As of January 6, there's a new American Viticultural Area in town: Ramona Valley. Before then, if you grew grapes outside of the San Pasqual or Temecula Valleys, the best you could do was South Coast — which basically means, "Somewhere south of Santa Barbara." In a business where location counts as much as it does in real estate, that's not especially helpful. Foggy-soggy coastline, searing desert, mountain microclimate, balmy lowland — all South Coast.
John Schwaesdall of Schwaesdall Winery — the one on the right as you drop down the hill and into Ramona proper — thought his vineyard and the surrounding region deserved better. He even went so far as to contact the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in '01 and start making inquiries. But inertia can set in when waiting on government agencies, and it wasn't until the Ramona Vineyard Association got wind of the idea that the project gained momentum. "I was talking to Johnny about it," says grower and Association member Bill Schweitzer, "and I thought it was a great idea." He and four other members formed a committee and wrote the government a formal request. Three years later, they got their final answer.
Why was it a great idea? First, because the numbers were there to make the effort worthwhile. Since founder Bill Jenkin gathered Ramona's growers into the Association three years ago, the planted acreage has jumped from 20 to 60. At least 20 growers are selling their grapes, "either to Ramona wineries or places like Witch Creek, Menghini, or La Jolla Canyon." Victor Edwards recalls that when he and his wife Beth filed to get bonding for Edwards Vineyard and Winery, the local government "was caught off guard. They said, 'All of a sudden, there's a big upsurge in interest.'" There are now nine bonded wineries in Ramona, with more on the way.
Second, says Schweitzer, "because we're starting to grow some nice grapes here. Amateur winemakers have been winning medals at the San Diego County Fair with wines made from Ramona Valley grapes for years. We're seeing it with Schwaesdall's wines, with Edwards's," and with others. "Having an AVA doesn't give you quality, but it gives you the ability to make the connection between quality and the place where the grapes come from. If we're growing quality grapes, we ought to be able to say on our labels that they came from here — that's an advantage for grape growers. A winery's responsibility is to make good wine from the good grapes they get. If we can't give good grapes to them, they'll go elsewhere. They make their reputation with their label. Growers can only grow what their dirt will create; it's important to be able to label your dirt as something."
Victor Edwards, besides offering bottled testimony with a tropical-fruity Chardonnay and a couple of intriguing red blends, shares this story: "I had always thought that Cabernet couldn't grow well south of Paso Robles. But then I got these grapes out of Rancho Santa Teresa. Phil Burton from Barrel Builders — that's a cooperage in Napa that builds and reconditions barrels — was down here, and I poured him some of this Cabernet. His comment was, 'When you bottle this, I want a few bottles. I'm going to have so much fun with this up north.' I took that as a compliment — he's in Napa, and he thought that my Cabernet was at least worth playing with." (Edwards, who always intended to put Ramona Valley on his label, did the soil and climate workups for the AVA application.)
Third, because the valley really is its own place. "The nearest AVA is the San Pasqual Valley," says Schweitzer. "They're at 500 feet elevation; we're a thousand feet above that. They have alluvial soil; almost all of our stuff, even on the valley floors, is decomposed granite — very gravelly, with a lot of ability to absorb moisture and drive it down deep. The vines chase the water; it makes them work harder and go after more minerals."
But the biggest factor is the "onshore drift" — the influence of cool, cloudy air borne in from the coast. San Pasqual, says Schweitzer, gets a lot more cloud cover. "We have some ocean influence, but it always goes away by midday." Often, "By 10 in the morning, we are in bright sunlight. We are going to get the maximum possible temperature for that day. But then, certainly where I live on the west side of the valley, we get this breeze coming in at 4:30 in the afternoon that cools everything off. We have a huge diurnal shift, from 100 degrees in the middle of the day to 60 degrees in the evening. In San Pasqual, the hot part of the day is much shorter. And if you go three miles east of the Ramona Valley, you've got complete desert influence: if it's going to be hot, it's hot by six in the morning and stays hot until nine at night. We like our climate, because we get the influence of both ocean and desert."
Edwards is on the eastern edge of the valley, and he says, "Our AVA is right at the point where the onshore drift comes in, stops, and goes back. Sometimes, during the hot part of the season, we'll get it two or three times a year, sometimes five or six. I can see it in the mornings; it comes in, and within a half an hour you can see it turn around and go back out. But that's all you need to keep the temperatures just a little bit cooler."
Why does onshore drift matter? When back labels on bottles laud warm days and cool nights, they talk about how it gives the grapes a chance to "rest." Edwards and Schweitzer spell that out. If you get too much onshore drift, says Edwards, "especially as the grapes are ripening in late August and early September, the grapes just sit. They stall." But if you don't get enough onshore drift — if the sun has its way with your fruit all day long — then you may lose acid. "Your acid level is dropping as your sugars rise, and you're trying to keep it as high as possible," says Schweitzer. "A cool evening keeps the vine from pulling phosphates out of the ground and neutralizing the acids. If a grape — especially a red grape — is still keeping its acid while it's making good sugars, then you get better tannins in the skin, better color...things that contribute to quality grapes."
In applying for an AVA, says Edwards's wife Beth, "you need to prove why you're different" from the surrounding area. The Association committee thought they had a case, and apparently they weren't the first to think so. Beth also notes that an early edition of Albert Winkler's General Viticulture lists Ramona's growing-degree days — a measure of available heat for vine development during the growing season — somewhere between Livermore and Florence. The rough equivalent, according to Schweitzer: St. Helena, an AVA situated in the not-disreputable wine-growing region of Napa, California.