Fermenting a Dream

It started, as these things often seem to do, in France. "We took a one-month trip to France in 1995 or 1996," recalls Kim Hargett, who owns Mahogany Mountain Vineyard and Winery in Ramona with her husband Michael. "We fell in love with the Loire Valley and started visiting all the wineries." The Loire is not Bordeaux or Burgundy, but perhaps because of that, "The people were really nice to us. We would be the only ones tasting their wines, and they would take us down into their underground cellars. We became very interested in growing grapes -- we had a lot of land and didn't know what to do with it." Michael had proposed Christmas trees, but Kim thought vines "more beautiful, and very romantic."

"In France," says Michael, "we saw these kind of family home operations. They had their home, and a little winery next to the home. They made their own wine, for themselves, plus a little to sell. The ground was really stony, just like it is around here."

A trip to Tuscany in '99 stoked the fire. "The weather, especially, was just like Ramona," says Kim. "A few old stone buildings, some cypress and olive trees, and this could be Tuscany right here."

By then, Kim had already joined the San Diego Amateur Winemakers Association and had started making wine under the tutelage of local guru Lum Eisenman. "He had a mentorship program -- me and two other guys, plus my husband. We learned everything, from making wine to tasting wine to judging wine. For two years, I basically shadowed him. We used his equipment -- we didn't have a crusher yet, or a press. I wasn't sure about testing acids accurately by myself, so I would drop them off at his house, and he would call and tell me his results. He even came out here and told us maybe where we should put a vineyard." (These days, the two get double-checks on their tests from their son, a biology major at UC Irvine.)

They started giving wine away to family and friends and fending off requests to sell the stuff -- they didn't have a license. "What really got me excited," says Kim, "was in 2001, when I made a Zinfandel Port that won something like three blue ribbons at the Del Mar Fair." For guidance on the business end, as well as help starting a vineyard, the two turned to a more proximate mentor: John Schwaesdall of Ramona's Schwaesdall Winery.

"John Schwaesdall is like the grandpappy of the whole thing," says Michael. "He's where everybody wants to get -- nice vineyards, nice setup, micro-winery, tasting room, everything." "He really wants the rest of us to get major-use permits, because he wants Ramona to become a wine destination," adds Kim. Schwaesdall helped them get their licenses, he gave them all sorts of vineyard management advice, and he also provided them with cuttings from his vineyards. So far, the Hargetts have planted Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, and even Mourvedre. The two bought Schwaesdall's old equipment as his own operation grew, much of it hand-operated, though they did rig a motor onto the crusher. "He's very generous," says Kim.

He's also something of a rare breed, vine-wise. "This is one of the only places in the world where you can still grow French varietals on their own roots," says Michael. "John is on straight rootstock, and so are we. Everywhere else, French varietals are on American rootstock. We're kind of old-school."

There's a good reason why most of the world is using American rootstock -- it is impervious to the phylloxera root louse, the critter that nearly put the French wine industry in the grave after it came over from America. But so far, the bug doesn't seem to have discovered Ramona, and the Hargetts are hoping it stays that way. "I know phylloxera exists; I know it's not just a myth. But so far, we seem to be isolated, and we only get our cuttings locally."

If the roots are French, however, the finished wine is all American. Stylistically, the Hargetts favor the kind of richness that comes from long fermentations, high extractions, and ripe, ripe fruit -- "between 24 and 25 brix," says Kim. "We learned from Schwaesdall that you've got to have nerves of steel," says Michael. "You've got to hang on as the grapes are getting ripe, let the birds and the bees take their share of the harvest." That was especially hard in the years after the fires. "The fire burnt every oak tree around for miles. There's just nothing for the wildlife to eat, so they really hit our vineyards. But what's left is really, really high quality."

So far, production is tiny -- around 100 cases from about three acres, with more being planted this year. "We just planted the vineyards in between all the rock outcroppings. We decided to go with the terrain as much as we could, leave it as natural as possible." Michael opted for wide spacing -- nine or ten feet between rows (to make room for his tractor) and eight feet between vines. "We want more land around for them to pull water and nutrients. It's pretty dry here, but we haven't had to water them much at all." With 45 acres, he can afford to spread out; unlike so many other wine regions, space is not yet at a premium in Ramona.

Someday, they'd like to get to 300 cases, maybe even 1000. But by that size, they'd need employees, or one of them would have to quit the day job. For now, says Kim, "We have day jobs in order to pay for our hobby." And they would need Michael to finish construction on the bigger winery building he's been working on; the current space is starting to feel cramped. In the meantime, they're selling everything they make, even at $25--$35 a bottle. "Our prices are somewhat significant, I would say, but I think it's worth it. We figured out our standard cost to produce a bottle of wine with our homegrown family operation, and then we just add a modest profit margin." Starting a winery, notes Kim, "is a high-capital investment."

And the price hasn't stopped them from developing a fan base -- "It's kind of like a cult following," laughs Kim. "It's amazing -- we get phone calls almost every day." (Ramona's being awarded its own AVA hasn't hurt business any either.) "Right now, we sell mainly to people ordering for weddings. We did one wedding last year, and because of that one wedding, we sold a whole bunch through word-of-mouth. People want to have something unique, and there aren't too many wines from Ramona, and there aren't too many made by people they know. All the ladies in my aerobics class ordered large quantities from me. They tell me, 'Your wine is so good. After a bad day, I sit down with your bottle of wine, and I'm all set. '"

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