'I found that there was money in growing grapes," says William Holzhauer, recalling his first investigations into the production end of the wine business. "But there's a lot of money in a winery — because the risk is in making the wine." He was already set on putting in grapes on Hacienda de las Rosas, his dream estate in Ramona, and he decided he might be up for the risk. "I started going to classes at UC Davis and started showing up at people's vineyards at harvest and volunteering: Shadow Mountain, Salerno, Pamo Valley Vineyards." Eventually, he started making his own product over at Salerno's place from locally purchased fruit: Zinfandel Port, Sauvignon Blanc, and a Cab-Petite Sirah blend.
Today, Holzhauer's estate winery is still a few months away from completion, but there's enough there to get a sense of it. The mission-style bell tower is up on the winery façade. The ironwood main doors have arrived from Morocco. And you can see the layout — the sections set aside for the barrels, the tanks, the tasting room, the stables...
The stables? "We'll showcase horses here," explains Holzhauer. "We'll bring in stallions, and babies and their moms. We raise Peruvian Paso horses here. Spanish horses, Spanish wine — tie them together." Spanish wine here means Tempranillo — and Mission (!). "It used to be the number-one grape in Anaheim," he says — back when Anaheim was wine country. "It was their table grape and their wine grape. There were hundreds of acres of it. It's a spicy grape. People say you can't make great wine from it. Well, you can if you know what you're doing. It's a great blending wine." So, once the estate vineyards come online, he'll be blending it with Tempranillo.
The wine and the horses are personal passions, but Holzhauer is happy to mix them for the sake of consumer-friendly ambiance. To aid in the cultivation of that Spanish image, he says, "We're working with an historical society out in St. Augustine, Florida. We hope they're going to let us copy a wine bottle that was found on a Spanish galleon from the 1400s. It's the only glass wine bottle [of its kind] in the U.S. We're in negotiations to copy it and manufacture it. It's a weird bottle" — he gestures to indicate its irregularity —- "they're all going to be a little bit individual. I want to put Mission and Tempranillo in there, put a Spanish doubloon on the glass itself, and call the wine Pieces of Eight. People want the romance; they want the story of your winery, the story of your vineyard. When I go out selling my wine, I'm selling the story on the side: Peruvian Paso horses, Father Serra, the missions, Spanish-style wines..."
He's also looking at enlisting the missions in his effort to build the brand — and to promote California's viticultural history in the bargain. "I'm working with the Mission Society right now to raise enough funds to go back and replant Mission grapes at the missions themselves. We're working with the plant foundation at UC Davis. We'll just put in a couple of trellises, so that people will get the idea that grapes were there. They don't have to make any wine from it, but it's great publicity, for us and for the missions."
It's not all Spanish, all the time — Holzhauer also grows Cabernet and Syrah to go along with the wines he makes from purchased fruit. But he understands the importance of finding a niche, even — perhaps especially — in a niche market. "We have some great winemakers in San Diego County, but very few marketers. I may be one of only two or three people going out there and knocking on doors: 'Hey, you want to buy some wine?'"
Holzhauer likes the work, except when he doesn't. "I've walked away from some tastings — some of these wine bars where they're 'Listerining' my wine" — taking a sip, then sucking air into their mouths to aerate the wine. "I know the reasons why they do it, but it makes no sense to me. It's a still wine; I didn't make it to Listerine. I said, 'If your clients do that, then they need to drink your wine.' When you're sitting down and having a glass of wine, are you doing that?"
So far, he's met with a measure of success: "restaurants, wine bars, Albertsons...at dinner, the Spanish restaurants sell a lot of wine." Having Spanish varietals "is kind of like a whole package: 'Hey, that fits in!'" Now, a number of other local wineries have signed on to have him carry their product as well. "The Spanish thing might not go over so well at an Italian restaurant, but then, hey, I've got Salerno."
And in at least one instance, he's found that there is strength in numbers, even — perhaps especially — in a niche market. "Once, I was at a pouring, and this lady came up and said, 'This is really good wine; I'd like to sell some in my stores.' You never know where a lead is going, so I started making nice. Then she said, 'But I don't want just one winery.' So I pulled out our brochure and said, 'I know about 12 wineries...' It turns out she's the CEO of a car-wash company. There are two locations in Rancho Bernardo and one in Carmel Valley, and they have a beer-and-wine license. They've got a huge room with cards and gifts and wine. I said, 'Why don't we just make a display?' So I got a barrel, cut it up, and put it back together, so that there were windows in the barrel — you can see the wine inside. Then we put a big sign on top that said, 'San Diego County Vintners' Association — Local Wineries.' We use it as a fundraiser. The wineries that participate get $9.50 a bottle; I sell it for $10, and we give 50 cents back to the association. I'm on my third reorder; we've got them in seven or eight locations. Alex McGeary up at Shadow Mountain in Warner Springs called me and said, 'I just got a couple who bought one of our wines from the Rancho Bernardo car wash, and they drove all the way up here and bought a case.'"