Interviews and tours with winemakers at Kohill, Cactus Star, Woof'n Rose, Edwards, and Schwaesdall in Ramona, California.
That’s not to say it’s impossible to make money, but not a single winemaker with whom I spoke claims anything more than break-even status.
I queried Bill Schweitzer on the balance-sheet aspects of wine-making, starting with the acquisition of a suitable site. “Raw land is still relatively inexpensive here because prices haven’t been inflated yet by the wine industry. [The going price for unimproved land in Ramona appears to be around $15,000 an acre.] You’ll need at least three or four acres of grapes and a buildable lot. So, let’s say you’ve spent $200,000 so far. You’ve got to have an irrigation system, soil testing and amendments, and trellises. Root stock is $3–$4 per plant, and 600 plants per acre is about average. All of that is maybe $10,000 an acre if you do everything yourself, or double that if you have other folks do it all.”
Then comes the waiting. “You’ll get a half crop in three years,” says Schweitzer, “a full crop in five. You can expect approximately two tons of grapes per acre and each ton makes 48 cases or so of wine. Four acres equals roughly 400 cases, or 4800 bottles. If you wholesale it, you’ll be lucky to get $10 a bottle; so it’s easy to see why there’s no profit in selling it to large retailers.”
Which brings us back to the tasting room.
“If you’re personable and you have a pretty setting, you can sell a lot of wine at a tasting room,” says Schweitzer. And he’s pretty confident that those rooms are going to be packed in the near future. “There are 10 or 12 really high-quality wineries; it’s like visiting Napa in 1975 or Paso Robles in 1989.” One winemaker told me that in San Diego County, there are 80 or 90 bonded wineries.
Just south of Highland Valley Road, dusty flatland punctuated with downscale ruritania gives way to manicured, trellised hills topped with a dedicated winery. In this airy, high-ceilinged building, which gives off a clean, Modern Swedish vibe, it’s easy to see how nascent Napa prognostications might prove prescient. But not everyone wants to see an emerging Napa.
At Kohill Winery, I chatted with Scott and Tanya Pohlson, tasting-room regulars who make the short drive from Rancho Peñasquitos at least once a month. Whenever they run low, they pick up a half-dozen bottles, sometimes a case. “The problem is, if too many people find out about Ramona wineries, it’s going to get crowded. Don’t write anything good; I don’t want my special places to be ruined.”
But according to Kohill owner Mike Kopp, a tall, laconic guy from the upper Midwest, it’s not yet time to summon the fire marshal.
“Yesterday, we had a group of 20 attorneys ride up on horseback from the Mt. Woodson area, but some days, it’s just a car or two. You were the first people today, although the busiest time is between 3 and 5. I still get a lot of people that come in from San Diego who say, ‘There are wineries in Ramona?’ The word still hasn’t gotten out to everybody.”
Kopp didn’t grow up in a wine culture. “I was more of a hard liquor, beer kind of guy,” he admits. “I got into wine in the mid-’80s.”
An ex-Navy man who went to boot camp in San Diego, Kopp has eight acres of property with a little over two under cultivation and an output of 500 cases a year. I asked him, “Did you plant it yourself?”
“Of course. We all started out as home winemakers in the garage. Didn’t even have a business plan.”
I also asked Kopp, a retired industrial engineer, whether he’d recouped the 500 grand or so that he’s poured into the venture over the past couple of decades.
“I bought the property in 1988 for around $150,000. The first three years you make nothing, and we haven’t broken even yet.”
With a distance learning certificate from UC Davis (five semesters obtained online over two and a half years), he has more formal viticulture/enology education than most in the AVA, and his wines, notably “Aurora’s Red” (a meritage-style offering named after his wife), have garnered praise. Two of his bottlings, a full-bodied Viognier weighing in 15.7% ABV (alcohol by volume) and a raisiny 2008 estate-grown Barbera, are forcing me to reconsider the regional pecking order of California wines.
When I queried Kopp on the California wine-prestige hierarchy and the “Temecula question,” his answers echoed Bill Schweitzer’s.
“I would probably say we’re somewhere around Paso Robles. I don’t do a lot of wine-tasting in Temecula; there are some nice wines there. But people who come in say that Ramona Valley wines are a lot better than Temecula wines. The problem with Temecula is that it’s really not about the quality of the wine; it’s just about the tourism. Temecula used to be the way we are today.”
State and local comparisons aside, the dust has yet to settle from the ordinance struggle; it seems that a popular sport in the Ramona AVA is ratting on one’s rivals for alleged violations of the boutique-winery provisions. Kopp smiles.
“Some winemakers don’t understand what’s legal under the ordinance. We never quite know who’s turning in who. The county won’t tell you, so there’s a lot of speculation. I know who gets turned in because emails go around. [Kopp wouldn’t say whom.] But no one really knows who turned them in.”
But it’s not just a jealous competitor who might prove to be a snitch, because even after the ordinance had been approved, the self-styled “San Diego Citizenry Group” took the county to court to appeal the passage. Their mantra was, “We have banded together to fight against intrusions on our way of life in the backcountry of San Diego.” Although the officious intermeddlers lost, anti-winery activists haven’t given up — they just work incognito these days.
“There’s still opposition to wineries here,” notes Kopp. “Ramona was the center of it — a handful of individuals who didn’t want wineries next to them, even though it was zoned for agriculture. The feeling was, ‘This is my neighborhood. We don’t want agriculture here.’ But I always say, ‘If you don’t want a vineyard, I’ll put a chicken ranch in. Let’s see how you like that — or pigs.’ There could be worse things, that’s the point.”