When Miles the wannabe novelist sets out for his winey holiday in Sideways — the film that did for California Pinot Noir what E.T. did for Reese’s Pieces (kids, ask your parents) — he sets out from right here in San Diego. Why? Well, Rex Pickett (the guy who wrote the novel that inspired the film) might tell you that it’s because the book is based on a true story, and the true story is that he did a lot of wine-drinking while house-sitting in Ocean Beach. But who you gonna believe? I’ll tell you the real reason why: the story started here because it all started here. The wine thing.
I don’t mean just some interesting aspect of it, something like San Diegan Bob Morrissey’s decision in 1976 to launch Wine Spectator, now a glossy luxury mag and one of the two most influential sources for wine ratings in the country. I mean fiddling with those numbers in the date and winding up way back in 1769, when Fray Junípero Serra founded Mission San Diego and put in grapes so that he’d have wine for Mass (plus a bit extra for entertainment and delight). The birth of an industry.
Or at least, that’s how California told it when it celebrated the bicentennial of its wine industry in 1969. There is evidence to suggest that the first grapes were harvested in 1782, way up in San Juan Capistrano, but, hey — who you gonna believe, some dusty old historian or a state government eager to gussy up its most glamorous agricultural product? It started here. Sit down and stop interrupting.
While they were at it, the Golden State also bestowed the title “Father of California Viticulture” on Count Agoston Haraszthy, the Hungarian who developed Sonoma’s famed Buena Vista vineyard in the early 1850s. And where and when did Haraszthy plant his first California vines? That’s right: Mission Valley, 1850. He started here.
What’s that? Again with the historians? Fine: Thomas Pinney, in his book A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition, does a pretty thorough job of dismantling the Haraszthy myth, concluding, “He may claim to be the author of California’s first treatise on grapes and wine…but the three main claims in the Haraszthy legend are all false.” Well, then, Mr. Buzzkill, if all that “Father of California Viticulture” stuff is false, then what’s true? “He certainly was an energetic and flamboyant promoter, combining the idealist and the self-regarding opportunist in proportions that we can now only guess at.”
Okay, okay — we’ll stick to the truth. Haraszthy is still useful, still a fine figurehead. (Let’s just ignore those rumors that he was eventually eaten by an alligator in Nicaragua, shall we?) I’ve been writing about wine in San Diego for around 12 years now. It’s one of those occupations that draws a polite, confused nod when mentioned in conversation: Wine? In San Diego? “But that’s just why it’s great to write about,” I usually reply. “Who wants to spend all their time reporting on yet another millionaire building yet another monument to himself in Napa?”
Even Santa Barbara, once the realm of oddballs bent on tinkering with difficult varietals, is beginning to harden into a fixed public image. Just listen to Chris Broomell of Valley Center’s Vesper Vineyards, who worked up north at Jaffurs Winery from ’06 to ’08: “I was there before Sideways, and I went through Sideways.” Before Miles made his little trip, “The region had an established but often overlooked wine industry.” People made what they wanted and let Napa worry about finding new ways to market Cabernet. “But by the time I left, I was glad to be going. There were expectations of what kind of grapes you were going to plant and what kind of wine you were going to make. If I’m halfway smart and I’m buying property in Santa Barbara, I’m planting three particular grapes and maybe one or two other oddball ones. Whereas in San Diego, I can plant almost anything I think will work, and nobody’s going to call me crazy.”
As if to prove the point, he’s just put in a new block of Vermantino. I’ve never heard of it either, and I’m supposed to know a little about wine. “I’m looking at different climates around the world,” says Broomell, “trying to figure out which region’s grapes would make interesting wines for San Diego — wines that would go with the culinary scheme down here. Heavy influence of Mexican foods, plus lots of coastal foods. So I’m looking for white wines and reds that will stand up to spices.” And nobody’s calling him crazy — except maybe for leaving Santa Barbara and setting up shop in Valley Center. “Yeah, there’s that whole thing,” he grants. “But we’ll see.”
See what I mean? Down here, it’s pioneer days. It’s dreamers and farmers and hardscrabble do-it-yourselfers. It’s a wine region that is forever on the verge of making it. If nothing else, it makes for good stories. And of course, it’s not nothing else. Nowadays, it might even be called something else, especially when compared to the state of the local wine biz ten years ago. Then, there were maybe ten wineries operating in the county. Now, according to industry veteran Alex McGeary, who owns Shadow Mountain Vineyards (way out there and up high in sun-blanched Sunshine Summit), the number is closer to 60. (The greatest concentration of growth has been in Ramona, which was awarded its own viticultural appellation back in 2006, but there are new operations as far north as Fallbrook and as far east as Campo.) Haraszthy — the idealist and promoter, the mascot for San Diego wine — might have something to shout about.
Ten Years After
While we’re on the subject of McGeary: ten years ago, I liked his Viognier enough to name Shadow Mountain Vineyards the best winery in the county for that year’s “Reader’s Best” issue. Last year, the winery’s 2005 Variation 3 meritage blend won Double Gold Medals and Best of Show at the California State Fair. File under: stepping things up. “I had these grapes that I had planted at La Serenissima” — a 17-acre vineyard project just a stone’s throw to the northeast. “I knew the history of those plants from ground zero, and 20 years here has given us an understanding of where we are and the grapes we grow. After the fire in 1995, I watched the regrowth of the chaparral, and I was able to dial in the regional similarities: we are not more than five degrees away — high and low, all four seasons — from Santa Rosa in Sonoma. We can grow cold-climate varietals like Cabernet and Cabernet Franc; these rich reds do really well.”