Dennis Grimes spends the first half-hour of every day “tending to Twitter, being a cheerleader” for Ramona Valley wine. From September 6 of this year: “94F today, 47F low & 83F tomorrow Ramona Valley AVA near San Diego — Our terroir — Why we grow medal-winning wine.” Then a link to an article he wrote for winetastingsandiego.com, explaining why the hot days and cool nights are good for maintaining acidity in ripening wine grapes. The article comes complete with a photo series, taken at Grimes’s own Eagles Nest Winery, showing the morning sun chasing the evening fog from the valley floor below.
“According to WeFollow,” says Grimes, “we’re the number two most influential winery on Twitter, right behind Crushpad.” Recently, he gave a talk at a wine-bloggers’ conference in Sonoma about why small wineries tweet harder. Short answer: cheerleading. “Big wineries know who we are because of Twitter. ‘Who is this winery in Ramona?’ ‘Nobody knew that Ramona could make good wines.’ ‘I didn’t even know they had wine in San Diego.’”
It’s the same reason Grimes is entering competitions ranging from New York’s Finger Lakes event to San Diego’s to Ramona Valley’s to the National Women’s. (The medals he’s won from each — 30 in the past year alone — drape the bottles on display in the luxe-minded vacation cottage tucked into the winery grounds.) The same reason his wife Julie — who works at the winery when she’s not teaching computer science at Southwestern — put so much into building the Eagles Nest website. (“People see it and think we’re a lot bigger than we are,” admires Dennis.) When you’re a small winery with less than ten years under your belt at the edge of a fairly new American viticultural area, with no distribution, no restaurant presence, and no tasting room, you gotta find a way to show off your operation.
And it’s a pretty ship-shape operation. The Grimeses, who bought the hillside property in 2003, built it from the ground up — including the wood-fired pizza oven down by the picnic tables. “The only thing here was the house,” says Dennis. “Everything else, we did. We kind of got into this to try to have a healthier lifestyle — the vineyards keep you working outside, keeping you grounded.”
Be careful what you wish for. Dennis didn’t drink much before he started a winery. And while he admires the social virtues of the grape — “people get relaxed, they share higher-level thoughts, they connect” — he still doesn’t drink much. “I generally don’t have wine in the middle of the week; I have too much work to do. We’re pioneers here, and we’ve worked very hard to establish this. People visit and think I’m the day labor. Between pruning, vine-positioning, leaf-pulling, crop-dropping, and harvesting, you’re probably looking at 200 man-hours per acre.”
Those vineyards, which cover every usable block of the sloping property, are immaculate, thanks to four Babydoll sheep who mow down the weeds around the vines. The nets protecting the ripening grapes roll neatly from the irrigation dripline that runs along the trellis — a trick Julie picked up at the wine-blogger conference she attended with Dennis. Long, low mounds of manure between the rows serve as food for worms; their casings go to fertilize the vines. “We’re not certified organic,” says Grimes, “but we’re practicing organic farming. I’m not putting toxic chemicals on my plants or into the soil. I think that low-impact farming in a premium operation works. It costs you more, but if you’re making premium wines, you can absorb the extra production costs.”
That is, if you can sell your wine. Many Eagles Nest wines (and there are many, including an interesting dessert wine made from Picpoul Blanc) sell for somewhere between $25 and $35. That’s a lot of money for a flying leap into largely untested waters. Grimes sympathizes; it’s why he wants a tasting room. “I’m not going to buy a $20, $30, $40 bottle of wine that I haven’t sampled. It’s mission critical. Our wines have been well received, and I think the tasting room will help us begin to dig ourselves out of the financial hole we’re in.”
Of course, as of August 4 of this year, there is reason to hope that a tasting room will in fact happen. That’s when the San Diego County Board of Supervisors passed the Tiered Winery Ordinance, allowing small wineries such as Eagles Nest to open a tasting room on winery grounds without obtaining a (horrifically expensive) major-use permit. Grounds for celebration, though Dennis is quick to note that small wineries like Eagles Nest “are still going to have to run the Department of Planning and Land Use gauntlet, and they’re still going to have to go through relicensing with the state Alcoholic Beverage Control board. My estimation is that it will be four to six months before we see any new tasting rooms.”
And while the county board of supervisors didn’t put anything into the ordinance about restrictions for private-road wineries like Eagles Nest, there are still the neighbors to deal with — some of whom object rather strenuously to the notion of wine-tasters driving past their homes. Grimes notes that tasting-room opponent San Diego Citizenry Group has expressed its intent to file suit in an effort to block the ordinance. Says Grimes, who is adamant about his right to use ag-zoned land for agricultural purposes (including commercial activity), “My hope is that, after the ordinance gets passed and people realize that this is actually good for the area, the hard feelings will diminish.”
“Good for the area” is the key here. Yes, there are occasional solo breakouts such as New Mexico’s Gruet, but as a rule, it’s the region that makes things move. Think Napa Cabernet, or Dry Creek Zinfandel. The Grimeses get that — it’s why they run winetastingsandiego.com in addition to their own site. “We named it that so we could include other wineries,” explains Julie. “When we win awards, we’ll post that, but the site covers anything in the industry.” The goal is to sell Eagles Nest wine, but a big part of that effort involves selling Ramona Valley — and San Diego in general — as a serious wine region. Hence the AVA namedrop in that September 6 tweet. “The reason we’re going after all these medals is that it’s beneficial to everybody,” concludes Dennis. “There are thinking people saying, ‘Ramona needs about 60 places like this, and we could be a miniature premium-wine destination.’”