Not long after Beth and Victor Edwards had moved onto their hillside property on the east side of Ramona, the neighbors — longtime residents of the place across the road — paid a visit.
"Well, what do you want to do with this land?" asked the old-timers.
"We're going to grow grapes and make wine."
"Oh, well, then, you're in a good spot. There used to be a vineyard over there" — the man gestured to the hill across the road. "And there's still the remnants of a vineyard up there," he said, pointing down Route 78.
There may have been some comfort in knowing that they weren't attempting to boldly grow where no grape had grown before. But that little piece of history helped in more important ways. When the Edwardses and several other members of the Ramona Vineyard Association petitioned to have Ramona Valley recognized as an American Viticultural Area, says Victor, "They did ask for some historical documentation. They asked, 'Was there a history of growing grapes here?'"
"I paid my dues and went to the Guy B. Woodward Museum and researched it," recalls Beth. "Ed Fletcher — of Fletcher Hills and Fletcher Parkway — was the first to drive a car up here to Ramona. He bought a bunch of land" and started trying to sell it off. Says Victor, "He was advertising Bolina Valley" — the part of Ramona where the Edwardses ended up planting their own vines — "as having 'that red soil that grape-growers and winemakers love so much.' That was back around 1920." Victor also visited "the old head-pruned vineyard up the road, just past Old Julian Highway. I talked to the owner of Bernardo Winery, and he said that as a small child, he came up to Ramona to pick grapes with his father. From his childhood recollections, he thought there might have been a thousand acres up here." They had their history of grape-growing, along with their soil and weather analyses, and on January 6, they got their AVA.
"Only three years ago," says Ramona grape-grower Bill Schweitzer, "there was John Schwaesdall" of Schwaesdall Winery.
"The Godfather," adds Victor. If you wanted Ramona wine, Schwaesdall Winery was it. Now, there are nine bonded wineries in Ramona. Now, things are happening.
"I think we're progressing in the correct way," says Beth. It started with the formation of the Ramona Vineyard Association — at the time, a group of amateur growers who thought Ramona had potential as a wine region. It started with guest speakers from Nova Vine nursery in Sonoma, from Ben Drake's Temecula vineyard management company. Since then, says Beth, "People have been buying the grapes, seeing what the grapes can do. We've been working on finding out what we can do best. We've gotten our AVA lined up. People are getting their wineries bonded." Tasting rooms will have to wait for that last (and in some ways, highest) hurdle, the major-use permit. But things are happening.
For now, says Bill, "We don't have the production to compete with Callaway or Mondavi. Our niche market, as I define it, is the San Diego tourist market." The AVA is a help there. "We want to identify our wines with some place in San Diego County that they can name. 'We visited San Diego, and we're taking this wine home to Grandma.' Or, for somebody in Ramona: 'Here, here is something created in my town.'"
But the AVA may also pave the way for bigger things. Says Beth, "The Cilurzos were the first winery in Temecula. They were there, making wines out of their Italian heritage. It wasn't their career goal, but it became a big influence in their lives and in their children's lives." The Cilurzos were among the pioneers. "And Callaway came." Likewise, she thinks, the Ramona wine industry "can be big, if the pockets are deep. Now, there's an opportunity for a big investor to come in and say, 'Oh, Ramona Valley. Let's plant 200 acres and get somebody else to take care of it and make a name.'" Already, the Edwardses have heard of people deciding to go ahead with proposed vineyard projects after hearing about the AVA.
"I think it's a watershed event," says Victor, and timing fits nicely with Ramona's demographic shift. "Ramona used to be really rural, the turkey capital of the world...."
"Big trucks, big dogs, big guns," adds Bill.
"But new people are moving out here," continues Victor, and as you get farther from town, you get bigger and bigger lots. "They ask, 'What can we do with this land?' We're proving that you can grow grapes, and that fits right into their lifestyle while keeping the rural country atmosphere to Ramona." A neighbor who is selling five multi-acre parcels "is very interested in growing grapes out here. I think he's selling those parcels as potential vineyard estates."
"The other good part about Ramona Valley," says Beth, "is that it fills a very nice niche in the San Diego wine-tour region. You can start off and hit wineries in Escondido [Belle Marie, Orfila] or Carlsbad [Witch Creek] and work your way out to Julian [Orfila, Menghini]. We cover a big section right there in the middle. Hopefully, someday, we can be like Temecula wine country, only we'll have more varied regions."
Adds Bill, "It always frosts me when I'm driving down the freeway and I see the wine tour bus taking people from the cruise ships in San Diego harbor up to Temecula."
"They might as well stay in San Diego County," says Beth.
And someday, says Victor, "I hope we will take it to the next step. My goal is to make California-class wines from Ramona. At some point, that means you're competing with all the other wines in California. That's another few years down the road." For now, "our little Albertsons right now has wine from Temecula, and they've also got a few rows of wines from Ramona. Everything is little baby steps, but moving forward."