It gets hot in Texas. "From the month of June until September or October," says former Texan Rick Buffington, "the house was closed."
"It was 85 degrees in an air-conditioned house," adds his wife Jennifer.
That kind of heat can make managing fermentation difficult at best, disastrous at worst. Heat speeds things up. If the yeasts work too fast, nasty flavors can develop, while good flavor compounds can either resist extraction or be made volatile and carried off in a blast of carbon dioxide. And when you're working with grape concentrate and a home-winemaking kit, you can't afford to lose any good flavor compounds. Still, the Buffingtons carried on and recall their first wine made some 12 years ago as being "drinkable; barely okay." They even bottled it, using empties they gathered from helpful restaurants. "No labels," says Jennifer. "Just a little mailing label that said what the wine was and the year."
Things picked up when the couple moved to Seattle in 1995. As employees of Boeing, they had access to grapes from 30-odd Washington vineyards the company contracted with growers to provide fruit for its winemaking club. Boeing even provided a facility, but the Buffingtons decided against waiting in line and started purchasing their own equipment. Temperature would not be a problem; they burrowed into the hill beneath their house to create their home winery. The operation got bigger and better, and they started labeling their wines: Cougar Mountain Winery.
But you can't grow grapes in Seattle, and the Buffingtons wanted to grow grapes. They had both lived in Pacific Beach before the Texas days, and they began angling to return. "In 2000 we came down here, looking for a place where we could put a vineyard in." They found it in Fallbrook: a hillside home atop a slope that faced south-southeast, blessed by a cooling breeze that blew up the hillside every afternoon. As software engineers, they could work out of their home and also step outside to get their hands dirty. They augered out holes for vines and posts, ran drip lines and training wires, learned the hard way about the necessity of bird-netting, and gradually brought a vineyard into production — mostly Sangiovese and Montepulciano d'Abruzzo.
Where to make the wine? Fallbrook isn't Texas, but it does get warm. The Buffingtons thought about burrowing again, down below the horizon of the zero-edge pool. "We were going to do an underground thing, 60 by 14, with ten-foot ceilings," says Rick. "We would have had just one side exposed on the west end so the sun wouldn't be a problem. But it was too much money — something like fifty grand — just to store wine. We decided, 'Let's just get everything out of the garage, move everything out that doesn't belong there. '"
"My car got moved out right after that," says Jennifer.
"This way," continues Rick, "if we ever decide to move or buy a winery someplace, we won't have this bomb shelter down there that you'll never be able to get out of the ground."
Looking around the garage now, there would be ample room for three cars if the place wasn't crammed with barrels, tanks, presses, bins, and all the rest; it's not hard to imagine the Buffingtons buying a more expansive facility one day. As it is, Rick is contemplating a shed for his six-wheeled Polaris tractor, essential for climbing the steep slope between the rows. With the tractor out, he'd have room for more barrels, plus another glycol-cooled tank or two. His own vineyards are still coming into their own, production-wise, and then there's the wine he makes from Camillo Magoni's Baja-sourced fruit.
The Buffingtons found Magoni via the San Diego Amateur Winemakers Society, which had been buying Baja grapes through Escondido's Belle Marie winery for some time. "The grapes coming out of the Guadalupe Valley are really good," marvels Rick. "And they're clean — not a lot of leaves and debris. You pick them up out of a refrigerated truck at 6:30," before the weather (and the fruit) gets overly warm. "When we got the grapes back here and started crushing, the white was at 50-some degrees. It was great."
It was good they joined the Society when they did. "We went to a meeting," recalls Rick. "They were trying to elect officers and nobody volunteered. The fellow running the meeting said, 'Okay, I'm not going to continue doing it.' We went back home and thought about it. We talked with Bob Howard [another grower/member] and he said to me, 'All right, I'll be president. You be vice president.' We just elected ourselves." For her part, Jennifer took over the Society's website.
Like collecting, winemaking doesn't easily find a natural limit other than maybe the pocketbook. "We were making more and more each year," says Rick, "buying grapes by the ton, giving the wine away to people all the time."
Says Jennifer, "My dad kept asking me, 'When are you going to make money out of your hobby?'" "Bill Baily up in Temecula told me it was the same for him," continues Rick. "He started when he was about 45 years old, and it just got bigger and bigger and bigger until he said, 'How about we make some money?'"
Then the couple heard a friend mention that fellow Society member Jerry Meisenholder had gotten a license to sell wholesale wine from his home. "In 2002 the county changed the zoning and said that if you have property that's zoned for limited agriculture, even if it's in a residential neighborhood, you can have a wholesale limited winery and make up to 7500 gallons a year. You have to have a vineyard, and at least 25 percent of your wine has to come from that vineyard. It was only a couple of thousand dollars to do the whole thing."
Cougar Vineyards and Winery released its first commercial offering, a Muscat Canelli made from Baja fruit, in December of 2004. It can be purchased online for $11.95 through the winery's website, www.cougarvineyards.com. (Cougar Vineyards is the first, but there are more in the works. An acre of newly mature Zinfandel lines a hillside not far from the Buffingtons'.)
The just-sweet Muscat "was a fun wine to make," says Rick. "It smelled great from the time it was fermenting to the time we bottled it" — floral, with peach undertones. "And it tastes like it smells," says Jennifer.