Bonded wineries in the Ramona AVA are multiplying so fast that even among winemakers it’s impossible to get a precise tally on a given day. (As of October 1, 2013, the number had approached 25.) But there’s a consensus that the pioneer of Ramona wine is John Schwaesdall, whose eponymous, rough-hewn operation has turned out quirky bottlings since 1996.
“I’m the godfather of Ramona wine,” he announces to me. Born in Normal Heights, Schwaesdall, 63, attended Hoover High. He’s a big, voluble man with a graying ponytail and profile that broadcasts his maternal Cherokee roots. A roofer by trade, he looks like the kind of guy you’d associate more with an outlaw biker gang than with a brandy snifter, but Ramona winemakers don’t stand on ceremony.
Years before anyone spoke of niceties like an AVA, he revived a patch of vines planted in the early ’50s and built the winery that bears his name. Some folks in and around the chamber-of-commerce-ish “Valley of the Sun” call John Schwaesdall the “Johnny Appleseed” of Ramona wine. Schwaesdall Winery, like John himself, is old-style “San Diego local” all the way. There isn’t much pretense here, and back issues of the Wine Spectator are mighty scarce.
Just around the bend from Poway, not far from the flanks of Mt. Woodson, it’s shot through with old North County flavor — all boulders and oaks except for the old vines and a flock of sheep. The Schwaesdall Winery tasting room is a straw-bale structure with wood-beam ceilings, Americana knick-knacks, and a tall wooden sculpture by a local woodsman. Outside stands the Vietnam War memorial he put up a few years ago, and at the entrance hangs the winery sign (“the world’s biggest cork,” he says), crafted from a cedar felled on Mount Palomar.
Schwaesdall, in order to gain San Diego County’s imprimatur, was forced to wade through the time-consuming and costly major-use permit process. These days, courtesy of the “boutique wine ordinance” passed in 2010, it’s a lot easier and cheaper for aspiring local wineries to get started.
Perched at a far different place in Ramona’s socioeconomic spectrum is a newer wave of boutique winemakers, often made up of recently retired (or quasi-retired) couples in their 50s or 60s. A disproportionate number are engineers and only a handful are locals.
At Woof’n Rose Winery, the dog and flower leitmotif on labels and signage remind you that you aren’t at Gallo or Mondavi. This is wine-tasting at the intimate end, because when you taste wine in Ramona, you’re often at someone’s home, or at least in the garage. And it’s in a converted garage filled with neat rows of wooden casks that Steve and Marilyn Kahle mostly turn out reds, which (at least so far) have ruled the roost in the Ramona AVA.
As is the case with many of Ramona’s winemakers, the Kahles also revel in experimentation, such as a one-off take on a somewhat obscure old-world dessert wine, Pineau des Charentes. Slicker than Cactus Star but still “family” by anyone’s definition, Woof’n Rose welcomed a steady stream of tasters on the afternoon I visited, with Steve Kahle holding forth on things like scion wood and clones.
A cursory glance at their label’s doggerel (“We invite you to sip our wine in your quality time. Time to smell the roses…Time to kiss puppy noses”) might lead one to dismiss the wine inside as schlock, but it’s serious stuff made with evident pride and expertise, much of it from estate-grown grapes. If you have the time, Steve Kahle will explain how they chose the recondite names of their bottlings. “Eglantine,” one of their standouts, is named for a “dog rose.” Described as a “Bordeaux-style blend,” it’s 40 percent Cabernet Franc, 40 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and 20 percent Merlot. But wine-making in Ramona isn’t all tasting notes and poetry.
“See those fence posts? I drove all 412 of them by hand,” says Andy Harris of Chuparosa Winery. Close to the east end of the valley, spicy Zinfandels are coming to life. Harris (yet another engineering type), who hails from Pocatello, Idaho, and his wife Carolyn, an attorney, are serious students of wine and boosters of the Ramona AVA. However, at Chuparosa, prospects of rapid expansion and publicity in Ramona’s wine country are met with tempered enthusiasm.
I asked the Harrises about scale and growth. There are four acres of vines planted here, yielding 2.7 tons of fruit per acre. Toss in a permissible passel of non-Ramona fermentables, and we’re talking 685 cases a year, somewhere in the mid-range in these parts. The Harrises express strong opinions about the building “buzz” and what it might mean for Ramona wine. Although Chuparosa (hummingbird in Spanish), like several other Ramona wineries, has gained a fervent, albeit small following of grape-heads, they say they have no interest in selling 90-dollar bottles of wine. Andy Harris sounds a stern note: “We don’t want to grow if that means pricing out vinophiles.”
At the same time, he also rejects the suggestion that promoting Ramona wine necessitates bashing Temecula: “That’s unfair.”
Nonetheless, among the tasting room visitors I met, the word is out: San Diegans can taste better wine, onsite in their own backcountry, than they can quaff (with some exceptions) across the Riverside County line. There’s also stylistic diversity here.
According to Harris, the youth of Ramona’s wine industry allows for, even encourages, varietal excursions not always found in Napa or Sonoma. Although Ramona is largely associated with reds, the Harrises are enthused about planting Albariño (a Spanish white grape) in January, with the first bottles emerging in the fall of 2017 or thereabouts.
Getting to a place where Ramona wine is no longer viewed as a novelty but as a contender among the cognoscenti has taken years of detours through the thicket of San Diego County’s bureaucracy. It’s one thing to craft fine wine, but if you harbor notions of selling it to others, you’ll have to placate politicians and their carping rural constituents.