Kerry Damskey in the lab. "Nobody puts gamay on the table at a fancy dinner party."
  • Kerry Damskey in the lab. "Nobody puts gamay on the table at a fancy dinner party."
  • Image by Jim Coit
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

In one corner of Kerry Damskey’s office is a counter littered with glass tubes, graduated cylinders. Bunsen burners, and small bottles with labels on them such as “Kesosol" and “T27 Lot 2.” The counter is both a workbench and a kind of playpen: Damskey enormously enjoys balancing acids, testing for protein haze stability, adding fining agents, and the myriad of other experiments he performs there. Visitors to the office are likely to find him at the counter, peering into a flask while muttering to himself something like, “Let's see, nine point two milliliters, so that means acid of point six nine, which is low. . ."

Micky Fredman and Charles Froehlich got the idea to grow grapes in San Diego while boating through France’s Loire Valley.

Micky Fredman and Charles Froehlich got the idea to grow grapes in San Diego while boating through France’s Loire Valley.

Damskey is thirty years old, and with his curly long hair, his sleepy-looking countenance that often dissolves into a sly smile, his battered boots with rainbow-colored shoelaces, he could easily be taken for a hip version of a mad scientist. But the things he experiments with are wines, and according to him that means he is not just a scientist.

After checking with wine experts from the University of California at Davis, they arranged to lease 250 acres  from the city of San Diego for about $20,000 a year.

After checking with wine experts from the University of California at Davis, they arranged to lease 250 acres from the city of San Diego for about $20,000 a year.

To be a winemaker you must be both a scientist and a romantic, he says, and Damskey is a winemaker. More than that, he is a winemaker in San Diego County, a descriptive term that until recently would have brought hoots of derision from the nation's wine connoisseurs. These experts had long agreed that San Diego's temperatures arc far too high for growing most wine grapes, and as for the soil and the water — well, everyone knows the county is practically a desert. It’s a place where housing tracts grow, not wine grapes. What are you going to do, plant vineyards in people's back yards? In front of shopping centers, for landscaping? And even if you got to the point where you had the juice and put it into bottles, what would you call it? Cotes du El Cajon? Chateau Nuits San Chargers?

It was time to plant the vineyard: about one hundred acres of gamay, petite sirah. chenin and sauvignon blanc, semilion, and muscat canelli vines, most of which were purchased from a Fallbrook nursery.

It was time to plant the vineyard: about one hundred acres of gamay, petite sirah. chenin and sauvignon blanc, semilion, and muscat canelli vines, most of which were purchased from a Fallbrook nursery.

It turns out you call it San Pasqual. after the valley where the grapes are grown. The valley winds through low rocky hills just east of Lake Hodges, and the winery at which Damskey presides is perched on a nearby knoll that looks down on San Pasqual Road. It has been almost eight years since San Pasqual winery set out to prove it is possible to produce and bottle premium wines in San Diego County, and under Damskey's direction the winery has not only proved that but has become one of the top two or three wineries in Southern California.

Thirty stainless steel tanks for storing and fermenting wine were purchased at the price of three dollars per gallon of capacity.

Thirty stainless steel tanks for storing and fermenting wine were purchased at the price of three dollars per gallon of capacity.

In Damskey’s first year here, San Pasqual won three gold medals at major California wine competitions; since then they have won four more golds and a pair of silvers. Sales have increased steadily and are expected to reach about $900,000 this year. Winemaking is one of the oldest and most complex businesses in the world, and in California it is one of the most competitive, so it is all the more amazing that almost overnight San Pasqual has established a reputation as a quality winery and has more than held its own.

A bottling machine the size of a small roadside fruit stand cost $30,000.

A bottling machine the size of a small roadside fruit stand cost $30,000.

Yet all is not well in San Diego's valley of the grape. It takes millions of dollars to start up a winery, even a relatively small one such as San Pasqual , and despite its success the winery is still in the red. Sales have grown, but the huge stigma of a San Diego County wine has not really been overcome. And the climate is a limiting factor; chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon grapes do not grow particularly well here, and those make up what are currently the two most popular varietal wines in California.

Damskey: “The style I’m going for is crisp, clean, dry, high acids."

Damskey: “The style I’m going for is crisp, clean, dry, high acids."

“San Pasqual really has two strikes against it," says Dan Berger, a wine critic for the San Diego Union whose column appears in a hundred newspapers nationwide. ‘‘The first strike is their location. . . . People's feelings die hard, and a lot of people won't get it out of their minds that there is no decent wine being made down here. Being forced to make varieties that are currently not very popular is the second strike against [the winery]. Wine people tend to be a little snobbish, and when you have a fancy dinner party you want to put a cabernet or a [French] bordeaux on the table. Nobody puts gamay on the table at a fancy dinner party, and that’s San Pasqual's number-one red wine.”

There are other problems, too; Damskey must work in a kind of vacuum here because of the scarcity of other wineries and vineyards in the area, and some of his wines have been mediocre. Still, as Berger points out, “They've made some mistakes, but [the winery] is still to be considered a success in terms of what Southern California has done. If you just look at San Pasqual as a winery and ignore the fact that they’re in San Diego, they're just another winery. They make some nice, drinkable wines. But when you put it into the context of where they are located, I think they're a great success story. If you go back ten years, there probably wasn't a soul, outside of Judge [Charles] Froehlich and Micky Fredman, who believed you could make premium wine in this area."

Fredman and Froehlich, the two founding partners of San Pasqual winery, got the idea to grow grapes in San Diego while boating through France’s Loire Valley on a canal barge in 1972. They had chartered the barge, with its private chef, to take them through the valley, which is a prime wine-making region. During the day the two men and their wives would tour local villages and wineries, and at night they would eat gourmet dinners aboard the barge — rabbit braised in sherry, roast duck with white wine sauce. Under these circumstances owning a vineyard began to seem like a pretty good idea, and the two men decided to investigate the business back in San Diego “more or less as a lark," recalls Froehlich.

A former superior court judge who retired from the bench in 1982, Froehlich had dabbled in growing avocados around his North County home, and the experience had taught him that the trees were a tremendous tax shelter. Grapes turned out to be just as attractive economically. Because the vines don't produce any fruit for the first three years, everything the two men spent on the vineyard during that time would be tax deductible. Froehlich and Fredman located an agricultural preserve owned by the City of San Diego — an area zoned for agriculture to protect the watershed of Lake Hodges from development — and, after checking with wine experts from the University of California at Davis about soil and climate information, they arranged to lease 250 acres for about $20,000 a year (the precise yearly amount depends on the value of San Pasqual's crop and the amount of retail sales at the winery). The lease agreement was a key to the success of the venture; by leasing land, Froehlich and Fredman avoided buying exorbitantly expensive acreage near the coast that they needed to produce grapes. "We were not interested in land speculation, and besides, to buy land and then find out you can't grow good grapes on it would have been foolhardy,” explained Fredman, whose law firm — Frcdman, Silverberg and Lewis — specializes in business clients. “After spending a lot of time with the people from Davis, we knew we could grow grapes here. But until the area is actually proven, you don't know whether you'll be able to make good wine from the grapes you grow."

In a way, though, it hardly mattered. Froehlich and Fredman were interested in growing grapes, but they weren't interested in making any wine. Their plan was simply to be growers, and then sell their grapes to various wineries. Sixteen investors for the vineyard were found (including Froehlich and Fredman) who could each put up $40,000 to $80,000 over eight years. Nearly all of them were local doctors and lawyers, the kind of people who always seem to be making money faster than they can think up ways to avoid giving it to the Internal Revenue Service. With a total of S1.2 million committed from these investors, and a short-term agricultural loan of $500,000 more, it was time to plant the vineyard: about one hundred acres of gamay, petite sirah. chenin and sauvignon blanc, semilion, and muscat canelli vines, most of which were purchased from a Fallbrook nursery. The drip-irrigation system alone cost $5000 per acre.

The planting was completed in 1973, but within a year or so, Froehlich recalls, “it became apparent that we were doing something that every other tax-shelter group in California was also doing." Acreage planted to wine grapes in the state had more than doubled between 1961 and 1974. Faced with the possibility that they would be unable to sell their crop. Froehlich and Fredman did the only thing they could — they decided to make wine out of it. Instead of planting the remaining 150 acres, they left the land uncultivated and built a winery. Thirty stainless steel tanks for storing and fermenting wine were purchased at the price of three dollars per gallon of capacity — and San Pasqual's tanks hold more than 3600 gallons each. American and French oak barrels for aging the wines were brought in, at an average cost of about $200 each; the winery needed a couple of hundred of them. A bottling machine the size of a small roadside fruit stand cost $30,000. (“A winery is such a hole that you keep throwing money into, it's amazing," Damskey said not long ago.) When the winery was completed in 1976, it was little more than a sheet-metal warehouse with a trailer in front for offices — a far cry from the moss-covered chateaux that can be found in the Napa and Sonoma valleys. But it was fully equipped. Unfortunately, the first winemaker who was hired seemed to understand winemaking machinery better than he understood wine. In 1979 Froehlich and Fredman fired him and turned to Kerry Damskey.

Damskey grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, and remembers how excited he got when his father, who was a wine lover, took the family to local wineries during the fall harvest. After high school Damskey was considering various career alternatives when his father suggested winemaking. It didn't take Damskey long to make up his mind. “Winemaking has a romantic quality. It will always be that way," he says. “That's why I was attracted to it. I started at Sonoma State, then transferred to UC Davis [a school that has produced many of the nation’s top enologists, as winemakers are technically known]. Wow, what a shock. The classes for enology majors were the same ones the pre-med students had to take: calculus, chemistry, statistics, biochemistry, microbiology. . . . There was one class called 'Distillation' in the catalogue. It sounded interesting. You know, you think, 'Hey, brandy production!' But it was all chemical engineering. I hated it."

(“Think about what you have to learn to be a decent winemaker,” Dan Berger noted recently. “It's not like making ketchup. First of all you have to learn about soil and weather, which is like geology, basically. Then you have to learn about botany, because you have to be sure that the plants you choose are compatible with the soil and weather you have. After you learn those sciences, you have to learn chemistry and microbiology, because those are the things that [are the key to] the fermentation. You should also know something about design, because the label is critical to sales. And then, overriding the entire thing, are marketing and merchandising, because if you don't understand them you’ll never make a nickel.”)

Damskey not only hung in at UC Davis but established a reputation as a promising winemaker. After graduating in 1976 he went to work for Guild Wineries, a huge co-op In central California that produces millions of gallons of wine each year, much of it bottled under the Cribari and Cresta Blanca labels. He worked for one year in Guild's research department and then became winemaker at a five-million-gallon-a-year winery owned by the co-op in Lodi. After two years there,“ I really wanted out. A winery that size is a factory. There’s no room for creativity, and I wanted to experiment. I tried to experiment a few times, and I was told that any ideas about experimenting would come from top management. They were looking for consistency.”

Damskey began looking around for another job, and eventually he got in touch with Froehlich and Fredman through a professor at UC Davis (the two partners in San Pasqual had approached the university about finding a winemaker). At first, Damskey concedes, he was dubious about working for a winery in San Diego. “I thought, ‘What? They don’t grow grapes in San Diego.' When I visited for the first time — I had never been to San Diego — I thought it looked like the moon.” Actually, San Diego County was the first county in California to produce wine grapes. In the 1770s Franciscan monks moved northward from San Diego to Sonoma, establishing a series of missions as they went, and at each mission they planted vines that produccd black, sweet grapes for making wine. (The mission grape, as it came to be known, is still blended into some California sherries.) By the early 1900s a few wineries had sprung up in the county, run by Italian and French immigrants who grew their grapes near Escondido and Vista. The arrival of Prohibition in 1919 temporarily slowed the expansion of the wine business here, but a few grape growers survived by selling grapes to home vintners, according to Gaspar Ferrara, Sr., whose father founded the Ferrara winery in Escondido in 1929. When Prohibition was repealed in 1934 local wineries began to proliferate again, and by the early 1940s there were some thirty-five of them in the county, including one at the comer of India and Market streets in downtown San Diego and another at Twelfth and Market. Ferrara says that nearly 8000 acres of vineyards existed in the county at that time in places such as Escondido, El Cajon, Ramona, San Marcos, and Poway. The most popular grape varieties were muscat, carignane, grenache, and zinfandel. But the unirrigated vineyards were dependent on natural rainfall, and in the mid-Forties a series of dry years turned grape growing in San Diego into a particularly risky venture. The spread of Pierce’s disease — a bacterial disease that can kill grapevines within two years transmitted by voracious leaf-hopper bugs — didn't help, either. The dry weather continued almost unabated for thirty years, and the sons of winemakers drifted off to look for other ways of making money. When Gaspar Ferrara, Sr. took over the family winery in 1950. there were seven wineries in Escondido; eight years later there were only two, and today there is only one: Ferrara Winery.

On his first visit to San Diego, Damskey quickly realized that San Pasqual’s location was well suited to growing wine grapes. It was within fifteen miles of the ocean, and almost all the premium wine grapes in California are planted near the coast. The vineyards were watered with drip irrigation, and the sandy soil on the valley’s lower slopes was well drained — important because, as he puts it, “grapes don't like to get their feet wet.” The valley was hot, but not too hot. “Grapes like warm days — ninety to ninety-five degrees — and cool evenings — about sixty degrees,” notes Damskey. “There’s a breeze through the valley almost every afternoon, and in the summer the morning fog keeps the temperatures down. Winemaking is definitely more challenging in San Diego {than it is in northern California], because the grapes don’t come in with acid ratios that are as high. They’re more difficult to ferment. You have to really use your knowledge and expertise as a chemist. . . .But once I tasted the wines, I was impressed. There was potential.’’ More importantly to Damskey, who was only twenty-five years old at the time, there was also a chance to experiment.

Damskey was hired in June of 1979, and by mid-September San Pasqual’s large crop of gamay grapes was ready to pick. Hot Santa Ana winds that arrived a few days before the harvest rapidly drove up the sugar content of the grapes, and even began to dehydrate them a little, but Damskey was grateful for both of these effects. “The French say the vines have to suffer a little to produce the best wines,” he explains. “The less fruit you have on a vine, the more intense the remaining grapes will be. In some cases, and this is what UC Davis teaches, you give the vine everything it needs and then pluck some of the fruit off before it ripens — as much as half of it. It lowers production but raises the quality of the grapes. Most of the aroma and flavor constituents are either in the skin or close to it, too, so if the berry is small [or slightly dehydrated] you'll have a higher ratio of skin to grape size, more aroma, more flavor.”

When the sugar content of the gamay grapes reached exactly 23.5 percent (Damskey measured it by squeezing a few drops of juice onto a sugar refractometer, a flashlight-sized tool that works on the principle that different concentrations of sugar bend different amounts of light), the harvest began. In seven days 140 tons were picked, still the largest gamay crop San Pasqual has ever produced. The grapes were run through a crusher to remove the leaves and stems and break open the grapes, and powdered sulfur dioxide was added to kill any stray forms of wild yeast that might have invaded the fruit. ‘‘You want to add a known yeast culture to the juice, one that won’t produce any off flavors or off aromas,” Damskey says. Next the slushy mass of grapes was pumped from the crusher into huge stainless steel tanks and then “inoculated” with a French strain of yeast. For a week the grapes fermented in the refrigerated tanks, held at a constant temperature of about seventy-five degrees. During this time the skins tend to rise to the top of the tanks, so the juice was circulated over them several times in order to extract the maximum amount of color and flavor. After about seven days the fermentation was complete — all the sugar in the grapes had been converted to alcohol. The stuff in the tanks was already wine.

But it was still far from drinkable. The next step was to drain the tanks and then separate the skins and pulp from the juice, a step for which a wine press is utilized. There are several different kinds of wine presses, but all of them work by forcing the grape mixture against a fine screen; the juice drips into a tray and is saved, and the pulp and skins are scraped off the screen and thrown away. As Damskey began to drain the stainless steel tanks, however, he discovered that the two-inch-wide drain pipes on San Pasqual's tanks are almost ideally suited for clogging. “We actually had to scoop out the [grape mixture] and carry it by hand to the press in fifty-gallon buckets,” Damskey recalls. “It was dirty, messy — my God. The wine was so black it stained the floors. . . . But you can tell right away when a red wine is going to be good, and that's the way it was with the '79 gamay. Once it had fermented it was just intense.”

The pressed wine was pumped back into the stainless steel tanks so that a second kind of fermentation, one that would prevent the wine from turning cloudy or spritzy in the bottle, could be completed. A month later the wine was pumped into clean tanks and the dead yeast and other sediment that drifts to the bottom of the tank was cleaned out. (This process, called “racking,” was repeated several times.) Finally, in March, 1980, the dark purple liquid was pumped into barrels made of American oak. Damskey also had French oak barrels on hand, but American oak imparts a stronger and spicier taste to the wine stored in it, and he felt such a flavor would complement the exceptionally rich, dark gamay. “It’s very important for a winemaker to have a sense of direction” for a particular wine, he explains. “You should know not only what the classic style is for that variety of grape, but what variations your grapes have a potential for.” Since the barrels were new and therefore at their strongest and spiciest, the wine was kept in them for only ten months instead of the usual twelve. After six months Damskey tasted the wine for the first time, drinking half a glass culled straight from a barrel, and what he tasted practically made him jump out of his rainbow shoelaces. “Most gamays are light, soft, fruity, cherrylike,” he says. “This one had a nice balance, but it was deeper and more complex; it had almost a chocolaty, spicy character, more like a zinfandel.” It was unusual, but it was also delicious.

A few months before the gamay was bottled in June of 1981, it was pumped back into the stainless steel tanks. Damskey thought the wine had a little too much tannin — an astringent component of wine that causes one's mouth to pucker — and he wanted to tone it down a little. He could do this by adding a “fining agent,” a substance that would attract a small amount of the tannin, combine with it chemically, and settle out of the wine without altering it in any other way. Various fining agents can be added to change the color and flavor of wine in an almost limitless number of ways, and Damskey is fond of playing around with them. “Using fining agents is an art; I love it,” he says excitedly. “If the wine can be improved, then you should change it. But anything you do, you do first in the lab with a small quantity of wine. You don’t want to be experimenting on 4000 gallons.”

San Pasqual's vice president of marketing. Velvet Satin, opposed removing any tannin from the '79 gamay, and her opinion was shared by Fredman. “Gamay is a difficult item to sell,” Satin noted recently, “and it's easier to market something that is different. My attitude was, make it as distinctive as possible. Just being a charming gamay was not going to be enough." However, Froehlich sided with Damskey, and Damskey's opinion as winemaker eventually prevailed; the fining agent, egg white, was added and filtered out, and the gamay was bottled and stored for two months before being released for sale in August of 1981.

“We were hoping for gigantic sales.” Damskey recalls, “and we entered it in all the major wine competitions in California. That first year it won nothing; we got absolutely no response. And for the First time we realized. ‘Holy Moses, we’ve got 6400 cases of this stuff and no one's buying it.'

Damskey might have been concerned about the poor sales of his '79 gamay, but he had no reason to be concerned about his job; three other wines from his first year at San Pasqual won gold medals at major wine competitions in California. All 'three were awarded for white wines: chenin blanc, fume blanc, and muscat canelli. In the last eight years, medals have become more and more important in establishing a winery’s reputation for quality, even though, as local wine entrepreneur Paul Hebert of the Wine Connection points out, the meaning of the medals “has become increasingly diluted because of the number of competitions. From April to July it’s a roving circus” as county fairs all over the state sponsor wine competitions, he says. “They judge pigs, they judge flowers, and they judge wines.” The categories at these affairs are seemingly countless — at the Orange County Fair, for example, there are nine different categories for zinfandel alone, based on the price and sweetness of the wine — and frequently several gold, silver, or bronze medals are awarded in each category. Still, it is generally true that medal-winning wines are better than those that don’t win medals. And San Pasqual won its medals at the Orange and Los Angeles county fairs, which are judged by panels made up primarily of California winemakers and winery owners. Unlike many wineries, San Pasqual does not use medals as a major selling point, according to Velvet Satin, but she concedes the awards do lend credibility to her sales pitch and can be used to “reinforce" arguments that the winery is a quality one.

San Pasqual’s '79 gamay eventually won two silver medals at state competitions in 1982, once the wine had mellowed with age and experts got used to the idea that such a full-flavored red wine could be made from traditionally light gamay grapes. San Pasqual has now sold nearly all its stock of that wine, but it took several years and it taught the winery’s owners a valuable lesson: in spite of the fact that certain grape varieties such as gamay and muscat canelli grow well here, in spite of the fact you can make medalwinning wines out of them, it doesn’t mean those wines are going to be big sellers. “Gamay is a variety that isn’t really a marketable variety. And if you can’t sell it, don’t plant it,” says Damskey, summing up San Pasqual’s current marketing philosophy. Eleven of the winery’s original twenty-four acres of gamay grapes have accordingly been planted to other varieties, and Damskey says San Pasqual will produce only about 1000 cases of gamay varietal wine this year. The bulk of the gamay grapes will be used to produce sparkling wines and a gamay “nouveau.” The consumption of sparkling wines is rising at a faster rate than any other type of wine produced in California, making them an obvious choice for San Pasqual to produce; at the same time the winery is hoping to popularize nouveau, an unusually light wine, low in alcohol, that must be drunk almost immediately after fermentation. Something of a cross between wine and grape juice, nouveaus are a great tradition in France, where they are quaffed by the pitcherful. San Pasqual also recently purchased twenty tons of pinot noir grapes from vineyards in San Luis Obispo, and as of 1985 will have available a varietal pinoit noir, a mediumbodied red wine, to bolster their relatively limited production of red wines.

In addition to producing new wines, San Pasqual will be bottling its wine under a new, redesigned label this spring. And Froehlich believes the winery has developed a concrete marketing strategy for the first time. “When we started out, we thought we should have statewide distribution,” he explains. “But that’s very costly and you end up competing with people who can (spend a lot more on advertising] than you can. But nobody can do a better job in San Diego than we can, and so we’re concentrating our efforts in San Diego County and the neighboring counties — Orange and Los Angeles. We’ve discovered our market niche. If we make good wine, we think sooner or later everyone down here will drink it.”

When I asked Froehlich how much money San Pasqual spends on advertising each year, he made a circle with his thumb and forefinger, and smiled. The winery is simply not large enough to have an advertising budget, he insisted, a view that is shared by Hebert. “I don’t think they make enough wine to spend money on advertising,” said Hebert. “Twenty thousand cases (San Pasqual’s current annual production, which translates to 240,000 bottles) is I honestly not very much wine.” In the pantheon of California wineries San Pasqual is still only “boutique size,” Hebert said, which ranks them with the state's other small wineries. (Medium-size wineries, the next largest wineries, produce at least 50,000 to 100,000 cases a year, according to most industry standards.)

Satin noted that seventy-five to eighty percent of San Pasqual’s total output of wine is sold in San Diego County, “mainly to restaurants and retail shops that are interested in premium products. You would not find it, for instance, in Victoria Station . . . but it is at Top of the Cove and Mister A’s.” About 150 wine shops here carry San Pasqual wines. Satin continued, and at least one hundred local restaurants include it on their wine lists. “Five years ago it was like hitting your head against a wall trying to get people to [sell] the wine,” she said. “The main reason was the stigma of San Diego County not being known as a quality wine-growing region. Now people here are looking at the wine in a positive sense because it is from San Diego County. The explosion of wineries in Southern California has helped; it isn’t so unusual to have a winery down here anymore.” To help overcome customer reluctance to buy Southern California wines, San Pasqual also offers its line of wines — which is composed mainly of white wines such as chenin blanc. fume blanc, semilion, and muscat canelli — at about one dollar less per bottle than wines of equivalent quality and vintage from other wineries.

Nevertheless, Froehlich anti Fredman concede there are still many restaurants and wine stores in San Diego that don’t carry San Pasqual’s wines. Some of these outlets are undoubtedly clinging to the logic that if it is local it can’t be any good. “It’s funny how San Diego has not taken to this wine,” comments Dan Berger. “When you go out to a restaurant in the Santa Maria Valley or the Santa Ynez Valley, usually there’s a little sheet there that says, ‘We are proud to serve our local wines.’ You don’t see that very often in San Diego.”

More importantly, people in northern California and Los Angeles still tend to lump San Diego County together with other second-rate wine-producing regions. And if San Pasqual’s owners ever want to expand or establish a statewide reputation, these markets will have to be conquered. Mark Kliewer, a professor of viticulture at the University of California at Davis, said in a telephone interview not long ago that the notion San Diego is just too warm to produce premium wines “is not entirely gone now. I was born and raised in Escondido, and I have been very surprised by the quality of San Pasqual’s wines. Their muscat canelli and fume blanc are as good as any produced anywhere. But it’s really had to get over that stigma (of being an unproven wine-producing region]. It takes time.”

Damskey is well aware of that. A few years ago he returned to northern California to visit his parents, and he remembers that “it was embarrassing when I’d tell people I worked for San Pasqual winery in San Diego. They’d look puzzled. I sort of had to get out a map and show them where it was, explain, ‘Yeah, we grow grapes. . . The image of San Diego wines is changing, but it’s still not good. Most [wine] people think San Diego County is a desert.”

From the top of Muscat Hill you can see most of San Pasqual Valley spread out in front of you: the broad, brown, cultivated fields sprawling across the valley floor; the San Dieguito River winding through them like a blue canal; the houses clinging to green hillsides in the distance. A few weeks ago Damskey and I stood at the top of the hill, which rises steeply next to one of San Pasqual’s vineyards, and admired the view as a warm wind rippled our hair and the bushes at our feet. “This is one of my favorite places,” Damskey observed. “I always get a good feeling when I come here.”

Below us lay San Pasqual’s vineyards, the neat rows of vines stretching into the distance like waist-high fences. The winery itself was about a mile away, hidden on the far side of a hill. There is more than $2.5 million invested in San Pasqual winery now; some 125 people have invested in the venture in amounts ranging from $3000 up to Fredman’s $100,000 (he is San Pasqual’s single largest shareholder). When the winery offered a limited sale of stock last year, potential investors were told that the business was a risky one that seemed unlikely to pay dividends in the foreseeable future, yet about sixty people chose to put up their money anyway, attracted by the romance of the wine business and the advantages of buying special bottlings, as well as San Pasqual’s regular line of wines, at wholesale prices. To this day Froehlich and Fredman claim they have not pocketed any salaries (they have received additional shares in the winery as compensation for various services and infusions of cash), and San Pasqual has never shown a profit in any given year. But Fredman insists that “we’re not behind schedule. Historically, the small winery has not broken even for ten years. That means our break-even year is 1986 |ten years after the winery’s first wine was produced in 19761, and my feeling is we’ll make it easily.” Even then. Fredman concedes, the winery will not be a “top-notch business investment, the kind of thing a normal businessman would get involved in. . . . We started out to create a local winery and make premium wines. Now we’re looked on within the industry' as a winery that makes good wines. I guess that’s success. Not financially, maybe. . . .”

Froehlich points out there are two main reasons why it is hard to make money owning a winery. “One is the cyclical nature of the business, which is typical of agriculture. During a period of underproduction you make money, but California is in a period of overproduction now. During the early Seventies, wine consumption in the United States was going up six to ten percent a year. All of a sudden that stopped, and the growth in consump-' tion in the last five years has been only about one to three percent.

"The other thing is, Europe has overproduced wine grapes, and California’s wine industry is in tremendous competition with Europe. Right now the dollar is strong, and that means European wines are cheap by comparison. It’s the same situation as the U.S. steel industry, or any industry that has foreign competition. Production is cheaper overseas.” Froehlich paused, and gave a short laugh. “There used to be an old saw: ‘California wines are just as good as French wines.’ I hate to say it, but the situation now is, ‘French wines are just as good as California wines, and cost less.’ ”

Pierce’s disease has come back to haunt the vineyard; the leaf-hopper bugs that transmit the disease are especially numerous here, and San Pasqual is abandoning five acres of vines that have become infected. (Experts from UC Davis say that once grapevines have contracted the disease, there is no known method of eradicating it.) But despite such problems, Froehlich continued, San Pasqual “has been a success in terms of growing grapes and making wine. I see us being a winery that satisfies the wine desires of San Diego, mostly with our own grapes but in some cases with wine grapes purchased from other areas. I don’t think it will ever pay dividends . . . but we started out saying we weren’t looking for a profit. It was more of a civic-minded project, like contributing to the symphony or the zoo. It’s beneficial to the community.”

Talk such as that tends to sound a little like putting the best possible face on a venture that simply hasn’t paid off, and one local wine-industry expert, when told of Froehlich’s comments, responded emphatically, “That’s bullshit.” But Fredman, too, insists he and his partner have stayed in the winery business largely because they think it is fun. “One guy might like to collect good cars, another guy likes to collect beautiful women,” he says. “We like to make good wine.” And after all, Fredman can sit in his ocean-front house in Del Mar, watching the sun go down as he sips a glass of the finest vintage his winery can produce — a not unattractive prospect for someone who is already a millionaire.

Damskey also claims the rewards of working for San Pasqual are at least partly in the lifestyle. “In general, winemaking isn’t a business you get rich at,” he said as we stood at the top of Muscat Hill. “You can be comfortable |financiallyJ. I’m comfortable. You can also make a name for yourself. But the most important part for me is the quality of life that goes along with winemaking.” He pointed to his house, nestled at the foot of a hill at the eastern edge of San Pasqual’s leased property, a mile from the nearest dwelling in any direction. From his front porch Damskey has a panoramic view of the vineyards, and at night, he says, the stars are astonishingly bright. On weekends he and his wife, their daughter, and their dog Ivan (a huge Saint Bernard-Irish wolfhound mix) can lounge around with the stereo turned up as loud as they want, or they can go looking for the Canada geese that winter in the nearby fields — “beautiful and noisy,” Damskey describes them. “It’s so nice to live here and be so close to the city, too.

“It would be nice to have some other vineyards around. There is a kind of isolation here, but it’s mostly in winemaking terms. I miss discussing technical things with other enologists. I can count the other enologists in the county on one hand.”

We drove back to the winery in Damskey’s pickup, and once inside, he suggested we taste a few wines. Normally I would have protested vigorously — it was already late (four in the afternoon), and Damskey’s attempt to influence me with an alcoholic bribe seemed rather tawdry. But I wanted to be thorough, and besides, I needed practice in remaining aloof.

A few seconds later I was holding a glass of San Pasqual’s yet-to-be-released sparkling wine, which will be called blanc du noir. The wine is a blend of gamay, chenin blanc, and sauvignon blanc grapes, and like many white wines it has never seen the inside of an oak barrel. Instead, once fermentation has taken place in the stainless steel tanks, an additional amount of yeast is added and the wine is quickly bottled. A second fermentation takes place inside the bottle, producing nitrogen bubbles that give the wine a carbonated character. “The longer it spends in the bottle, the smaller the bubbles are and the better the wine is,” noted Damskey. “This has already been in the bottle for two years. Sparkling wine blends don’t taste that good at this point (in their aging] — they’re tart — but what I look for is a toasty, smoky aroma.” He explained that in a few months the bottles would be placed upside down in a rack and vibrated for a month or longer so that the yeast inside would collect in the neck. Then the necks will be frozen, the bottles opened, and the yeast removed. At the same time Damskey will add a dosage of sugar and a whisper of French cognac, and finally the bottles will be corked. Except for the vibrating, all the work is done by hand. “It’s so labor-intensive you wouldn’t believe it,” Damskey said with a wry smile. “The style I’m going for is crisp, clean, dry, high acids. We’re going to release it in June. We’ll have about 800 cases the first year, and it’s going to retail at about twelve dollars a bottle,” about medium range for sparkling wines.

Next we tasted a few of San Pasqual’s gamays, and then Damskey broke out a bottle of ’82 muscat canelli. The wine is made from a sweet white grape that is almost ideally suited to the county’s climate, and San Pasqual’s versions of this dessert wine have won more than one gold medal at statewide wine competitions. I took a sip. What can I say? I could say the wine had a well-rounded nose, flowery but not too aggressive, reminiscent of honeysuckle nectar on a spring day. I could say it was robust yet almost cunning in its assault on the tongue, as if a delicate truce had been declared between the sugars and the acids, and there had been no violations for some time. I could call it earthy, but not too earthy, vibrant but subdued, assertive yet not insubordinate.

But I’d rather just say it left me shaking my head and smacking my lips with every swallow. San Pasqual might have two strikes against it, as Berger says, but even in baseball people sometimes belt it out of the park after watching the first two pitches go by for strikes.

More Local Wineries

Southern California isn’t generally considered a prime wine-producing region, but in the last twelve years or so wineries have been proliferating rapidly in the area, spurred on by the huge success of the wine industry in northern California. Most of these new wineries and their sprawling vineyards are located on cool, north-facing hillsides near Temecula, in southern Riverside County, or in northern San Diego County’s coastal valleys, where ocean breezes keep summer temperatures down in the range grapes like the most. Some of the wines produced are the equal of Napa Valley's finest, and a few have won medals at the more prestigious annual statewide wine competitions, giving wines from Southern California increasing credibility among wine connoisseurs.

Below is a list of wineries located in or near San Diego County and the varieties they currently produce:

Bernardo Winery, 13330 Pasco del Verano Norte, San Diego. Founded 1889. Burgundy, claret, rose, chablis, chenin blanc, white table wines, vino de rosario, port, sherry, fruit wines.

Callaway Vineyard and Winery, 32720 Rancho California Road, Temecula. Founded 1974. Chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc. fume blanc. chardonnay, white riesling.

Cilurzo Vineyard and Winery, 41220 Calle Contento, Temecula. Founded 1978. Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc. cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir. petite sirah.

John Culbertson Winery, 2608 Via Rancheros, Fallbrook. Founded 1981. Sparkling wine (“champagne”).

Ferrara Winery, 1120 West Fifteenth Avenue, Escondido. Founded 1932. Johannisberg riesling, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, petite sirah, zinfandel, chablis, burgundy, rose.

Filsinger Vineyards and Winery, 39050 DePortola Road, Temecula. Founded 1980. Chardonnay, fume blanc, johannisberg riesling, emerald riesling, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah.

Glenoak Hills Winery, 40607 Los Ranchos Circle, Temecula. Founded 1978. White riesling, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel.

Hart Winery, 41300 Avenida Biona, Temecula. Founded 1980. Chardonnay, chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon.

Mesa Verde Vineyards and Winery, 34567 Rancho California Road, Temecula. Founded 1980. Rose, riesling, white table wine.

Mount Palomar Winery, 33820 Rancho California Road, Temecula. Founded 1975. Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc. fume blanc, white riesling, white zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet rose, zinfandel, shiraz, petite sirah, white table wine. Rhine wine, champagne, sherry, port.

Piconi Winery, 33410 Rancho California Road, Temecula. Founded 1981. Chenin blanc, fume blanc, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah.

Point Loma Winery, 3655 Poe Street. San Diego. Founded 1980. Gamay beaujolais. sauvignon blanc.

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Comments

Sign in to comment