San Diego Wine Wants Recognition

Industry is growing and organizing

by Jane Firstenfeld
Founded in the early 1990s with seven wineries, the San Diego County Vintners Association now has 50 dues-paying member wineries.
San Diego, Calif.—The southwestern-most county in the continental United States, San Diego is better known for its beaches than its beverages. Although the city of San Diego represents nearly half the population (it has 1.33 million residents), the county’s 4,500 square miles include dozens of smaller cities and villages as well as vast acres of agriculture and parklands.

Scattered almost randomly around the county are a growing number of wineries: 84 bonded or virtual at last count. The two largest of these, according to Wines Vines Analytics, each produce a scant 20,000 cases per year; 28 produce between 1,000 and 4,999 cases annually, and the majority (51 in all) have extremely limited production of less than 1,000 cases per year. Most have been established within the past 20 years. Most San Diego vineyards are within the South Coast appellation; Escondido’s San Pasqual AVA, established in 1981, was the fourth in the United States. The hamlet of Ramona won its own AVA in 2006.

San Diego Wine Country
Given its geographic expanse and relatively new arrival on the commercial wine map, San Diego has remained off the radar to most wine consumers. The San Diego County Vintners Association (SDCVA), aka San Diego Wine Country aims to change that image. Association president Linda McWilliams, owner of 2,000-case San Pasqual Winery, acknowledged the organization is “a work in progress. We’re small but sincere,” she said.

Founded in the early 1990s with a mere seven wineries, 50 wineries are now dues-paying members included on the online and print winery map. McWilliams said the maps are now distributed in racks at hotels, the airport and San Diego’s historic train station downtown.

McWilliams took office in December 2013; she and her husband Michael purchased San Pasqual Winery in 2008, when it operated as an urban winery in Pacific Beach. The following year, they moved the winery inland to La Mesa—a suburb best known to locals for its massive mall—and opened a separate tasting room in the village of La Mesa. In 2013, San Pasqual crushed some 35 tons of grapes sourced from throughout California but mainly from within the county; 90% of its wines are sold directly to consumers.

Getting the word out
SDCVA members meet monthly and are currently planning a major event, the San Diego Wine Country Festival, to be held July 12 at Bernardo Winery. Located in the north county at the Rancho Bernardo resort, the 1,600-case winery was founded in 1889, making it the oldest operating winery in the county.

The association conducts monthly educational seminars: Last year, the focus was primarily on winemaking strategies; this year, tasting room management is on the agenda, according to McWilliams.

Wedged between Riverside County with 58 wineries concentrated in the Temecula AVA, and the 56 wineries of Mexico’s Baja California wine industry, “Our major goal is to have people who live in or visit San Diego know that we have a wine industry,” McWilliams said. Its first vineyards were planted by the Franciscan friars who created California’s missions in the 18th century. “Some of our people are experimenting with historic grapes,” she said.

Water woes
Like the rest of California, San Diego County growers face water worries this year. “We’re all concerned about the price and access to water,” she said. “So far, it looks like early bud break. Our concern is that because we had such a nice season last year, and expect good fruit set for this vintage, what’s going to happen next year?

“We have some dry farms, some have drip irrigation. The county is putting clamps down.” Among the county’s many municipalities, she said, “The pie is quite divided.”

Other regulatory issues include the controversial tiered-winery ordinance approved by the county Board of Supervisors in 2010. Adopted to help with expansion and growth, it has been confusing to some, and some supervisors have begun looking to clarify it.

“Looking at their draft, there are real changes that will negatively impact established or opening wineries,” according to McWilliams. The association is contacting the supervisors, pulling together all the wineries for a unified voice, she said.

Meanwhile, San Pasqual Winery has signed a lease in the waterfront Seaport Village. It plans to open a tasting room in the popular tourist draw in May, and perhaps eventually to become a wine-tasting hub.

“We’re geographically challenged,” McWilliams acknowledged. “We need a mobile app.”

Getting educated
San Diego State University is an urban institution with an undergraduate student body of almost 33,000. Although its academic program does not include enology or viticulture courses, its College of Extended Studies offers a wine professional program. Giana Rodriguez is program director for the certificate program.

Since the program was inaugurated in 2004, total enrollment has grown from 118 to 279 across all the classes, Rodriguez said. “We are currently averaging about 30 new people joining the certificate program each semester,” she said.

“As of fall 2013, there have been about 100 people who have earned their certificates. About 25% earn the certificate; the rest just take classes a la carte for interest,” Rodriguez explained.

“Some people definitely plow through, and some take up to two years to complete. It all depends on their personal situation, but that is the beauty of Extended Studies: It is flexible and works with the working adult’s schedule,” she said.

Most students are local residents. “Most of our students are working professionals looking for personal enrichment or to change careers,” Rodriguez said. “Most of them are not in the wine industry yet; however, we have had several join the industry after completing the certificate. In fact, one of our first students, Mitch Price, is now an instructor in the program and an advanced sommelier.

“It totally depends on what their goals were. Several students have started their own businesses or have started on their path to sommelier, while others have gained a deeper understanding of the beverage they have such a passion for.”


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