When Charlie Froelich and Mickey Fredman set out to break into the San Diego wine-production business — not that there was too much business to break into back in the '70s — they went about it exactly backwards: they planted a vineyard. Backwards because, before you go bringing tender grapes into the world, you need to make sure you have a home for them. (Being tender, they don't stand much of a chance if they don't get taken in and turned into shelvable product — er, wine.) And when you plant a vineyard, you can pretty much count on bringing grapes into the world.
Froelich and Fredman persevered, however, and the venture eventually became San Pasqual winery, which in turn eventually became Orfila Vineyards. They got help from one Mike Menghini, who, after "ten years and ten schools" had just graduated from USD with a degree in biology. "We were buying a house — this was 1975 — and the real estate agent asked what I was doing for a job. I said, 'I would have liked to be in the wine business, but I'm so tired of school.' She told me, 'Well, they're starting a winery right here in San Diego. '"
Menghini went to Froelich and asked for a job. "He said, 'Do you know anything about wine?' I said, 'Well, I drink it a little bit.'" That was enough; Froelich put Menghini to work in the vineyard. "He put me on a tractor — 16 hours a day for six months. I was thinking, 'God, after ten years of school, is this what I'm going to do with the rest of my life?' I worked in the vineyard for two and a half years before they started the winery. Then I worked in the winery for two years. I kind of lucked out — I got into the business when you could still become a winemaker without a degree from UC Davis — but the days of walking in and asking for a job just because you like wine may be past."
Not to say that Davis didn't eventually figure in Menghini's career. After San Pasqual, he got a job at Callaway in Temecula. "They could see that I had a real interest, so they sent me up to all the short courses at Davis in both viticulture and enology."
Callaway also taught Menghini about making wines for the public. "They knew how to soften them. Callaway never made the best wine you'll ever have, but you'll never find a clunker. They made them right in the middle — restaurant wines. They taught me a lot of the tricks of the trade, and if I have a wine that's troublesome, I can go back to what I got from them."
Menghini makes his own wines now at his eponymous winery — the one he started up in 1982 — and he's kept that healthy regard for the public. "Sometimes our wines are, technically, a little low in acidity — because my customers tell me they don't like high-acidity wines. Acid gives them heartburn." So he makes low-acid wines. It helps that he likes them that way, too. "I know what I like, and I kind of know what the public likes — especially in the tasting room."
That goes for varietals as well. "At San Pasqual, they listened to UC Davis about what would probably grow best down here, and they ended up with the weirdest varietals ever: Chenin Blanc, Napa Gamay, Petite Sirah, and Muscat Canelli. Chenin Blanc was okay at the time — it was a mainstay at Callaway, and it made a lot of people start drinking wine, because it was very soft, very easy, and had a little bit of residual sugar." But the other stuff was, to Joe Wine Tourist, a touch esoteric. Even today, "unless they're very well known, I shudder when wineries start making stuff that isn't recognizable to the public. I know that there are wine drinkers who are always looking for something special, but in a tasting room, if you don't have something like Chardonnay...Sauvignon Blanc is my favorite grape of all time, but even that isn't really recognizable in a tasting room."
And the tasting room is where Menghini sells. "I don't think San Diego gives San Diego wines a chance," he says. It's a familiar refrain by now, but he was one of the first to sound it. "When I first started, I'd bring a bottle into a nice liquor store or restaurant and drop it off. I'd say, 'Taste it, and I'll come back and see what you think of it.' I'd come back, and they'd say, 'Oh, I don't even know where it went. One of the help must have taken it.' That kind of attitude. If I were to sell anything outside the winery now, I'd have to hire somebody to do it. I'm too close to my product." So the wine stays on-site until somebody buys it retail.
"I get so mad," he admits. "If you go up to Paso Robles or Santa Barbara or anyplace that has a wine industry, and you go into any restaurant or liquor store, they've got their local wines right at the top of the list." And while quality certainly plays a part in a restaurant's decision to play local booster, it doesn't always account for everything. "I go up to Paso Robles every year for the Zin Fest they have up there, and I've tasted some pretty crummy wines coming out of there. Some good ones, too." He'd like to see the day when San Diego wines receive similar support, and he's happy to see local wines showcased downtown at the San Diego Wine & Culinary Center. But he's not going to be the one to make it happen. "I think we're starting to make some pretty good wines in San Diego, but I'm too old to fight that battle. I've got a niche, and I don't know if I want to work any harder than I work right now."