Ramona winemakers don't stand on ceremony

Magic in a bottle.

Joe Cullen of Cactus Star Vineyard.
  • Joe Cullen of Cactus Star Vineyard.
  • Image by Howie Rosen

My wife said, “It’s almost a religious experience.” She wasn’t talking about a psychedelic sunset or a sweat lodge, but wine-tasting in Ramona, where folks like Joe Cullen are putting magic in a bottle.

On an unseasonably cool late-September afternoon, Cullen, fresh from picking, met us at his place and showed us the apparatus that comprises a one-man winery. Never having witnessed the actual machinations of vinting before, I didn’t know a de-stemmer from a hydro-presser. Pointing to a little John Deere rig filled with pomace, the residue left after pressing, he invited us to roll it in our hands. He gestured to a shed where a 70-gallon fermentation tank made of cylindrical white plastic held freshly fermented Syrah rendered from 820 pounds of grapes. With a long-handled ladle, he dipped into the tank and offered a taste of embryonic wine. So, we drank the sweet, unfiltered juice, and proclaimed it “sublime.”

“We approach things from a farming standpoint,” says Beth Edwards (with husband Victor) of Edwards Vineyard 
& Cellars.

“We approach things from a farming standpoint,” says Beth Edwards (with husband Victor) of Edwards Vineyard & Cellars.

“I’m ‘micro,’” quips Cullen, who’s also purple from head to toe. It’s pressing time at Cactus Star Vineyard at Scaredy Cat Ranch and the crew — that would be Joe — is immersed in the process of turning just-picked clusters of Syrah grapes into young wine. We’ve made our way here via the twists and turns of Ramona’s least prosaic roads, the ones that lead oenophiles beyond the ramshackle shacks of rusted ruritania to the cloistered acres where artisanal wines are born.

Self-taught, Cullen’s first exposure to enology was in Dushore, Pennsylvania, which he calls “a dot on the map,” a burg so small that even today it has only one traffic light. “I grew up on a dairy farm, and we made wine. It wasn’t good wine,” he chuckles, “but we made wine.” Eventually, after earning an electrical engineering degree from Penn State (he designs controls for steel mills), he succumbed to the call of the grape. “I started out in my basement in Pittsburgh; it was a pretty big basement, actually. There was this wholesale produce market called ‘the strip’ that was open from midnight to 5:00 a.m. You could buy just about any kind of grape you wanted, so that was exciting. They’d truck them in from California.”

The essence of wine, what it means to witness — to taste, smell, and feel the process of transforming grape to juice to wine — seems to flow across Cactus Star. Imbued with a sense of spirituality, it consists of no more than a cluster of southwestern-style, tile-roofed structures built by Cullen. The smallest bonded winery in Ramona, it’s a one-horse, two-dog ranchette, studded with big slabs of granite and the occasional cholla cactus. But the scenery would be of little import if the finished product weren’t superb, which I think is. The intense raspberry essence that Cullen is able to coax from his Grenache, for example, indicates that this is serious wine made by a man who doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Notwithstanding the understated humility of Cullen and other small-acreage artisans, the quality of Ramona’s wine hasn’t gone unnoticed. Bill Schweitzer, who grows grapes under the banner of Paccielo Vineyards (but doesn’t make wine) is vice president of the Ramona Valley Vineyard Association. I asked him to compare the Ramona wine scene to Temecula’s. “They have more limos, but we make better wine. I regard Temecula as the kind of place you go for a bachelor party or a wedding.” Schweitzer, whose Nebbiolo plantings bring top-dollar around these parts (a dollar a pound) thinks that San Diegans who venture up to Temecula for grape fermentations are missing out on serious squeezin’s right in their backyard.

“Backyard” is an apt expression, because the boutique wine revolution roiling the Ramona Valley is at the mom ’n’ pop end of the scale continuum. Certainly, the grape growing sector of the wine business in Ramona remains small-scale. “We’re gentlemen farmers,” quips Schweitzer, whose viticulture group has around 80 members. Most of the growers have four acres or less under cultivation, but according to Schweitzer, they all have an advantage over Temecula. “We have a better micro-climate; it’s cooler.”

If you want to tour the heart of Ramona’s wine country, don’t follow the crowds. Washboard dirt roads, wrong turns and small signs, it’s the antithesis of corporate enology. Ramona vineyards are inconspicuous; you’ll see horses before you’ll see the vines. You’ll notice chickens, goats, sheep, a big-humped Brahma bull or two, but not many tourists. When you get to streets with names like Chablis Road, you’re there: you’re in the Ramona Valley AVA, pardner. AVA? That’s an American Viticultural Area, a prestigious designation awarded to Ramona in 2006, one of only three (the others are San Pasqual Valley and Temecula) in Southern California.

And it’s there you’ve got to be. Because if you want to savor the flavor of Ramona’s finest, don’t reconnoiter the shelves of your nearby big-box grocer. With the notable exception of the Ramona Albertsons, as well as independent grocer Major Market in Escondido, San Diego area supermarkets don’t stock them. Neither do most bottle shops, save for nearby Holiday Wine Cellar and a few others. But it’s not a question of quality, say the winemakers; it’s simply not possible for a tiny producer (we’re talking as few as 300 cases a year) to make money selling wholesale. If you find a Ramona wine at a retailer, says Cactus Star’s Cullen, “It’s for the exposure.” As a consequence, the action (and profits, if any) is still at the tasting room.

San Diego County ordinance No. 10067, adopted on August 4, 2010, regulates where and when the county’s wineries can sell wine, as well as where the grapes must originate and how much can be made. All told, the ordinance is far more proscriptive than prescriptive: in exchange for doing away with the exorbitant and red tape-draped major use permit, wineries falling under the aegis of the ordinance are barred from doing a multitude of things. Want to cook food on the premises? Sorry, can’t do that. Weddings, birthday parties? Nope. Amplified music? No way, no how. And one more thing. You’d better kick out your guests before the sun goes down.

Ramona Wineries

Interviews and tours with winemakers at Kohill, Cactus Star, Woof'n Rose, Edwards, and Schwaesdall in Ramona, California.

Interviews and tours with winemakers at Kohill, Cactus Star, Woof'n Rose, Edwards, and Schwaesdall in Ramona, California.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to make money, but not a single winemaker with whom I spoke claims anything more than break-even status.

I queried Bill Schweitzer on the balance-sheet aspects of wine-making, starting with the acquisition of a suitable site. “Raw land is still relatively inexpensive here because prices haven’t been inflated yet by the wine industry. [The going price for unimproved land in Ramona appears to be around $15,000 an acre.] You’ll need at least three or four acres of grapes and a buildable lot. So, let’s say you’ve spent $200,000 so far. You’ve got to have an irrigation system, soil testing and amendments, and trellises. Root stock is $3–$4 per plant, and 600 plants per acre is about average. All of that is maybe $10,000 an acre if you do everything yourself, or double that if you have other folks do it all.”

Then comes the waiting. “You’ll get a half crop in three years,” says Schweitzer, “a full crop in five. You can expect approximately two tons of grapes per acre and each ton makes 48 cases or so of wine. Four acres equals roughly 400 cases, or 4800 bottles. If you wholesale it, you’ll be lucky to get $10 a bottle; so it’s easy to see why there’s no profit in selling it to large retailers.”

Which brings us back to the tasting room.

“If you’re personable and you have a pretty setting, you can sell a lot of wine at a tasting room,” says Schweitzer. And he’s pretty confident that those rooms are going to be packed in the near future. “There are 10 or 12 really high-quality wineries; it’s like visiting Napa in 1975 or Paso Robles in 1989.” One winemaker told me that in San Diego County, there are 80 or 90 bonded wineries.

Just south of Highland Valley Road, dusty flatland punctuated with downscale ruritania gives way to manicured, trellised hills topped with a dedicated winery. In this airy, high-ceilinged building, which gives off a clean, Modern Swedish vibe, it’s easy to see how nascent Napa prognostications might prove prescient. But not everyone wants to see an emerging Napa.

At Kohill Winery, I chatted with Scott and Tanya Pohlson, tasting-room regulars who make the short drive from Rancho Peñasquitos at least once a month. Whenever they run low, they pick up a half-dozen bottles, sometimes a case. “The problem is, if too many people find out about Ramona wineries, it’s going to get crowded. Don’t write anything good; I don’t want my special places to be ruined.”

“Yesterday, we had a group of 20 attorneys ride up on horseback from the Mt. Woodson area,” says Kohill owner Mike Kopp, with wife Aurora.

“Yesterday, we had a group of 20 attorneys ride up on horseback from the Mt. Woodson area,” says Kohill owner Mike Kopp, with wife Aurora.

But according to Kohill owner Mike Kopp, a tall, laconic guy from the upper Midwest, it’s not yet time to summon the fire marshal.

“Yesterday, we had a group of 20 attorneys ride up on horseback from the Mt. Woodson area, but some days, it’s just a car or two. You were the first people today, although the busiest time is between 3 and 5. I still get a lot of people that come in from San Diego who say, ‘There are wineries in Ramona?’ The word still hasn’t gotten out to everybody.”

Kopp didn’t grow up in a wine culture. “I was more of a hard liquor, beer kind of guy,” he admits. “I got into wine in the mid-’80s.”

An ex-Navy man who went to boot camp in San Diego, Kopp has eight acres of property with a little over two under cultivation and an output of 500 cases a year. I asked him, “Did you plant it yourself?”

“Of course. We all started out as home winemakers in the garage. Didn’t even have a business plan.”

I also asked Kopp, a retired industrial engineer, whether he’d recouped the 500 grand or so that he’s poured into the venture over the past couple of decades.

“I bought the property in 1988 for around $150,000. The first three years you make nothing, and we haven’t broken even yet.”

With a distance learning certificate from UC Davis (five semesters obtained online over two and a half years), he has more formal viticulture/enology education than most in the AVA, and his wines, notably “Aurora’s Red” (a meritage-style offering named after his wife), have garnered praise. Two of his bottlings, a full-bodied Viognier weighing in 15.7% ABV (alcohol by volume) and a raisiny 2008 estate-grown Barbera, are forcing me to reconsider the regional pecking order of California wines.

When I queried Kopp on the California wine-prestige hierarchy and the “Temecula question,” his answers echoed Bill Schweitzer’s.

“I would probably say we’re somewhere around Paso Robles. I don’t do a lot of wine-tasting in Temecula; there are some nice wines there. But people who come in say that Ramona Valley wines are a lot better than Temecula wines. The problem with Temecula is that it’s really not about the quality of the wine; it’s just about the tourism. Temecula used to be the way we are today.”

“Don’t write anything good,” someone in a group of tasters at Kohill Winery told me. “If too many people find out about Ramona wineries, it’s going to get crowded.”

“Don’t write anything good,” someone in a group of tasters at Kohill Winery told me. “If too many people find out about Ramona wineries, it’s going to get crowded.”

State and local comparisons aside, the dust has yet to settle from the ordinance struggle; it seems that a popular sport in the Ramona AVA is ratting on one’s rivals for alleged violations of the boutique-winery provisions. Kopp smiles.

“Some winemakers don’t understand what’s legal under the ordinance. We never quite know who’s turning in who. The county won’t tell you, so there’s a lot of speculation. I know who gets turned in because emails go around. [Kopp wouldn’t say whom.] But no one really knows who turned them in.”

But it’s not just a jealous competitor who might prove to be a snitch, because even after the ordinance had been approved, the self-styled “San Diego Citizenry Group” took the county to court to appeal the passage. Their mantra was, “We have banded together to fight against intrusions on our way of life in the backcountry of San Diego.” Although the officious intermeddlers lost, anti-winery activists haven’t given up — they just work incognito these days.

“There’s still opposition to wineries here,” notes Kopp. “Ramona was the center of it — a handful of individuals who didn’t want wineries next to them, even though it was zoned for agriculture. The feeling was, ‘This is my neighborhood. We don’t want agriculture here.’ But I always say, ‘If you don’t want a vineyard, I’ll put a chicken ranch in. Let’s see how you like that — or pigs.’ There could be worse things, that’s the point.”

Bonded wineries in the Ramona AVA are multiplying so fast that even among winemakers it’s impossible to get a precise tally on a given day. (As of October 1, 2013, the number had approached 25.) But there’s a consensus that the pioneer of Ramona wine is John Schwaesdall, whose eponymous, rough-hewn operation has turned out quirky bottlings since 1996.

 There’s a consensus that the pioneer of Ramona wine is John Schwaesdall.

There’s a consensus that the pioneer of Ramona wine is John Schwaesdall.

“I’m the godfather of Ramona wine,” he announces to me. Born in Normal Heights, Schwaesdall, 63, attended Hoover High. He’s a big, voluble man with a graying ponytail and profile that broadcasts his maternal Cherokee roots. A roofer by trade, he looks like the kind of guy you’d associate more with an outlaw biker gang than with a brandy snifter, but Ramona winemakers don’t stand on ceremony.

Years before anyone spoke of niceties like an AVA, he revived a patch of vines planted in the early ’50s and built the winery that bears his name. Some folks in and around the chamber-of-commerce-ish “Valley of the Sun” call John Schwaesdall the “Johnny Appleseed” of Ramona wine. Schwaesdall Winery, like John himself, is old-style “San Diego local” all the way. There isn’t much pretense here, and back issues of the Wine Spectator are mighty scarce.

Just around the bend from Poway, not far from the flanks of Mt. Woodson, it’s shot through with old North County flavor — all boulders and oaks except for the old vines and a flock of sheep. The Schwaesdall Winery tasting room is a straw-bale structure with wood-beam ceilings, Americana knick-knacks, and a tall wooden sculpture by a local woodsman. Outside stands the Vietnam War memorial he put up a few years ago, and at the entrance hangs the winery sign (“the world’s biggest cork,” he says), crafted from a cedar felled on Mount Palomar.

Schwaesdall, in order to gain San Diego County’s imprimatur, was forced to wade through the time-consuming and costly major-use permit process. These days, courtesy of the “boutique wine ordinance” passed in 2010, it’s a lot easier and cheaper for aspiring local wineries to get started.

Perched at a far different place in Ramona’s socioeconomic spectrum is a newer wave of boutique winemakers, often made up of recently retired (or quasi-retired) couples in their 50s or 60s. A disproportionate number are engineers and only a handful are locals.

At Woof’n Rose Winery, the dog and flower leitmotif on labels and signage remind you that you aren’t at Gallo or Mondavi. This is wine-tasting at the intimate end, because when you taste wine in Ramona, you’re often at someone’s home, or at least in the garage. And it’s in a converted garage filled with neat rows of wooden casks that Steve and Marilyn Kahle mostly turn out reds, which (at least so far) have ruled the roost in the Ramona AVA.

Steve and Marilyn Kahle revel in experimentation, such as a one-off take on a somewhat obscure old-world dessert wine, Pineau des Charentes.

Steve and Marilyn Kahle revel in experimentation, such as a one-off take on a somewhat obscure old-world dessert wine, Pineau des Charentes.

As is the case with many of Ramona’s winemakers, the Kahles also revel in experimentation, such as a one-off take on a somewhat obscure old-world dessert wine, Pineau des Charentes. Slicker than Cactus Star but still “family” by anyone’s definition, Woof’n Rose welcomed a steady stream of tasters on the afternoon I visited, with Steve Kahle holding forth on things like scion wood and clones.

A cursory glance at their label’s doggerel (“We invite you to sip our wine in your quality time. Time to smell the roses…Time to kiss puppy noses”) might lead one to dismiss the wine inside as schlock, but it’s serious stuff made with evident pride and expertise, much of it from estate-grown grapes. If you have the time, Steve Kahle will explain how they chose the recondite names of their bottlings. “Eglantine,” one of their standouts, is named for a “dog rose.” Described as a “Bordeaux-style blend,” it’s 40 percent Cabernet Franc, 40 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and 20 percent Merlot. But wine-making in Ramona isn’t all tasting notes and poetry.

“See those fence posts? I drove all 412 of them by hand,” says Andy Harris of Chuparosa Winery. Close to the east end of the valley, spicy Zinfandels are coming to life. Harris (yet another engineering type), who hails from Pocatello, Idaho, and his wife Carolyn, an attorney, are serious students of wine and boosters of the Ramona AVA. However, at Chuparosa, prospects of rapid expansion and publicity in Ramona’s wine country are met with tempered enthusiasm.

I asked the Harrises about scale and growth. There are four acres of vines planted here, yielding 2.7 tons of fruit per acre. Toss in a permissible passel of non-Ramona fermentables, and we’re talking 685 cases a year, somewhere in the mid-range in these parts. The Harrises express strong opinions about the building “buzz” and what it might mean for Ramona wine. Although Chuparosa (hummingbird in Spanish), like several other Ramona wineries, has gained a fervent, albeit small following of grape-heads, they say they have no interest in selling 90-dollar bottles of wine. Andy Harris sounds a stern note: “We don’t want to grow if that means pricing out vinophiles.”

At the same time, he also rejects the suggestion that promoting Ramona wine necessitates bashing Temecula: “That’s unfair.”

Nonetheless, among the tasting room visitors I met, the word is out: San Diegans can taste better wine, onsite in their own backcountry, than they can quaff (with some exceptions) across the Riverside County line. There’s also stylistic diversity here.

According to Harris, the youth of Ramona’s wine industry allows for, even encourages, varietal excursions not always found in Napa or Sonoma. Although Ramona is largely associated with reds, the Harrises are enthused about planting Albariño (a Spanish white grape) in January, with the first bottles emerging in the fall of 2017 or thereabouts.

Getting to a place where Ramona wine is no longer viewed as a novelty but as a contender among the cognoscenti has taken years of detours through the thicket of San Diego County’s bureaucracy. It’s one thing to craft fine wine, but if you harbor notions of selling it to others, you’ll have to placate politicians and their carping rural constituents.

Winemakers who seldom agree on anything else credit the passage of the “boutique” ordinance with turning Ramona wine country from a quaint denizen of skilled amateurs to a hotbed of hard-core artisans.

When the San Diego County ordinance took effect, after surviving a legal challenge from the “Citizenry” folks, it was a watershed moment. The consensus is that a “gang of six” — the Harrises as well as Victor and Beth Edwards of Edwards Winery, Kohill’s Kopp, and Don Kohorst of Pyramid Winery — was instrumental in convincing the county to tone down its Prohibition-lite restrictions on commercial wine-making. But that doesn’t mean the bureaucrats have raised the white flag.

“We don’t want to grow if that means pricing out vinophiles,” say Andy Harris (with wife Carolyn) of Chuparosa.

“We don’t want to grow if that means pricing out vinophiles,” say Andy Harris (with wife Carolyn) of Chuparosa.

Beth Edwards laughs, “We even had to get an EPA-approved Porta-Potty.” By the time you get to Edwards Vineyard & Cellars, you’re halfway to Julian on the 67, right at the eastern edge of the AVA. The tasting “room” isn’t really a room but a cluster of little structures that looks more like a produce stand.

“We approach things from a farming standpoint,” she declares. “A lot of people want to own wineries because they’re attracted to the romance of wine, the lifestyle. But they’re not agricultural people. You never hear about the ‘romance’ of growing tomatoes, right?”

Victor, whose guttural accent hints at his Long Island roots, and Beth, an Oceanside native, bought a foreclosed farm in 1988. In terms of “day job” background, they’re anomalies in the cloistered cosmos of Ramona wine: Victor is a professional photographer, Beth a graphic artist/illustrator.

There are 64 acres here, but only 3 under cultivation, watered by a 1200-foot well sunk by the prior owner. The Edwardses don’t make many wines, and of those they do make, quantities are small. But limited quantity isn’t tantamount to small-time. Any enophile who suggests that the “official” (bonded and licensed) winemakers of Ramona are merely enthusiastic tyros (or rank hobbyists) will be rebuffed by Victor and Beth Edwards and their wines.

“We’re hoping to make world-class wine in the Ramona AVA. When we started the Ramona Valley Winery Association in 2009, we wanted to differentiate serious winemakers from the folks who put in four vines. We broke away because we wanted to be known as a ‘professional’ organization.”

The Winery Association, which promulgates a map displaying its ten members, is a spinoff of sorts from the Vineyard group. But, as Beth explains, it wasn’t an amicable parting. Quoting Mencken’s “no good deed” lament, she says that her work to circumvent the onerous “major-use permit” requirements for small wineries hasn’t been adequately appreciated by some Ramona winemakers, presumably non-members of her organization. “We saved everybody a quarter million dollars, and all we got for our efforts was a swift kick in the ass.”

The Edwards are blunt when it comes to ordinance scofflaws. If “provenance” is king when it comes to grapes and the wines derived from them, the heart of the ordinance is the fruit-sourcing requirement, which mandates that at least 25 percent of the grapes have to come from Ramona and at least 75 percent from San Diego County. The Edwards wonder how certain unnamed wineries were able to turn out wines with the coveted Ramona AVA right after the boutique ordinance had passed.

“How could they have been in compliance?” Beth asks, “Do you know what a ‘shiner’ is?” Some folks, she charges, “jumped the gun and bought ‘shiners.’ Those are pre-filled, unlabeled bottles you can buy from different producers. So, you bring in wine from outside San Diego County and put Ramona Valley labels on them.”

At the winery that afternoon, most of the other tasters were friends of the Edwards, including several winemaker couples who were on the verge of getting bonded.

Syrahs (whether “petite” or not) are varietals I often eschew, and they’re the mainstays here. But today’s offering isn’t the usual ball of tannin in a bottle. It’s a 2008 Syrah and with still-sober taste buds at my disposal, I’ll be damned if this isn’t yet another supple, fruit-forward Ramona red that I could drink all day. I bring a bottle home and it’s gone before my wife gets a whiff. The label says “47 cases.”

As scarce as Ramona wines may be on the retailer’s shelf, and as disregarded as they are by high-rollers who’ll pay triple mark-up prices for big labels at a steak house, there’s momentum afoot. Some of it was generated by the “French American Wine Challenge” held in 2012. Taking a cue from the now-famous 1976 wine competition in which Napa thrashed the French, Ramona strode into the ring with three entrants, including a 2005 Syrah from Edwards, a 2008 Cabernet Franc from Woof’n Rose, as well as a 2010 Sauvignon Blanc from Milagro Farm Vineyards and Winery. Pitted against the locals were three of the same varietals from highly regarded producers in France. By the time the corks were tossed in the trash and only red stains remained in the stemware, the Gauls were galled, shut. Not only had Ramona’s finest prevailed in the “people’s choice” competition, but they’d also pummeled the Euros in the formal round — blind-tastings conducted by a five-person panel under the 20-point UC Davis scoring system.

At the end of the proverbial day, it’s hard physical labor rewarded with an immediacy and intensity of freshness and flavor as well as, in some cases, an under-the-radar cult following — and patience, I almost forgot to mention patience. Decades ago, Orson Welles, shilling for Paul Masson on TV, would announce grandly, “We will sell no wine before its time.” But here in the Ramona AVA, the aphorism holds a place of honor. As the sun sank over Whale Mountain behind Edwards Vineyard, a fellow taster told me, “Starving artists, that’s what they are. The only thing that’s important is the creation of the wine. Nothing goes into the bottle until it’s ready.”

Just before San Diego County Ordinance No. 10067 told us it was time to go, the Edwardses led us to the trellises. Their tasting-room greeters, a huge tan German shepherd, Doc Holliday, and a shepherd mix named Annie Oakley, were already there, playing in the vines.

Inviting us to sample the raw materials straight from the source, Victor suggested, “Try one of the shriveled ones,” and I did. It was dry, chewy, and seedy, but perhaps the best raisin I’d ever tasted. “It’s going to be a late-harvest Syrah, maybe 19 percent alcohol. We’ll have about 640 pounds of fruit; it should make around a barrel of wine, maybe 18–24 cases.”

But then, even though I suspected what the answer might be, I had to ask, “When will it be ready?”

“Two, three years in the bottle.”

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Mike is being coy. We all know who you are, Carolyn. So quit turning in your neighbors and go along for the ride. This is a beautiful thing for our community, our county and our state.

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