Kevin Kozak, co-founder of the recently bonded La Jolla Canyon Winery, did not grow up drinking wine, seeing it incorporated into family meals as naturally as bread. Nor did his first encounter with the grape provide a rapturous epiphany. Kozak, a beer drinker from Maryland, was attending the ag school at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. "In the beginning of my senior year, some girls got some jug red wine. I took a big swig and thought, 'This is nasty. I'm never drinking wine again. '"
It was the gardening aspect of wine that got him. "Towards the end of senior year -- seniors don't have that much to do -- we went on a tour of the Finger Lakes wineries." The Finger Lakes wineries manage the harsh winters of upstate New York by planting their vineyards in the microclimates created by the narrow glacial lakes that give the region its name, and the rows of vines rolling down the hillsides to the water's edge make for a seductive vista. "I saw the setup of the grape-growing and thought, 'I love this.' I didn't know anything about it, but from the first or second winery, I thought, 'I could do this. This is what I want to do.' Then I started drinking good wines, and I said, 'Okay, there's a difference. '"
Life got in the way a bit. Kozak was in ROTC and spent the next five years in the Navy; home beermaking was the closest he came to wine. It wasn't until 1995, when he got out of the Navy, married a local girl, and settled down, that he started messing around with wine. "The first thing I did was a kit wine, a Gewürztraminer. It was drinkable, but without the grapes" -- kit wines are made from grape concentrate. "There wasn't any excitement to it. It wasn't an art." The following year, he joined the throng of amateur winemakers traveling to Don Armstrong's Pauma Valley vineyard to buy Carignan. "That was my first real red from a grape, and it came out pretty good. After that, I was grasping for straws -- 'Where do I get grapes?'"
He imported a few vines of Cayuga White, a hardy Cornell-developed hybrid, and planted them in the front yard of his home in Mira Mesa. "The wine actually won second place in the non-vinifera white competition at the San Diego County Fair." (Nearly all commercial varietals are of the species vinifera. ) "But," he concluded, "the grape doesn't have that much character."
The Fair introduced Kozak to the San Diego Amateur Winemaking Society; again, his first contact was less than auspicious. "The first year I was there, I saw that all the people who had won awards were sitting at the same table. I thought, 'These guys are all in cahoots with the judges. But really, they were all in the Society, and they were the best winemakers in town." Kozak investigated, liked what he saw, and discovered Society mentor Lum Eisenman's winemaking manual. "I've actually taken excerpts from that and taped them into another book I use. When I lose my mind -- when it's really stressful, and I'm adding things, and I forget things -- I check the excerpts and say, 'Good. Lum would have done that.' You can't go to a better place than the Society to share wine stories and learn things."
Kozak was becoming a very good amateur winemaker, but there was still the problem of getting fruit. "There are more grapes out there than anyone's going to be able to make wine from," he notes. For Kozak, the trick was finding the very best local fruit. Most Temecula wineries didn't want to sell to an amateur winemaker looking to buy a couple hundred pounds. Bill Filsinger at Filsinger Vineyards & Winery was the exception, and in addition to selling him small batches of reds and whites, the winemaker/owner let Kozak hang out and watch. "He really got me rolling, but it was kind of a slow progression, like an addiction type of thing."
Eventually, he latched on to some Cucamonga Zinfandel, but before that, membership in the Society helped him discover Mike Dunlap's Merlot Vineyard in Escondido. He spotted it from across a valley while visiting a nearby home and was duly impressed. (Dunlap's is easily one of the prettiest, most immaculate home vineyards I have ever seen.) "I was, like, 'Wow, this is really cool.' That was one of the first years he had grapes, and he sent out an e-mail to everybody saying, 'Is anybody interested in my Merlot?' I said, 'Yeah.' My neighbor Fred and one of my buddies from work and I went over and picked." (It is also perhaps one of the most carefully managed. "He's an accountant," explains Kozak, "and he's got records for every day. During this year's harvest, he was sending out e-mails, saying, 'Oh, the acid is dropping! The wine is going to be terrible!' Everyone was telling him, 'Don't worry. The acid on every grape here is going to drop as the sugar goes up. You just add it back.' I've never made a wine grown around here, or Temecula, where I haven't had to adjust the acid. It just doesn't happen.")
Dunlap's vineyard provided the fruit for one of Kozak's more successful experiments, a white Merlot. "Dry white Merlot is drinkable, but it's almost too tart. It's not all there. I added back sweetness with a very old technique. The French call it a suisse reserve. Before I fermented the juice, I took some of it and put it in milk jugs. Then I put the milk jugs in the freezer, so it wasn't doing anything." "Anything" here means fermenting due to yeasts brought in on the grape skins and mashed into the juice during crush. "A couple of months after fermentation was done, I took some core samples of the frozen juice to check for the sweetness, then dumped what I needed into the wine. I stabilized it with polysorbate, which keeps the yeasts from budding and multiplying, and then I filtered. If you don't do those two steps, it will ferment in the bottle," with potentially explosive results. "Technically, it's much more difficult to make than a red wine."
Red wine -- dry red wine -- is what Kozak prefers, but the white Merlot taught him a lesson in pleasing the consumer. "It won the Best Rosé at the '03 San Diego County Fair, and it's the favorite wine of a lot of our friends. I go to parties and people say, 'Can I buy some of that?'"