No Joke

On Saturday, February 6, Mike and Linda McWilliams celebrated their one-year anniversary as owners of San Pasqual Winery. The brand itself dates back to the early ’70s, when a lawyer, Mickey Fredman, and a judge, Charlie Froelich, decided to build a winery to process the grapes they harvested from a vineyard they planted in Escondido as a tax shelter. Pierce’s disease got the better of them, and in 1986 they sold to real-estate man Paul Thomas and three members of the vineyard-rich Jaeger family, who changed the name to Thomas Jaeger Winery.

Local real-estate developer Paul Marx resurrected the San Pasqual name (though not the vineyard) in 1999. But distribution proved tricky, and in 2006, he sold to a young winemaker named Erik Humphrey. Humphrey moved the winemaking operation to a light industrial zone of Pacific Beach, started drawing thirsty visitors, and began making plans to move his facility into PB proper. His dream: “A wine bar that would be like a microbrewery, where you could see the tanks, see us making wine.”

Enter the McWilliamses — he’s a research psychologist for the Navy, she’s a speech therapist at a middle school. “We were looking to start a wine bar downtown,” explains Mike. “I was searching for ‘wine bar’ online, and ‘urban winery for sale’ popped up.” The winery move had never quite happened for Humphrey, and San Pasqual was back on the block. “I showed [the ad] to Linda, and we kind of joked about it for a while” — until it stopped being a joke. “They had changed the law so that wineries could start serving wines by the glass, and so we could still have our wine bar downtown, but we’d be serving our own wine.”

They visited, fell in love, contracted Humphrey as a consultant, and closed the deal. “I remember the first day we showed up — we met Eric there on a Saturday,” recalls Linda. “I thought, Wow. We own this winery. What are we going to do? Eric showed me the floating lids for the fermentation tanks and said, ‘You need to scrub these.’ I thought, Oh — okay.” Welcome to the glamorous world of wine.

The downtown part of the plan is still in the works. (Government regs and alcohol sales can make for a tricky mix, and the perfect location — walking distance from the convention center — has yet to present itself.) But in the meantime, the McWilliamses, longtime residents of La Mesa, have opened a tasting room/wine bar/art gallery on their own main drag. (Just now, celebrity portraits by Mike’s brother Tim line one wall in the tasting bar; the warm yellow sitting area behind it features landscapes from local painter Grace Schlesier.)

On February 8, they hosted their first gathering in the high-ceilinged back room. The occasion, fittingly enough, was a meeting of the San Diego County Vintners Association. “The learning curve was like being shot out of a cannon,” says new winemaker Linda. “Waking up in the middle of the night, thinking, What am I doing?”

Fortunately, she had Humphrey to answer the question. “I’ve got him on speed-dial, and we text all the time.” She also had the association. “There are four winemakers who are helping me, and I can call anyone in the association. They’ve been so welcoming.”

On the formal side, she took a wine-production class at Mira Costa College from Jim Hart, winemaker at Milagro Farm Vineyard & Winery in Ramona and son of Hart Winery’s Joe Hart. “We had classroom work every week, but we also went out and did a harvest at Hart and went through crush and bottling and everything. I’ve got 14 gallons of Cabernet Franc from that class. The rest of the guys make fun of me — ‘You have 500-gallon tanks of wine; what are you doing with this?’ But I can play with it and not worry about screwing up 500 gallons.” Classes in chemistry are still to come, as is winemaker certification from UC Davis.

For now, San Pasqual is still selling through its wide-ranging back inventory — Humphrey’s stuff, made mostly from Guadalupe Valley fruit brokered by Escondido’s Belle Marie Winery. (The Sauvignon Blanc glides down with the Valley’s distinctively unctuous character, and the ’01 Nebbiolo-Cabernet blend reminds me of similar wines from L.A. Cetto.) But under its new owners, the winery has shifted its interests northward. Says Mike, “We did a collaborative buy with another winemaker, and there were a couple of other sources. But nothing from Mexico this year. We have fruit from Napa, Sonoma, Lake County, Mendocino, Monterey — and San Diego County.”

“Fallbrook,” adds Linda. “I’d like to do more wines made from local fruit. But this was our first crush. We’re still sorting things out. We’ve got so many wines going, and there are going to be more. Every Sunday during crush — from the end of August to October — we were doing something like 10 to 12 tons. We’d start at 7:00 in the morning and work until 1:00 the next morning. When we bought the winery, they advertised 1000 to 1500 cases. I think we’d like to get to double that but not get so big that I have to hire people to do the fun job of winemaking and tasting.”

And on Sunday, February 14, the McWilliamses will bottle the first wine made entirely under their watch: the San Pasqual Passionfruit. The fruit comes in from San Marcos/ Vista and gets mixed with Mount Palomar spring water, “so it’s all local product,” says Linda. “Most people have a preconceived notion of what it’s going to taste like, so we give away complimentary tastes. Almost everybody says, ‘Wow, that’s really good.’ It’s one of our best sellers — a lot of white grapefruit on the palate.”

“People hear ‘passionfruit’ and think it’s going to be sweet,” adds assistant Brenda Nason from behind the tasting bar. “But it’s not — it’s tart.” (It is, and it’s a touch spritzy-prickly, too. Refreshing, really.) “If people think it’s too tart, I tell them it makes a great sangria.”

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