Ryan Baker was happy. Living by the beach in PB at the dawn of the millennium, working at Stone Brewing, and attending San Diego State. “I was, like, ‘Why would I go anywhere?’” he recalls. “I’ve always thought the people here had a really cool sense of community. I used to walk around during the PB Block Party thinking, Man, who does this anymore?”
The only problem, he says, was that “the whole point was to get into wine. I always told my buddies that if I could make wine in San Diego, I’d do it.” But a wine career can be tough to come by in SoCal, and “at some point, around 25 years old, I focused. Went up to Sonoma State, got a job at Suncé Winery, and started taking courses at UC Davis.”
The beer background served him well: he had traded beer with the Prager family of Jim Prager Winery & Port Works, and when Suncé owner Frane Franicevic let young Baker try his hand at a Muscat-based white port, Prager was happy to give counsel. The resulting wine went on to win a gold medal at the Orange County Wine Competition.
Five years later, his winemaking foundations laid, Baker left Suncé and headed south, landing a harvest job in Adam Tolmach’s well-regarded Ojai Vineyard winery. There, he got an education about the devil in the details. “Everything was so dialed-in. If you messed up anything — turned something off or left something on — that was it. You had to be wary of the details because it would show in the wine. Wine has memory. Cleanliness was everything.”
But the Ojai job lasted only through harvest, and Baker found himself combing the wine-business classifieds. It was there he found his invitation to come back to San Diego: Dave Wodehouse at Witch Creek Winery in Carlsbad was looking for a winemaker. Baker showed up for an interview and discovered he was a long way from Ojai. “My first response was ‘Holy moly.’ I’d seen urban wineries before,” but none quite so open to the outdoors. “The environment doesn’t lend itself to being socked away and super clean,” he explains. (“Clean,” here, having more to do with the regulation of microorganisms than, say, mud on the floor or old food on the counter.) “But you have your environment, and you make the wine in that environment. I saw the potential as well: being right downtown, bringing the wine to the people.”
Plus, Wodehouse was ready to upgrade where he could and set about gradually replacing his equipment. Thanks to those upgrades, gravity now does some of the work once done by pumps and hoses, reducing “potential points of infection.” Plastic flex tanks serve to age some of the wine after fermentation (it eventually gets blended back in with barrel-aged product). “The flex tanks don’t leach or wick wine the way barrels do, so I’m not topping off as often.” That’s good, because every time you pop the top and top off, “You get more air in there with the wine,” increasing your risk of microbial invasion.
(Baker notes that he’s using the tanks on just three of his wines, “and it’s our third year with them — I’m pretty careful about making major changes. It’s important to see what can be done over time. With the flex tanks, my biggest fear was that they would give a plastic taste to the wine.” So far, he says, they haven’t.)
Perhaps the biggest draw came from the wines themselves. “I saw that they were doing all these different varietals. For someone just getting into wine, it was a great introduction. Shauna Rosenblum does a similar thing at Rock Wall Wine Company. I asked her, ‘People always say you’re crazy for making so many wines, right?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘But how much fun is it?’ ‘It’s awesome.’”
“All these different varietals” runs the risk of being an understatement. Baker shows me a dry-erase board in the lab that shows the racking schedule: Petite Verdot, Barbera, Pinot Noir, Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Teroldego, Primitivo, Sangiovese, Syrah, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Aglianico, Sagrantino. Why so many? Partly because of Witch Creek’s business model — some 60 percent of the winery’s product is sold to members of the Witch Creek Wine club, and subscribers need variety to stay interested. Also partly because they can — one advantage of being an urban winery is that you get to pick your sources, instead of being tied to an estate vineyard.
Mexico is the winery’s largest supplier — Witch Creek’s Nebbiolo is made from the same grapes as Camillo Magoni’s L.A. Cetto version. “You taste it, and you know it’s from the Valle de Guadalupe,” grants Baker. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Every region has a characteristic — Dry Creek in Sonoma has a characteristic. You have to find out which grape works best with the region. I think Nebbiolo is one of them.” That doesn’t mean you don’t work on your fruit — it took Baker years to figure out how to correct for a certain salty character on the mid-palate of his Mexican wines — but it does mean you don’t try to make Baja Nebbiolo taste just like Italian Barolo.
After Magoni in Mexico comes Mike Heringer of Heringer Estates up in Clarksburg, who on occasion also helps with production. “I couldn’t make my Viognier the way I wanted to here, because we don’t have a chiller” for cold fermentation. “So I had it made in Clarksburg under my direction. I put 35 percent of it into medium-toast Virginia oak and let it go through malolactic fermentation,” which gives a buttery richness to a wine. “The rest of it had no malolactic.” The result finds the middle ground between Viognier that might as well be a bracing Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier that might as well be a buttery Chardonnay. (Clarksburg also serves as the source for Baker’s Pinot Noir rosé, a wine that highlights the lessons he learned in Ojai. “I was very careful in fining the wine because I wanted to keep some of the minerality, and you can fine that out in a heartbeat. We had to do these trials — one step too far, and it was all gone.” But it’s there in the finished product.)