Symbol Hunt

By 2002, Kevin Kozak had become an accomplished amateur winemaker. But when he brought out some of his '01 Cabernet at a Rancho Peñasquitos block party, neighbor Fred Papouban upped the ante. Recalls Kozak, "He said, 'Wow, this is good. We should make 10,000 bottles of this next year.' I said, 'Legally, you can only make 200 gallons for home use. We'd need to be a bonded winery.' So he said, 'Let's do it.' That's the thing I like about Fred: he's a classic entrepreneur. He just does stuff. I'm an operations guy -- I want to see the specs. We're a good balance for each other." And so began La Jolla Canyon Winery.

"The key here was economy," says Kozak. "We've kept the costs very low. I didn't take out any loans -- I put in $1000 here, $2000 there. The cool thing is that you see people put $500,000 into buying a winery and the tanks and everything, and we're saying, 'You can make good wine without doing all that. '" Papouban offered Kozak the use of his business space -- he runs a catering operation out of a strip-industrial park tucked against the edge of a Mira Mesa canyon. So that took care of rent. Kozak already had a fair amount of equipment picked up during his amateur days, including a crusher-destemmer that had always been too large but proved ideal at the professional level. He stuck with his hand-crank basket press and bought a big, plastic tank for storage and some open-top bins for fermentation. "It's the old-style way of doing it, but even some of the bigger wineries swear by these bins." Used barrels came from Filsinger Winery in Temecula, where Kozak had paid for fruit but gotten plenty of free advice as well. New barrels he got from World Cooperage. The paperwork went through; now all they needed was fruit.

"La Jolla Canyon Winery has that name for a couple of reasons," explains Kozak. "There's a nice name recognition, but we also don't want to pretend that we're growing our grapes. People who get the reference say, 'La Jolla Canyon is underwater,' and we're, like, 'Yeah. '" To drive the point home, the winery's current label features a topographic map of the canyon with the La Jolla coast hugging the image's right edge.

So what to make? "Fred and I both prefer reds, and if you look at the marketing data, Chardonnay is almost neck and neck with Merlot. Our main focus is going to be on red wine. But the idea was to have something to kick-start the winery in the first year, and people do like white. It's sort of a soft opening." White wine tends to be a bit more demanding, equipment-wise; it's nice to be able to control your fermentation temperatures precisely. "Fortunately, as a bonded winery, you're allowed to make wine at another bonded winery and transfer it. We made the Chardonnay in Temecula. I tried to make it in the French style, like a White Burgundy. It's fermented in stainless steel, aged in oak for a little while, and then put back into stainless steel. The citrus overtone is there, and the buttery flavor isn't. People taste it and say, 'I didn't know a Chardonnay could taste like this. '"

The 2004 Cabernet required more research. "I went to the two big vineyard management companies in Temecula: Drake and Staid Ranch. They were really helpful; they drove me around, walked me through the vineyards, and gave me a price list. I found out where the vineyards were and who was making wine from them. Then I went to the wineries and tasted the wines." He's excited about the results. "The berries were really tight and really small, and the seeds were completely brown," promising signs of grape health, concentration, and physiological ripeness. "For being as young as it is," he says, siphoning out a taste of the new, purple wine, "it's very drinkable. I'm very happy with it."

Instead of the Temecula appellation, the two chose the more general designation of South Coast. One reason is that the Cabernet contains 15 percent of Escondido Merlot, from Mike Dunlap's home vineyard. Another is "a marketing thing. I think some people down here, when they see 'Temecula,' they think, 'I can go to Temecula to get Temecula wine.' South Coast is more general, and that can be kind of our theme." The Dunlap Merlot also figures into the Cab/Merlot meritage blend and gets a stand-alone bottling. "And I'm working on getting some Syrah from Eagle Gap Vineyards," situated just this side of the Riverside County line. "If we could get all local fruit, I'd prefer to go that way."

While he waits for the reds to come of age in the barrel, Kozak is toying with label design. "I like our current label enough, but it doesn't jump out at you. The hardest part about starting a winery is having a really good wine sitting on the shelf that nobody knows about." If you don't have brand recognition, you've got to find another way to attract attention. Kozak has won awards for his amateur labels from both WineMaker magazine and the San Diego County Fair. "I have three daughters. I take their fingerpaints and stuff, scan them, and play around with the colors and the crazy shapes they draw. We really need to develop a kind of symbol." Right now he's working on a black label adorned with a small square of bright color -- "something bold."

And he's working on getting the wine into the marketplace. His successes have come through "small-business-to-small-business courtesy. Mom-and-pop stores like the Carmel Valley Market and the Farm Fresh Market on the southern end of Rancho Santa Fe. I went in there, face to face, took a bottle of wine in. They popped the cork right there, tasted it, and said, 'Yeah, we'll try it.' I've been going to the China Café down near Torrey Pines Beach for years. I come by maybe every other week to take stuff home to the family for dinner. I'm friends with the owner and I said, 'Hey, can you carry my wine?' She's really been helping me out."

If things work out, notes Kozak, "As a bonded winery, we're allowed to have a tasting room. I think that's the key to really good sales. In our dream plans, we'd do something in combination with Fred's catering -- he makes high-end hors d'oeuvres. But first we have to make some good wine."

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