So: La Serenissima. “The owner wanted to oak age all these big reds for two years — the first year in big tanks, the second in French oak. And then a year in bottle before we put a label on it. I acquired some of those grapes, and I thought, ‘If two years are good, what would three years do?’ I started putting it into competitions, letting my peers take a look at it. It hangs in with the big guys.” The wine retails for $38. “It’s high for the county, but there are a few others out there,” says McGeary’s wife Pam. “We’ve never priced a bottle of wine that high. But people are buying it because they love it.”
People are buying it. People are driving ridiculous distances to buy it (or at least driving out of their way as they head off to Anza-Borrego). Back in 2000, McGeary had 14 acres bearing fruit, and production was anywhere between 850 and 1300 cases. Now, it’s 28 acres and 2000 cases, with roughly 10 percent growth in production per annum. And he sells what he makes.
While we chat on the covered patio outside the tasting room, two newish SUVs rumble across the gravel in the parking lot and disgorge a couple of couples. One couple takes a moment to point out to the other the two tiny cabins off to the left. “They’re kits,” McGeary tells me. “There’s a company out of Lake Tahoe that puts them out, and they cost $5000 each. We bought them for family and friends, but a customer from Arizona asked, ‘Do you rent those out?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’ So we rent them for $110 a night.
“We put them on the website, and we get requests from all over the United States and Europe. They’re booked an average of seven or eight days a month. People just want to be out here.” It’s quiet and it’s bucolic, and besides, “They want to see vineyards. They’re curious about how the grapes are grown, how the wine is made.”
Meanwhile, in the tasting room, the couples are making their way through the lineup of reds and whites, sipping as they listen to the spiel — the Merlot won six awards at various competitions, the ’06 Cab smells like smoke because of fires in the area that year. (“You have to have a diverse product line for walk-in customers; you can’t do it with just two wines,” says McGeary.) They’re gathering bottles onto the counter by the register: one, two, three, and oh, how about some of that Variation 3, and maybe some Port? Pam mentions the wine club — a case a year, mailed to your doorstep. One of the guys starts filling out an application.
“We must be doing something right,” marvels McGeary. “Pamela puts it very well: ‘You make it; I’ve got to sell it. If it doesn’t taste good, then I can’t sell it, and the dogs and cats don’t eat.’ But really,” he adds, “for 85 percent of the California wine industry, it’s consumer direct.” This is how you survive — not through the grocery stores or bottle shops, not through the restaurants. “It’s 100 wineries — out of 1685 in the state of California — that are really movers and shakers. And then there’s the rest of us. I’m resigned, satisfied with being part of ‘the rest of us.’” He points to a sign over his desk, a quotation from Teddy Roosevelt: “Do the best you can with what you have.” “That’s the motto around here.”
Case in point: “I’m taking every roofed structure on the property and converting it to winery use — retail sales, manufacturing, warehousing.” The tour of the grounds takes me into warehouse-garages, through a lab built from rock dug out of the ground during an irrigation project, and near to a rusting shed undergoing conversion into a home office. “These are the growing pains of a small winery — you push things around and massage them and keep things going.”
And things are going and growing. “Something is beginning to happen,” muses McGeary. A couple of doctors with lots of money and no time bought 17 acres in Oak Grove, and they called on him to oversee the property’s vineyard development. On the winemaking end, “There’s a couple of guys who have been gauging the industry. They’re coming in and looking to develop a niche like the one that was developed in Napa years ago. One where they don’t grow grapes and they don’t make the wine; they just get the fruit custom-crushed to their specifications, get it bottled and labeled, and then market it. They want to do it here in San Diego — not someplace else. There are some things that are starting to drive the industry that are brand new, and I still haven’t got my finger on quite why.”
La Serenissima isn’t McGeary’s only neighbor up on the slopes of Mount Palomar. There’s Orrin Vineyards & Winery, and there’s Hawk Watch, and there are the vineyards that McGeary helped Steve Hagata plant for his Las Piedras wines. Hagata, whose day job is at Temecula’s Falkner Winery, was one of the first people I ever interviewed for “Crush.” (What I wrote way back when: “His Las Piedras Syrah has been well received — a clean, varietally correct effort — and his Sangiovese is one of my favorite such wines from California.” And both were available at the WineSellar & Brasserie — a rare thing, then as now, to find local wines in a high-end bottle shop.) What I didn’t know was that, back then at least, a healthy bunch of his fruit was coming from a youngish vineyard planted on Valley Center’s Triple B Ranch.
Remember Chris Broomell, the Vesper Vineyards winemaker who fled Santa Barbara for Valley Center? Turns out he was coming home, and the family vineyard was part of the reason why. “I’m fifth-generation; my family’s been here since the early ’50s — citrus, mainly. Then we got into hay farming — it’s farming, you know? You can never put all your eggs in one basket. And about 14 years ago, we said, ‘Okay, there’s a water shortage,’ and so we decided to do a test block of vineyards. Citrus takes about three to four acre-feet of water per year. Avocados are anywhere from three to six. With vineyards, you’re looking at .2 acre-feet a year. I have an old block of Merlot that’s at .01 or .02 because it’s got an established root system. We put in ten acres; I remember planting over Easter break when I was about 12.”