A Visit to Carruth Cellars Winery in Solana Beach

Carruth Cellars

118 S Cedros Avenue #C, Solana Beach

In 1998, Carlsbad native Adam Carruth was “kind of a life student — just [kept] going back to school.” He’d studied botany at UC Riverside, so for a change of pace, he headed north to Sonoma and started in on viticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College. To make rent, he took the first job he found, in a propagation nursery; also a gig in the tasting room at Topolos Winery. “I was learning about clones and rootstocks, but I didn’t have a long-term vision,” he says.

But he did have a thirst and a history of home beer-brewing. “It’s a small world up there, and when October came, I realized there was all this leftover fruit. People were giving it away; you just had to pick it. My friends and I picked over a thousand pounds, enough to make a barrel of wine. I haven’t made beer since.” Instead, he’s made more and more wine — 84 barrels in 2009, his first crush at Carruth Cellars Winery in Solana Beach.

The run-up from 1 to 84 was gradual, of course. After coming back to Southern California in 2001 to be near family, Carruth got a job at Carlsbad’s Witch Creek Winery. “They were very gracious — they let me make a little bit of wine, just for fun, and I worked the tasting room and helped them sign up people for their wine club.” But while Witch Creek was pulling fruit from south of the border (and elsewhere), Carruth kept cultivating his Northern California connections. “I was looking for grapes on the internet in 2002,” he recalls, “and I saw this posting for free grapes. It was a brand-new vineyard in the middle of nowhere off of Highway 16. I flew up to Oakland and hitchhiked to my sister’s house in Sonoma. She was passing Davis the next day, so she dropped me off there at around 6:30 in the morning. But there were no trucks to rent. So I rented a car, drove to the vineyard, picked 1500 pounds of grapes, loaded them into the sedan in Hefty bags, and drove home with the air-conditioning on to keep the fruit cool. I got home around four in the morning.”

That year, he picked Barbera; in ’05, he started buying their Tempranillo. “We made one barrel, and my friend and I drank it all.” Now it sells for $35 a bottle. “We’re getting Russian River Pinot Noir, Dry Creek Zinfandel, Paso Robles Petite Sirah. When you think of a varietal and a good place to get that varietal, we’re getting it from those regions.”

In 2006, “I decided to make 30 barrels, which meant I had to do it at a bonded facility.” He stepped up his grape purchases, rented space in Ocean-side’s Fifty Barrels Winery Group’s facility, and held massive crush parties for his friends. One of those crush-party attendees was Anne Milliken; now, she’s his girlfriend and helps to make the wine and run the business. “It was very loose and fun,” recalls Milliken. “I learned the rudiments of making wine before I even learned how to taste it. The next thing I knew, I was just kind of pulled in. Last year, I ended up working 70-hour weeks with him.”

Then Carruth hit the road with his product. “I set up 50 or 60 wholesale accounts. It’s like dating. You ask for a date and they say, ‘Maybe later.’ You keep going back, and finally, you get an appointment.” Then more appointments. “They try the wine enough times, and they say, ‘Okay, we’ll take three cases.’ The goal is to get on the by-the-glass list, so that the community is drinking it and you go through a lot of product.”

But a restaurant looks to make back its cost with the first glass it sells, which means that your margins are thin, like pennies. “I was selling my wine wholesale for less than half of what I could sell it for retail.” On top of that, “In ’08, there was all this great wine, and so the distributors just started bottoming out prices.” On top of that, “I had something like ten accounts go out of business.” The old Witch Creek model — urban winery in a moneyed shopping district with a tasting room and a loyal list of subscribing customers — started to look pretty good. He found a spot, fought his way through the requisite slog with the City (the winery is preparing to release a blend called Red Tape) and did his first crush while he was still hashing out the details. On September 10, he opened for business.

A visit to the winery:

It couldn’t have been played better if they’d hired a PR firm to stage it: as I walked through the open doors, a woman — casually moneyed, of a certain age, her long sweater tied around her waist — stood at the tasting bar, filling out her signup sheet for the Carruth Cellars Club. She was bubbly, clearly delighted at having discovered a real, working winery in this tiny (but high-ceilinged) space next to an art gallery in the belly of Cedros Design District. How real and working? A plastic bin loaded with Merlot grapes stood three feet to her left, quietly fermenting. A half-dozen more took up most of the open floor space in front of the barrels stacked against the walls. A pallet jack and forklift helped to offset the ambience provided by the framed paintings and wrought-iron chandelier.

The woman left, and Milliken, all smiles behind the bar, offered a word of explanation. “When people get in here, they think it’s some kind of show — like we just threw up some barrels to make a façade. Then they see the grapes, and they start to register that it really is a winery. Then they’re suspicious: ‘Where did you get the grapes? Is this a San Diego thing?’” Once they start to read the labels, “They can’t believe we’re making this wine here on Cedros....

“Around one out of every six people who come in here signs up for the wine club,” adds Carruth. “That lady signed up after one taste. Of course, she did walk in while we were stomping grapes, and she was enchanted.” See, when the Merlot grapes came into the winery, “The crusher-destemmer wasn’t working properly. So I just said, ‘Dump it into the bins; we’re going to stomp on it and do whole-cluster fermentation.’ Merlot isn’t that tannic” and could therefore probably stand to stew in its stems for a bit. (Just to be sure, Carruth called the winemaker who sold him the grapes for counsel.) “It was one of those late-night decisions. I’m going to be picking out stems for a week, but I think it’s going to be really good.”

In the meantime, it makes a heck of a show. “People love the organic aspect of it,” says Milliken. “They’re in here tasting when we’re pressing, and there’s wine and water flowing everywhere. They’re seeing us when we’re stressed, when we’re excited — everything. People are so used to the carnivalized society, and this is just really raw and real.”

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