Simultaneously the Oldest and Newest Wine Region in California

Words & Photographs by Robin Dohrn-Simpson

Fires can be a good thing and a bad thing. On the bad side is the loss of vegetation, animals, homes and livelihoods. On the good side is a cleansing of the vegetation. For San Diego County, the fires in 2007 were simultaneously good and bad. Many people lost their homes, orchards, animals and old-growth vegetation. On the plus side, the hillsides were cleared leaving the land available for new plantings. That is when the creative entrepreneurs were able to work with county officials and plant vineyards and start an entirely new (yet old) industry. Wine.

Local historian Richard L. Carrico wrote in his essay “History of the Wineries and Wines of San Diego County” chronicling the past 250+ years of grape growing and wine production in San Diego. 

Alta California, as the Southern California wine region was once known dominated wine production in the state. It began around 1781 in San Diego with California’s first mission, Mission San Diego de Alcalá. 

Reports suggest production continued using the California Mission grape with varied success until about 1835 and then not at all by the 1850s. The first commercial winery in the region is credited to Asher Maxcy’s vineyard in Valley Center founded around 1870.

In 1856, the Los Angeles Viticulture area reported just over 1,200 acres of wine-growing grapes, more than half of the state’s total. San Diego supplied 6 acres of this 1200. By the 1860s San Diego’s acreage was up to 117 acres. Then comes Prohibition and everything stops. San Diego turned to fruit and nut trees effectively starting the citrus market.

Wine returned to the agricultural mix in the 1970s and 1980s in Temecula and eventually in the 2000s in San Diego. Today there are over 115 wineries and two American Viticulture Areas (referred to as AVAs) with another one in the works.

Altipiano Winery, When Life Gives You Fires, Make Wine

Peter and Denise Clarke found their new passion while traveling through Montalcino Italy and tasting their famous Brunello wine. When they returned home, much of their avocado orchards had burnt in the 2007 fire and a boutique winery was born from the ashes. First came the Brunello Sangiovese vines followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera and Petite Sirah. Today they have added Nero D’Avola and Aglianico to their line-up. While they do source many grapes from other California locations the processing and bottling are all done on their estate.

Peter concedes that his wife has the better palate and thus wine-making duties fell to Denise. As a trailblazer of female winemakers in the valley, she has won numerous awards for her wines. She combines the love of grapes with her love of music. “Wine has a rhythm to it, like a symphony waiting to be played. There’s a beat and a rhythm of the vines swaying in the wind. Sometimes it’s frantic and sometimes it’s controlled chaos,” Clarke said. Just like life.  We’re all moving to the rhythm of the world. The dipping and swaying of philosophies; the low notes of Prohibition and the high notes of Renaissance.

Peter, a retired attorney, was instrumental in creating the Ramona AVA and worked diligently with the San Diego County officials, and volunteering thousands of hours of his time to design the Wine Country Ordinance that allows wineries to exist.

Denise’s keen sense of art and beauty is evident at their winery and home. Their lovely Tuscan-themed tasting patio is filled with stylish furnishings. Lush with colorful tiles and a pergola overlooking the vineyards. 

Just as music is measured in beats per minute, grapes are measured by the vintage. The rhythm of the vines is both largo and allegro. Allegro connotes joy and Largo means broadly. The joy of wine. The breadth of the growth of the Valley. Come and enjoy the wines, the views, the symphonies and the hospitality. 

The Music of Wine is their motto and truly this winery is like a lovely concerto.

Espinosa Vineyards

Roberto and Noelle Espinosa got into the wine business on a fluke. They came to San Diego from the Bay Area after the 2007 firestorm destroyed the property of Noelle’s parents on Highland Valley Road. With the intention of helping the family rebuild, the idea was formed to grow some grapes and make home wine. In 2008, they planted four grapevines, then went to 600 in 2010. Intrigued by the growth of the region, they decided to transition from family winemaker to start a commercial winery.

                                                                                                               

Roberto has spent many hours in the local libraries researching the history of Highland Valley. He found that their property was a winery as early as the 1930s when William Winn originally acquired the 40-acre property from a land grant in 1893. Part of the deal was he had to grow timber for the railroads. He grew eucalyptus, due to its quick growth. 

“Grapes were first planted on our property in 1893 by William Winn, but the first commercial winery built in 1936 by Lewis and Alta Hart.  Around 1950, the winery was converted to a machine shop and vineyards lay fallow for more than fifty years.  The old winery burned to the ground in the 2007 San Diego Firestorm,” Espinosa said.

With this rich history, it is natural and fitting that some lands be returned to the grapes. Roberto had a long successful career in the Biotech field with a background in Microbiology. This helped him considerably when he ventured into winemaking.

Fresh from a family sabbatical in Spain, the Espinosas traveled throughout Iberia and Roberto learned about Spanish wines.

Currently, their estate wines include Tempranillo which is their flagship red wine with flavors of plum and ripe cherry, tobacco and spice, with a long, dry finish, “You don’t need to have a smoking jacket to enjoy this wine, but it might compel you to get one,” Espinosa says. 

Their 2016 estate Vin Rouge, a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec has notes of cassis, menthol and cedar with lively acidity and spice and a pleasant long earth finish.

The estate Rosado is a crowd-pleaser, 100% Grenache it is bright and tangy with notes of raspberry and citrus. Perfect for a summer afternoon.

If you are a white wine enthusiast, try the Reserva Especial blend of Garnacha Blanca, Viognier and Moscatel. The wine is full-bodied with balanced acidity with a floral nose.

We are excited to see where the Spanish sabbatical takes Roberto and his wines.

Rancho Guejito Winery, Where the Asphalt Ends and the Old West Begins

One of the most historic wineries in San Diego is Rancho Guejito Winery located in verdant San Pasqual Valley. The land for this ranch was gifted to Jose Maria Orozco in 1845 before California was part of the United States.  Part of the “Days of the Dons” land grant, started as 13,298 acres and grew to 23,000 acres when Maxcy Vineyard Ranch was annexed. In 1852, they devoted 1,500 acres to Muscat and Mission grapes, quickly becoming the largest producer of wine in Southern California. Today they grow not only grapes but also avocados, grapefruit, Cuties and lemons. 

In 2006, the 100 acre Rockwood Ranch was purchased and its 1890s ranch house was converted to the tasting room.

Winemaker Chris Broomell has been instrumental in deciding what grapes to plant and the wines and blends to make. With 40 acres of vineyards planted, they have some well-known standards such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Syrah, Marsanne and Viognier. They are able to experiment with interesting varieties of grapes unique to this area such as Trebbiano, Toscano, Terret Noir, Clairette Blanc and Petite Manseng. 

Vineyard Rouge is the proprietary blend. The 2015 blend is Counoise, Mourvèdre, Grenache and Syrah. This dry, complex wine is ripe with blackberries, blueberries and cranberries. It can be laid down in your cellar for a while, if you want.

The 2015 Rockwood Rouge is another creative blend of the same grapes Counoise, Mourvèdre, Grenache and Syrah. This very California wine is fruit-forward with Rainier cherry, red currants and even a touch of açai berry. Priced at $33.00, this wine would be a great pairing with a steak, pork or lamb.

If you visit at the right time, you can take one of their hayride tours through the vineyards and groves, passing by the remains of the original Maxcy winery. 2,000 grass-fed cattle roam the acreage also. Not much still stands, but enough to feel the legacy of the history of this land grant. Who knows, maybe they will restore it someday. 

Ramona Ranch Winery, San Diego’s only Certified California Sustainable Winery

When Micole Moore and Teri Kerns won some awards for their home wines, they decided to “give it a try” and go commercial. “We thought, this is fun and easy”, Kerns said. “Little did we know that on that one thought our lives changed.” They now own and operate a 1,000 case a year Ramona Ranch Vineyards and Winery.

They are avid environmentalists and nature lovers who have committed themselves to live and farm in harmony with wildlife. Becoming certified sustainable was a huge goal that Ramona Ranch achieved after years of planning and continuous improvements. When you drink their wine, know that you are supporting a farmer and vintner that embraces its responsibility to take care of the environment.

An interesting component of this sustainability is Integrated Pest Management. They limit crop protection and maintain an owl habitat, raptor perches and insectary zones to attract beneficial insects. Their careful vineyard management practices include vine, weed and disease control that align with philosophies of sustainability.

The entire operation is powered by renewable energy from solar panels and wind turbines to the newly acquired Tesla batteries. Now with power outages a regular occurrence in the backcountry due to winds and potential fires, their batteries act as a generator and keep the facility in power.

Micole has selected grapes that grow in this valley including Tannat a dark and brooding wine with rich flavors of plum and cocoa. This wine has won multiple awards and sells out annually. The Tannat grape is destined to be a well-known grape for this area.

This year the wine club members created their own blend called ZSM, Zinfandel, Syrah and Montepulciano.  “Our blend opens with notes of raspberry, currant and oregano. The acidity of the Montepulciano and fruit-forward characteristics of the Zinfandel and Syrah make it a perfect wine to enjoy alone or with food.” This fun venture has fans enjoying the wine on its own or different members report that it pairs nicely with any grilled red meat, bacon mac and cheese or pizza.

Locals in the know have been patiently awaiting the release of Micole’s Super Tuscan. 

2021 has brought a long-awaited expansion to the winery with a new production facility and tasting room. Terrible timing, considering the soaring price of lumber, but it will undoubtedly be a beautiful facility.

Watch us Grow

It’s fun to watch a new industry be created and grow. There are many trials and tribulations, just ask any owner or winemaker. Ultimately, a thriving wine industry is great for the local economy and ancillary industries such as hotels, restaurants, artist communities and even botanists. So, stop in, buy a bottle of local wine and take comfort in the fact that you’re not just drinking good wine, you’re being a good citizen!

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