wanted to learn about the wineries,” said Gupta, from Carmel Valley, accompanied by two girlfriends. “I’m more familiar with Sonoma and Napa. I didn’t realize there were so many wineries here.”

While lagging far behind the worldwide repute of Napa and Sonoma and the robust production of Temecula Valley, San Diego County’s fledgling winemaking region is rapidly growing, although the region’s topography and microclimates will likely inhibit the kind of growth seen in other more hospitable wine regions, said John Alongé, marketing director for the Vintners Association. Most produce no more than 1,000 cases a year, selling most of their wine at their tasting rooms, he said.

“The typical profile of (local winery operators) is a couple retired from their regular jobs, and this was their hobby that became their passion,” Alongé said. “They tend to be a little older and totally passionate about what they’re doing.”

An abiding passion for wine, not a desire to make money, is what drives Marilyn and Stephen Kahle, who have been growing grapes in Ramona since 1995 and opened their Woof ‘n Rose Winery in Ramona eight years ago. It was one of 25 local wine-making operations showcased at Sunday’s festival, which has been held off and on for 20 years.

“When people come to the tasting room and say you’re living the life we’d love to have, I say, unless you have a passion for it you’re doing the best part — tasting,” said Marilyn, a retired database administrator whose winery features nine varietals, with most of the fruit grown on the premises. “You’re not going to make a fortune doing this. We have gone into the black, but you have to put that money back into the barrels and the bottles.”

Paula Payne, another Ramona winery owner, said she’s seen San Diego’s wine-producing industry grow significantly since she and her husband opened their Hellanback Ranch Winery five years ago. Helping fuel the growth of boutique operations was a 2010 change in county law that made it easier and less costly to obtain permits for opening wineries with tasting rooms in unincorporated parts of the county.

“People are very surprised by the quality of the wines we’re producing in Ramona,” said Payne, who runs the winery with husband John York. “Our best seller is our merlot. This festival is helping get us exposure because we are so small.”

John Serio and his wife, Stephanie, from Rancho Bernardo are well-versed on local wineries but came to the festival to celebrate their anniversary.

“A day hanging out at a winery while the kids are home doing homework is an OK day with me,” he said.