San Diego urban wineries: Blue Door, San Pasqual, SD Cellars, Vinavanti, Fifty Barrels

You should have it clear in your pointy little head that you’re not going to get rich at this.

On a sunny afternoon in mid-September, I walked into a partially obscured entrance in one of several nondescript business parks on Morena Boulevard in Bay Ho. Inside I found an immaculately clean, 3000-square-foot industrial space outfitted with pale brick walls, wood trim, and ceilings high enough to accommodate a couple dozen oak barrels stacked three-tall on metal racks. To the right, several well-dressed women stood along a continental rustic bar, sipping petit syrah from stemmed glassware and discussing what they tasted.

On its own this would have been a surprisingly elegant scene for a frontage road just east of Interstate 5. But the most interesting part of it was about to take place through a tall archway in the back of the room. As his customers gathered in a semicircle to watch, winemaker March Hashagen loaded fermented grapes into a pneumatic press and proceeded to crush wine for his label’s 2014 cabernet.

This year the Blue Door’s Kameron Robbins and Mark Hashagen got 2/3 of their grapes from Santa Barbara County vineyards.

This year the Blue Door’s Kameron Robbins and Mark Hashagen got 2/3 of their grapes from Santa Barbara County vineyards.

Blue Door Urban Winery

4060 Morena Boulevard, Clairemont

Hashagen and fiancée Kameron Robbins have been steadily growing Blue Door Urban Winery since starting out in his kitchen in 2006. That year, they brought home buckets filled with 300 pounds of grapes they picked at a private vineyard in Hidden Meadows. They crushed and pressed them with whatever equipment they could get ahold of, making enough to fill about 75 bottles. “It was fun, it was so much fun,” says Hashagen, a former software developer. “The wine turned out half decent, so we just sort of went for it.”

The couple read books, wine journals, and information from the internet to learn winemaking techniques. They formally established Blue Door as a company, rented some warehouse space, and secured a license.

The following year they pressed four tons; the year after that, ten. In 2010 they opened a tasting room in Julian, and when they outgrew their warehouse in San Marcos last year, they searched around and settled on the Bay Ho address. This brought production much closer to their home in South Park, along with a necessary increase in capacity. This fall, they fermented 23 tons, which should be enough to produce more than 1100 cases — a little shy of 14,000 bottles.

So, where are they getting their grapes? It’s not from Bay Ho, nor nearby Clairemont nor Pacific Beach. Sourcing is the crucial question for an urban winery. Urban winemakers don’t grow their own grapes and, by definition, can’t. Instead, they deal with established vineyards that sell grapes by the ton. These may include grape farmers who don’t make wine at all, or larger wine producers that hedge their bets by growing more than they need.

Tour of San Diego's Blue Door Winery

Proprietor Mark takes us on a short tour of his Blue Door Winery facility.

Proprietor Mark takes us on a short tour of his Blue Door Winery facility.

Hashagen and Robbins choose which type of fruit they wish to work with and where they get it. Keeping in line with their personal palates, they focus on full-bodied red varietals including cabernet, syrah, and zinfandel. It’s all California product. But not necessarily San Diego product. In this case, Robbins had previously worked in the business side of wine on the Central Coast and tapped contacts with Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards in Solvang to suss out sourcing opportunities. This year, Blue Door got about two-thirds of its grapes from vineyards in Santa Barbara County.

The small-batch vintner is one among more than a dozen urban wineries that have begun operating in the San Diego area since 2000, and nearly all of these startups truck fruit into town from prized winegrowing regions in Central or Northern California, if not beyond. Sometimes they build off relationships with growers, often it’s determined by which variety of grapes they’d like to work with in a given year. This approach has allowed aspiring winemakers to keep their city addresses while expanding and improving upon their craft.

While pumping freshly pressed wine into a towering stainless steel tank at Blue Door, Hashagen explains the basic winemaking process to me. Naturally, it begins with the harvest, which, depending on the grape, may take place anywhere between August and November. Timing is vital. The grapes need to be picked immediately when they reach the right levels of sugar and acidity, then prepped to ferment before they have a chance to rot.

This puts the urban winemaker on call during harvest season. “You know you can’t go anywhere,” he says. “You can’t leave town because the vineyards will call and say…‘We’re picking tomorrow.’” With short notice he’ll rent a truck and drive north and drop off dozens of 1000-pound capacity bins at the vineyard. Beginning in the early morning, farm workers fill his bins with grapes, and the moment they finish he drives them back to San Diego to load them into the crusher-destemmer, a machine that removes grapes from their clusters. It “drags them across a grate,” he explains, “pulls the berries off of the stems… pops the skins so the juice starts to come out.”

The loose and leaking berries go back into the open bins to begin fermentation, which basically entails yeast converting the fruit’s natural sugars into alcohol. He’ll add cultured yeasts from France to spur this process, which takes ten days or so to finish. He may add peptic enzymes to extract tannins from the skins. “A lot of the characteristics of grapes — especially red grapes — are in the skins themselves,” says Hashagen. Skins add color, additional layers of flavor, and aromatics contributing to the wine’s overall complexity. “We want those skins to break down and basically share their wealth.”

Called “must,” this fermenting stew of grapes, seeds, and skins will be pressed once fermentation has finished, the juice pumped into a steel tank, where much of the remaining sediment — called lees — may settle to the bottle. Cleared of this lees, the wine will be transferred to an oak barrel and sealed to protect it from exposure to oxygen, one of many things that can ruin a good wine before it’s matured. To keep air out, the winemaker will occasionally top off the barrel to replace what’s referred to as the angel’s share — wine lost to evaporation and absorption into the staves. Periodically, he’ll transfer the wine to a new barrel — a process called racking — to clear out more lees. It goes on like this for anywhere from nine months to a couple of years until Hashagen and Robbins agree it tastes ready to drink. Then it’s ready to be bottled.

Map of San Diego wineries

Map of San Diego wineries

While the urban wine market in San Diego may be far from the critical mass of craft beer, it’s managed to become pretty evenly distributed throughout the county, with urban wine clubs’ tasting rooms popping up in Vista, Escondido, Leucadia, Solana Beach, and Sorrento Valley. Everywhere you look these days, somebody’s there to pour you a glass of locally made wine.

Mike and Linda McWilliams at their tasting room overlooking the marina at Seaport Village.

Mike and Linda McWilliams at their tasting room overlooking the marina at Seaport Village.

San Pasqual Wine Bar and Gallery

8364 La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa

San Pasqual Winery & Production Center

8140 Center Street, La Mesa

San Pasqual Winery Tasting Room

805 W. Harbor Drive, Suite C, Downtown San Diego

Take La Mesa–based San Pasqual Winery, which became an urban winery by necessity. It started out as a traditional winemaking vineyard in the 1970s, but when its San Pasqual Valley vines were decimated by disease, it shut down for years before re-emerging as an urban winery in Escondido. The business and inventory has changed hands and locations, bouncing to Pacific Beach and ultimately La Mesa. Current owners Mike and Linda McWilliams have managed to increase production on a full roster of reds and whites, plus a passion fruit wine. What used to be the stalled-out second effort of a winery in the wind now features a tasting room in La Mesa Village boasting regular customers and rapidly moving inventory and a second La Mesa tasting room on Center Street — across the road from Bolt Brewery. In July they opened a second tasting room in Seaport Village.

San Diego Cellars

2215 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy

By location, at least, the most urban of urban wineries must be San Diego Cellars. Located in Little Italy, just down Kettner Boulevard from the new Bird Rock artisan coffee outpost and across from restaurant du jour Juniper & Ivy, San Diego Cellars has a plum spot in a part of town of increasing importance to gastronomes. Owner and winemaker Todd Hipper spent some years growing up in Italy, which he says influenced his assorted reds. They reside “in that sweet spot between ripe California wines and… austere, complex European wines.”

While it may not draw the same size crowds as Ballast Point just a block over, his tasting room and upscale restaurant easily suits the neighborhood and does one-liter growler fills of wine made on site.

The former attorney makes his wine on a small loading dock out back. Standing out there, he can point to buildings on the same block where Italian immigrants made wine going back decades. He admits to being a little surprised that the name San Diego Cellars hadn’t already been taken when he started the business in 2008. He reasons, “San Diego wine didn’t have a very good reputation at the time. I don’t think anybody else actually wanted to put San Diego on a wine label.” As ever, in the wine industry, such reputation can be a problem to overcome.

Junipero Serra Museum

2727 Presidio Drive, Old Town

Making wine in San Diego isn’t anything new. Visit the Junípero Serra Museum above Old Town and you’ll see the wine press Spanish settlers brought with them at the founding of Mission San Diego de Alcalá in the 18th Century. In fact, long before celebrated wine regions such as Sonoma and Napa Valley began garnering international accolades, some of California’s first vintages were produced here, if only to provide wine for the sacrament at Mass.

Cucina Urbana

505 Laurel Street, Bankers Hill

Cucina Enoteca

2730 Via de la Valle, Del Mar

And yet, for the next 200 years, San Diego wines never took off. At least not in a way wine professionals are prepared to recognize. “San Diego wines are categorically considered to be inferior,” says Cate Hughes, wine director at restaurants Cucina Urbana and Cucina Enoteca, which feature more than 200 globally sourced wines, none of them local. She says it’s rare for any customers to ask about San Diego vintage, and when they do it’s got more to do with interest in locavore sourcing practices than adventurous palates. “Most people’s impression,” she says, “is that San Diego’s wine is crappy.”

Juniper and Ivy

2228 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy

That characterization may sound harsh, but in sommelier circles, it’s pretty much de rigueur. Tami Wong, beverage director at Juniper & Ivy, also reports the occasional customer asking for SD vintage, which she’s prepared to accommodate. But not because it’s necessarily what she’d consider “the best of the best.” Its place on the wine list has more to do with the restaurant’s reputation as an experimental hotspot and California eatery. “Our menu is adventurous,” she says. “It attracts an adventurous eater, and therefore an adventurous drinker.” In other words, her customers want to see “what else is out there,” almost as though they’re trying San Diego origin partly to check it against what wine is supposed to taste like.

Vesper Vineyards

298 Enterprise Street, Escondido

For example, Wong describes tasting a pinot noir produced by homegrown label Vesper Vineyards. This small batch was made from grapes grown in a backyard vineyard called El Nido, located in Rancho Santa Fe. “I have an expectation about what this grape ought to taste like,” Wong explains. “I have no idea what wine grown in Rancho Santa Fe tastes like, but I know what pinot noir tastes like.” While she considers the result is of high quality and “proper in that it tastes like pinot,” she found the terroir difficult to place. “I thought it could have been Sonoma coast, or maybe Oregon.”

The Rose

2219 30th Street, South Park

She and Hughes each credit the label Vesper Vineyards with producing the best San Diego origin they’ve tasted. So does Chelsea Coleman, co-owner of South Park’s Rose Wine Pub. Since taking over the neighborhood wine bar in June, she and her partners have sought to increase the focus on locals, which jibes with her position as co-chair of Slow Food San Diego.

Coleman describes San Diego wine as possessing “a different terroir,” citing “a lot more minerality” than comparable grapes grown in other regions. The local spirit has met with some success, especially with a Vesper-produced rosé, the 2013 from Rancho Guejito Vineyard in San Pasqual Valley. “The Vesper is now probably our top-selling rosé,” she says. “People love it. Not just because they’re, like, ‘Ooh, let me try that San Diego wine.’ It’s delicious.”

Another Vesper product, a 2011 Alcalá Highland Hills Vineyard Ramona Valley White, made the San Francisco Chronicle’s list of the Top 100 Wines of 2013, and Vesper wines have also received notice from the Wall Street Journal. However, when the Journal writes headlines for wine articles about San Diego, it can’t help but use terms like “Surf’s Up” and “Next Wave.”

Successful wine comes from quality grapes, and successful grapes grown here have achieved begrudging recognition at best. Wong states, “We’re still figuring out what it is we do well” in San Diego, citing Rhone varietals such as carignan, syrah, and grenache as viable options for our climate. Coleman echoes this sentiment and calls attention to another San Diego label carried both by the Rose and Juniper & Ivy: J Brix.

J Brix has found some success with its Rougarou carignan, sourced from McCormick Ranch in Pauma Valley, just west of Palomar Mountain. Vesper also sources this vineyard, which makes sense when you consider the two labels work out of the same Escondido facility, a cost-cutting measure for both. However, while Vesper focuses solely on local grapes, J Brix does not.

Jody and Emily Towe were high-school sweethearts in Florida before getting married and moving here in 1998. They got into wine about seven years ago and made their first batch in 2009. They started by pressing 1.5 tons in their driveway, enough to produce three barrels. They sourced syrah and grenache from Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, a 747-acre estate that sells grapes to independent winemakers.

Since adopting the name J Brix, they still make that 300-mile drive for fruit. They also get pinot noir, pinot gris, and reisling from Kick-On Ranch Vineyard in Los Alamos, a little north of Solvang; as well as a syrah from Alamo Creek Vineyard, near Santa Maria. Emily, who works as a writer when not making wine, says, “Our goal is to work with the best fruit and kind of let it tell the story.” In telling these stories, J Brix has joined a growing number of small producers in embracing the so-called natural winemaking process, which places the emphasis on the grapes’ inherent flavors dictating the wine’s profile, for better or worse. As Emily puts it, “We don’t add anything to the wines, or take anything away.”

Basically, they don’t add yeast or enzymes or make any kind of chemical adjustments, save for a little preserving sulfites during bottling. “It’s such a loaded phrase, ‘natural wine,’” she says. “Nobody really can agree on what it means. But I think the basic understanding is that you are allowing the grapes to ferment without adding commercial yeast, which is the typical practice in wineries.”

This is back to the idea that the Towes want the grapes to tell their story, and that adding yeast may bring in some of the flavors associated with that strain of yeast, possibly detracting from some of the characteristics of the fruit they’ve traveled so far out of the way to buy. As Jody points out, “If you’re adding specific yeast, it’s going to help it taste the same every year.”

“Very large wineries that make a lot of wine, they need that,” Emily adds. But a small-batch producer can afford to take more chances and worry less about appealing to a broad market. “It’s more of a learning experience,” she says, “because how the season translates into the wine is going to be different each year, and for us that’s really exciting. We want to taste those differences.”

The best fruit — the fruit that tells a story worth drinking — doesn’t come cheap. A ton of suitable wine grapes typically runs between $1500 and $3500 — really premium fruit goes even higher. This fact is not lost on the Towes. “Five- to six-thousand-dollar pinot noir grapes were the first wine grapes we ever touched,” Emily recalls. Their first winemaking experience took place volunteering at Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Maria Valley, helping winemakers from Tantara Winery, which produces a pinot noir that routinely scores at or above the 95-point range in the 100-point Wine Enthusiast rating system.

J Brix doesn’t typically pay that much for fruit, but those first three barrels did prove costly for a horticulturist and freelance writer raising a young family. Emily says, “It quickly became apparent that we needed to be able to sell the wine if we were going to continue to make it.” So they obtained a license and began looking for places they could lease space and access equipment.

Mark Olsen and Will Perri of Olsen Perri use an Italian basket press to gently crush grapes.

Mark Olsen and Will Perri of Olsen Perri use an Italian basket press to gently crush grapes.

“They say there’s a 600-day turnaround on your cash,” says Mark Olsen. We’re standing in a climate-controlled room in the back of a warehouse he leases in National City. This is where he and winemaking partner Will Perri have spent the past three years honing their technique for their label, Olsen Perri, focusing on the one varietal that interests them most, pinot noir.

The 600 days refer to how long it can take before a winery startup can even hope to recoup the expenses accrued buying equipment and grapes, and paying rent every month. Because making a finished bottle of wine itself takes a year or more, and before that first batch is ready to sell, you’ve already gone out and invested in a whole other year’s worth of grapes, without yet earning a dime.

Before starting the Olsen Perri label, they were hobbyists who made wine at home with friends. As their interest became more focused, Perri, who works in finance, and Olsen, who supplies marine vessels with parts and fuel, decided to make the investment it takes to get serious. They built on winemaking knowledge they acquired watching experienced vintners working on the Central Coast. Their pursuit of exceptional pinot noir had taken them up there, initially for weekend getaways with their wives. Eventually, it would take them on research trips to France’s famed Burgundy region, to further explore their preferred pinot style.

Like J Brix, Olsen Perri embraces natural winemaking, specifically the centuries-old traditions of Burgundy. They rely on the grapes’ native yeasts for fermentation and gently crush the grapes with a hand-turned basket press. Unlike a mechanical press, this basket press can’t overpress the fruit. This makes a difference when making pinot noir, which owes its delicate profile to limiting the maceration, or breaking down, of the grapes’ skins. Unlike its darker red counterparts, pinot noir doesn’t want too many tannins adding flavor or color.

Olsen Perri wines and their basket press

Will Perri and Mark Olsen talk about the Italian, manual basket press they use at their urban winery in San Diego.

Will Perri and Mark Olsen talk about the Italian, manual basket press they use at their urban winery in San Diego.

“Pinot noir is feminine…it’s elegant and subtle,” Olsen explains. “We kind of limit the amount of maceration we do so we get a nice light color.” Their traditional press is basket built with vertical wood slats. When Olsen and Perri load the must into the basket, the fermented juice begins to drain out through the slats. Once this free run slows to a trickle, the winemakers screw a plate down into the basket to gently extract the remaining wine from the must.

“Commercial wineries would not use that,” Olsen points out. “They wish they could, because it produces a higher quality product, but it’s just not really commercially viable.” This year, Olsen Perri worked with a mere four tons of fruit, a conscious decision to pursue quality over quantity. To match the approach of Burgundy pinot traditions, they acquired new French oak barrels, which typically go for $1200 apiece.

Staying true to the Burgundian method, these guys also don’t add anything to their high-end fruit. As Olsen explains, “The grape cluster has everything necessary in terms of nutrients, yeast to make wine. You don’t really need to add anything to it.”

“A lot of it is dependent on having really good farming,” adds Perri, who describes the role of winemaker as one of marshaling the wine forward, without too much tinkering or manipulation, to produce the best expression of the grape. He says, “We’re really supplying the path not to mess up something that the farmer already kind of put into it.”

This year, Olsen and Perri sourced from two highly regarded pinot vineyards: Hillyard Bruce, located in the Santa Rita Hills between Solvang and Lompoc; and Bassi Ranch, near San Luis Obispo. In the past they’ve sourced from Pence Ranch in Beullton. “The advantage of doing this style of winemaking,” says Perri, is the opportunity to “pick and choose your ingredients,” rather than necessarily use the same fruit every year.

So far, the two prefer the Central Coast. “Anywhere from San Luis Obispo down to Point Conception,” says Olsen, “That’s really where we focus on sourcing our fruit…the closer we get to the ocean, the cooler the climate, the higher the acid, the more interesting the fruit.” He continues, “We really try to source just the best pinot noir that we can get. We’re trying to make as good as anyone is making. We’re not trying to make good for San Diego.”

Good for San Diego may be lofty enough ambitions for most, particularly since the front of a wine label tends to list the AVA (American Viticultural Area) where the grapes are sourced, not where it’s made. While the back of the label might specify a wine was produced and/or bottled in San Diego, chances are most people who drink such wines at a restaurant, or buy them from a bottle shop, don’t know they’re drinking anything to do with San Diego.

That not the case for those drinking in one of the city’s dozen or so tasting rooms. While J Brix and Olsen Perri currently only offer occasional tastings by appointment, most urban wineries operate off a direct-to-consumer business model — customers taste and buy wine on site, usually at the same place the wine is made.

Eric Van Drunen with the pitchfork he uses to transfer grapes. It is made of plastic to avoid scrapes to his picking bins that would harbor contaminants.

Eric Van Drunen with the pitchfork he uses to transfer grapes. It is made of plastic to avoid scrapes to his picking bins that would harbor contaminants.

This includes Vinavanti, which operates a small tasting room and production facility in Sorrento Valley. With a longstanding appreciation and a few San Diego State wine courses under his belt, Eric Van Drunen made his first wine in 2010. The following year, the former web developer went full-bore natural, to the degree that not only will he not add yeast or acids, as conventional winemakers do, he won’t temper his results with sulfites, filtering, or even adding flavor by aging in oak barrels.

Vinavanti Urban Winery

1477 University Avenue, Hillcrest

(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)

I met him at the Vinavanti tasting room in December to try one of his recent efforts, a pét-nat called Héritier 2014 Sparkling Viognier Orange de Blanc. Pét-nat refers to pétillant naturel, or “natural sparkling,” which uses a seldom-seen winemakers’ technique to bottle condition sparkling wine; that is, allowing some fermentation to take place inside the bottle to create the bubbles. “It’s actually foot-stomped,” Van Drunen explains. “We pull a small amount of juice aside, when it’s sweet.” This set-aside juice is kept cold while the rest of the wine ferments. “Then when we go to bottle we combine them.” The sugars from the set-aside juice ferments with native yeasts remaining inside the bottle, which release carbon dioxide and ergo bubbles.

This vintage didn’t take long to age — it was harvested in August from Orrin Vineyards in Warner Springs, on the far side of Palomar Mountain. Vinavanti is another urban winery that prefers to source only local fruit, which seems in keeping with Van Drunen’s natural and minimal approach, his desire to create food-friendly wine that is “consistently interesting and full of character.” In other words, he says, “I’m going to let the freckles come out.”

Keeping it local also applies to his direct-to-consumer model. “When you break down the retail cost of a bottle of wine,” he says, the actual cost of grapes amounts to “about 5 or 10 percent.”

Through traditional distribution models, he says “The price doubles from the winery to the consumer.” Being a fairly small operation (he bought 17 tons of grapes this year), he doesn’t deal in enough volume to support Vinavanti’s overhead as well as middleman costs. So, he focuses selling through his wine club and to tasting-room customers — Vinavanti seems to be a popular after-work destination for Sorrento Valley tech professionals, who enjoy a lineup featuring some of those region-appropriate Rhone varietals: syrah, grenache, and mourvèdre.

Van Drunen’s efforts aren’t limited to Vinavanti. He’s also involved making wine for another burgeoning San Diego–only label, Los Pilares. And he started a local trade association called San Diego Urban Wineries.

The association of 11 labels not affiliated with particular vineyards meets monthly to gather their resources to help improve and market the local winemaking scene. This may include joining forces to split transport and tonnage on a particular vineyard order and has resulted in a San Diego Urban Wineries Passport. It’s a $35 stamp book highlighting the urban wineries around the county and entitling the holder to a complimentary pour at each location.

The creation of the trade association was also driven by the cost and difficulty of starting a winery. Today, he says, “If I wanted to start an urban winery…I now have a support community, I have a scene.” As if to emphasize the point, as we sat there talking, Lowell Jooste dropped in to the tasting room to ask Van Drunen for advice about his own efforts to start one.

Jooste moved to La Jolla two years ago with his family after working for 25 years in the wine industry of his native South Africa. He has plans to open an urban winery of his own, LJ Crafted Wines, later this year in Bird Rock. His space will sell chardonnay and pinot noir from the Russian River Valley and cabernet sauvignon from Napa, straight to customers, direct from the barrel.

He has seen the urban winery phenomenon develop over the years around the world, including instances in New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Hong Kong. He agrees with the idea that the direct-to-consumer model has become increasingly important. “The whole key of this industry is to do something very high quality and sell direct to the public,” he says, “to go under the radar of distributors, because there’s no [profit] margin there.” He predicts the movement only has room to grow, perhaps rivaling the momentum of another local beverage concern. Urban winemaking, Jooste says, is “where the San Diego microbrewery thing was 15 years ago.”

As with craft-beer culture, there has been a sense of community among urban winemakers — even before the trade association — with some of the earlier, more established labels helping new guys get out the gate. Because even on a small scale, starting a bona fide winery can be too huge a risk to jump in all at once. Robbins at Blue Door tells me, “There’s a saying in the wine industry, ‘In order to make a million dollars, you have to start with ten million.’ And in our case we started with four credit cards and a lack of any sane thinking.”

Fifty Barrels Winery

3800 Oceanic Drive #106, Oceanside

Upfront costs includes equipment, ranging from essentials such as barrels, presses, and crusher/destemmers to forklifts to move the barrels, and your own bottling rig. Starting from scratch, a winemaker must purchase, rent, or borrow all these things, plus grapes, plus a space to store the wine while it ages. “If you wanted to do it right,” says Brian Vitek, “you’re looking at probably $80,000 to $100,000…to do it awesome, $250,000.”

Brian Vitek started Fifty Barrels in 1999 in a garage when he was just out of college.

Brian Vitek started Fifty Barrels in 1999 in a garage when he was just out of college.

Vitek started Fifty Barrels, a North County label that’s been operating consistently under one name or another since 2002. Production just moved into a new tasting room in Vista Village last year, building out 5000 square feet of casual space outfitted with a bar, lounge, and artwork such as barrelheads painted by local artists. But it’s been a long and slow road to get here, and Vitek has had to use as much business acumen as winemaking skill to achieve his success.

Fifty Barrels started out in a 780-square-foot warehouse in San Marcos under the name Carlsbad Coastal Wines, with the modest goal of selling to summer tourist crowds in his native Carlsbad. As the operation grew and Vitek thought about expanding to other cities, he realized, “Other cities don’t want a wine that says Carlsbad.” He changed it to Fifty Barrels with an eye on the future. “That’s how many barrels of wine I had to make and sell to quit my job at UPS,” he says, adding with a laugh that while he now makes up to 80 barrels, “I still work at UPS.”

Witch Creek Winery Carlsbad

2906 Carlsbad Boulevard, Carlsbad

Actually, that UPS job played a role in helping him getting started as a vintner. He’d been a longtime wine enthusiast when he visited Witch Creek Winery in Carlsbad to help them automate shipping for their wine club. When they offered him a case in gratitude, he responded, “Can I just volunteer during harvest? I want to learn more about winemaking.”

Witch Creek had started up in Ramona Valley vineyard country in 1993, but by 1996 it was operating out of Carlsbad Village, making it the area’s oldest continually operating urban winery. It sources grapes from as far north as Clarksburg, and as far south as Baja’s Guadalupe Valley, and even if the reach of its wines haven’t thoroughly spread east or south of Carlsbad, its impact has.

Carruth Cellars

118 S Cedros Avenue #C, Solana Beach

“Witch Creek is kind of like the grandfather urban winery in the county,” says Adam Carruth, proprietor of Carruth Cellars in Solana Beach. He and Vitek worked side-by-side at Witch Creek back in 2001, making a couple of barrels of Temecula-grown barbera that earned them some amateur winemaker awards.

Since Carruth launched Carruth Cellars in 2006, it has become one of the most successful urban wineries in town, with about a thousand wine-club members and regular foot traffic at the Cedros Avenue tasting room he opened in 2009. Carruth says he purchased more than 80 tons of grapes this year, with a lot of fruit coming from Sonoma, where he studied viticulture in his mid-20s. “I’m happy with Sonoma fruit,” he says, “Sonoma people are really nice people. They’re not pretentious…. They don’t realize what they have…but the reality is that they have some of the best fruit on the planet, and it’s for sale.”

Adam Carruth’s Carruth Cellars specializes in single vineyard reds from Northern California.

Adam Carruth’s Carruth Cellars specializes in single vineyard reds from Northern California.

Thus the winery’s slogan, “Bringing grapes to the people.” Carruth says he now spends about $200,000 per year on premium fruit, including sources like the Bacigalupi Ranch, a vineyard used by Chateau Montelena, which famously legitimized California wines in 1976 by beating French wines in a blind taste test (as depicted in the film Bottle Shock).

Also a Carlsbad native and resident, he’s engaged in plans to open a second Carruth Cellars location closer to home. “North County coastal is one of the best wine markets in the country,” he claims. “Urban wineries have a little bit of an edge, because you’re really bringing the experience — like, all the barrels and the winemaking — down to an area where people can actually afford to buy wine.”

He agrees with Lowell Jooste that urban wines could follow the same trajectory as craft beer. “I really want to build the industry,” he says, citing the coastal expansion of craft-brew company Pizza Port as a model for success. “In ten years, maybe people will come to San Diego for the urban winery experience.”

Brian Vitek has similar hopes for growing the industry but recognizes it can’t just be up to a handful of people. Even as his label has expanded, he’s remembered the value of having a place to work at Witch Creek and has given the same opportunity to others by leasing space in his facilities to a number of starting-out winemakers, to help them find their feet. “We wanted more urban wineries,” he says, “we wanted more wineries like us. Because my belief is that we would only help each other.”

Adam Carruth spent some time working out of Fifty Barrels. As did Blue Door, San Diego Cellars, and Vinavanti. Currently, Keith Rolle works out of San Pasqual’s facility to make wines for his label, Gianni Buonomo, while he searches for his own permanent location in Point Loma. Rolle sources grapes all the way from Washington state’s Yakima Valley. The Minnesota native moved to San Diego in 1997, leaving only to pursue a four-year enology and viticulture degree in Walla Walla, Washington.

Rolle says, like so many of these other local winemakers, that while he loves the grapes he acquires from other places, making wine somewhere other than San Diego doesn’t really work for him. “When you get into a winery you should have it clear in your pointy little head that you’re not going to get rich at this. And once you realize that, then it’s more about lifestyle.” As an urban winemaker, he could set up shop anywhere. However, he says, “I don’t want to do that. I want to be close to home.”

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