My wife said, “It’s almost a religious experience.” She wasn’t talking about a psychedelic sunset or a sweat lodge, but wine-tasting in Ramona, where folks like Joe Cullen are putting magic in a bottle.
On an unseasonably cool late-September afternoon, Cullen, fresh from picking, met us at his place and showed us the apparatus that comprises a one-man winery. Never having witnessed the actual machinations of vinting before, I didn’t know a de-stemmer from a hydro-presser. Pointing to a little John Deere rig filled with pomace, the residue left after pressing, he invited us to roll it in our hands. He gestured to a shed where a 70-gallon fermentation tank made of cylindrical white plastic held freshly fermented Syrah rendered from 820 pounds of grapes. With a long-handled ladle, he dipped into the tank and offered a taste of embryonic wine. So, we drank the sweet, unfiltered juice, and proclaimed it “sublime.”
“I’m ‘micro,’” quips Cullen, who’s also purple from head to toe. It’s pressing time at Cactus Star Vineyard at Scaredy Cat Ranch and the crew — that would be Joe — is immersed in the process of turning just-picked clusters of Syrah grapes into young wine. We’ve made our way here via the twists and turns of Ramona’s least prosaic roads, the ones that lead oenophiles beyond the ramshackle shacks of rusted ruritania to the cloistered acres where artisanal wines are born.
Self-taught, Cullen’s first exposure to enology was in Dushore, Pennsylvania, which he calls “a dot on the map,” a burg so small that even today it has only one traffic light. “I grew up on a dairy farm, and we made wine. It wasn’t good wine,” he chuckles, “but we made wine.” Eventually, after earning an electrical engineering degree from Penn State (he designs controls for steel mills), he succumbed to the call of the grape. “I started out in my basement in Pittsburgh; it was a pretty big basement, actually. There was this wholesale produce market called ‘the strip’ that was open from midnight to 5:00 a.m. You could buy just about any kind of grape you wanted, so that was exciting. They’d truck them in from California.”
The essence of wine, what it means to witness — to taste, smell, and feel the process of transforming grape to juice to wine — seems to flow across Cactus Star. Imbued with a sense of spirituality, it consists of no more than a cluster of southwestern-style, tile-roofed structures built by Cullen. The smallest bonded winery in Ramona, it’s a one-horse, two-dog ranchette, studded with big slabs of granite and the occasional cholla cactus. But the scenery would be of little import if the finished product weren’t superb, which I think is. The intense raspberry essence that Cullen is able to coax from his Grenache, for example, indicates that this is serious wine made by a man who doesn’t take himself too seriously.
Notwithstanding the understated humility of Cullen and other small-acreage artisans, the quality of Ramona’s wine hasn’t gone unnoticed. Bill Schweitzer, who grows grapes under the banner of Paccielo Vineyards (but doesn’t make wine) is vice president of the Ramona Valley Vineyard Association. I asked him to compare the Ramona wine scene to Temecula’s. “They have more limos, but we make better wine. I regard Temecula as the kind of place you go for a bachelor party or a wedding.” Schweitzer, whose Nebbiolo plantings bring top-dollar around these parts (a dollar a pound) thinks that San Diegans who venture up to Temecula for grape fermentations are missing out on serious squeezin’s right in their backyard.
“Backyard” is an apt expression, because the boutique wine revolution roiling the Ramona Valley is at the mom ’n’ pop end of the scale continuum. Certainly, the grape growing sector of the wine business in Ramona remains small-scale. “We’re gentlemen farmers,” quips Schweitzer, whose viticulture group has around 80 members. Most of the growers have four acres or less under cultivation, but according to Schweitzer, they all have an advantage over Temecula. “We have a better micro-climate; it’s cooler.”
If you want to tour the heart of Ramona’s wine country, don’t follow the crowds. Washboard dirt roads, wrong turns and small signs, it’s the antithesis of corporate enology. Ramona vineyards are inconspicuous; you’ll see horses before you’ll see the vines. You’ll notice chickens, goats, sheep, a big-humped Brahma bull or two, but not many tourists. When you get to streets with names like Chablis Road, you’re there: you’re in the Ramona Valley AVA, pardner. AVA? That’s an American Viticultural Area, a prestigious designation awarded to Ramona in 2006, one of only three (the others are San Pasqual Valley and Temecula) in Southern California.
And it’s there you’ve got to be. Because if you want to savor the flavor of Ramona’s finest, don’t reconnoiter the shelves of your nearby big-box grocer. With the notable exception of the Ramona Albertsons, as well as independent grocer Major Market in Escondido, San Diego area supermarkets don’t stock them. Neither do most bottle shops, save for nearby Holiday Wine Cellar and a few others. But it’s not a question of quality, say the winemakers; it’s simply not possible for a tiny producer (we’re talking as few as 300 cases a year) to make money selling wholesale. If you find a Ramona wine at a retailer, says Cactus Star’s Cullen, “It’s for the exposure.” As a consequence, the action (and profits, if any) is still at the tasting room.
San Diego County ordinance No. 10067, adopted on August 4, 2010, regulates where and when the county’s wineries can sell wine, as well as where the grapes must originate and how much can be made. All told, the ordinance is far more proscriptive than prescriptive: in exchange for doing away with the exorbitant and red tape-draped major use permit, wineries falling under the aegis of the ordinance are barred from doing a multitude of things. Want to cook food on the premises? Sorry, can’t do that. Weddings, birthday parties? Nope. Amplified music? No way, no how. And one more thing. You’d better kick out your guests before the sun goes down.