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Where they grow wine grapes in San Diego

An austere unlikely place

Southern California’s hope lies with vineyards like Thomas-Jaeger in the San Pasqual Valley. - Image by Paul Stachelek
Southern California’s hope lies with vineyards like Thomas-Jaeger in the San Pasqual Valley.

Over the last year the powerful, sumptuous vineyards of Northern California, the Napa and Simi estates that have poured the Golden State’s vinous nectar across the globe, have been the scenes of viticultural carnage of unprecedented ferocity.

Bernardo Winery in Rancho Bernardo has been producing wines since 1889 — the oldest in San Diego.

The worm that has eaten into the rose? The winemaker’s most deadly louse: Phylloxera. Whole vineyards have been ripped up and replanted, 1600 acres in Napa alone, 420 in Simi. Says Napa County farm advisor Ed Weber, atleast another 6000 acres are infected. In short, catastrophe. Type B of the bug is a new strain, attacking the AXR#1 root stock planted in the 1970s to combat the original strain of Phylloxera of a century ago. And as Napa and Simi run into their biggest crisis yet, some eyes are turning southward to the virtually unknown wine-producing estates of Temecula and Escondido. There may as yet be no great wines here, but, contrary to accepted opinion, the materials to make them are.

Old cask at Deer Park, site of the annual Escondido Crush

Few people realize that Southern California was the original site of the state’s wine industry. At the turn of the century, as many as 35 full-time wineries operated in the San Diego area, and dozens more around Los Angeles. A legacy of the passions of early Mexican settlers, the vineyards produced most of California’s jug wines and were profitable until Prohibition, which destroyed their economic and cultural platform and left the southern half of the state destitute of a wine industry for the next half-century.

100-years-old vine at Bernardo, planted on land that was originally a Spanish grant.

Yet parts of coastal Southern California are climatically identical to the fertile wine zones of Northern California. As most wine growers know, it is not north and south that determine the qualities of great wine land, it is elevation and distance from the ocean. In San Diego County, people are cultivating grape varieties six miles from the sea in conditions as nearly perfect as any that could be desired.

Michael Menghini in Julian: “We got this place in 1982 and put in everything ourselves."

In the region around Julian lie some of the most unexpected vineyards in the Southland. The Menghini Winery sits on 10 acres nestled among the cool, undulating hills, the first winery in Julian, now run by the grandson of an Italian miner from Wyoming. On one of those autumn days that brings a biting Santa Ana crashing down through the valleys, the estate looks an austere and unlikely place for vines.

In the region around Julian lie some of the most unexpected vineyards in the Southland.

At first you see no vines at all, just small, rustic buildings closed up against the ferocious wind. Yellow grass, wooden barrels, tufts of huckleberry. But inside one of the barns are not only the usual magnificent vats and the intricate, strange machinery of the winemaker’s laboratory, but matching silver Art Nouveau chandeliers transported from a defunct bank in Wyoming and Menghini pere's old dentist’s chair. Renaissance viola da gambas and flutes tinkle over the radio; packets of English toffee and cheese strings sit on homely shelves. In his little office out back, Michael Menghini sits with a cat curled on his lap, surrounded by carved wooden chairs, an iron stove, flowers, and a pile of huge pine cones.

Leon Santoro’s wines were chosen for the first summit meeting in Iceland between President Reagan and Premier Gorbachev.

“We got this place in 1982 and put in everything ourselves. As you can see, it was an apple barn before, very charming, a lovely 1940s structure, and we just put in new floors. It took about $700,000. My father put up the money, fortunately. In the wine trade they say that if you want to make a small fortune you should begin with a large one. Anyway, wine is certainly a difficult business to make dependable money out of, at least in the short term. Last year, because of the recession, was terrible. We bought no grapes at all, and as yet we have no commercial crop, although our wines are really better than ever. We’re producing about 3500 gallons a year, which we sell mostly locally in Julian.

Ross Rizzo: "It costs $475 an acre to water land here; it’s about $10 for the same thing around San Francisco."

“The problem for most wine growers in Southern California is distribution, without a doubt. Selling out of state is out of the question, and you won’t see our wines in supermarkets in San Diego. October is our best month because that’s the apple harvest month and tourists flock up to Julian. They see our wines and buy them because they’re a kind of memento of the town. Now that is simply a matter of business, of general culture and of markets. Because actually you can grow wine grapes anywhere in California, and you can make great wine anywhere in California.

Winetasting at Thomas-Jaeger. Thomas-Jaeger is the slickest, the biggest, and the most ambitious winery in this area.

“And it’s also a matter of history. Land was cheaper up north after Prohibition, and the commercial development was different. They have a real agricultural economy up there. Here, it’s gentleman farming, $30,000 a square mile, exorbitant water costs, and so on. It all adds up. Farming doesn’t make it here, especially if you’re a small outfit. So most vineyards here make jug wine, old-fashioned average restaurant stuff, because that’s what they’ve been doing for decades, and that’s what they can rely on commercially. To do anything else is something of a risk, as you can see with our experience.

“But then for me, wine is the most important thing. I want to make good or even exceptional wine, and I can do it right here. It’s just that we have to overcome certain attitude problems. For example, 15 years ago a young maverick down here started making a brilliant Sauvignon Blanc, a different wine, and everybody in the restaurants in downtown L.A. just hated it. They wanted the jug stuff because it was familiar. You couldn’t make good wines because the clientele hated them.

Well, they’re the best jug wines in the world, actually, but that’s a different story. That’s of no interest to me. What I want to do is make truly unique wines of character and high quality using the materials that we have here. And we do have materials. Temecula is a true viticultural region, as is Ramona. It’s certainly not Wyoming, where I grew up, where there’s nothing to start with at all.

“You have the materials in San Diego, it’s just a matter of time...and luck. And look at some of these local wines: Hart’s Cabernet, it’s excellent; Fallbrook, in Temecula; the Merlot being made at Thomas-Jaeger. It’s not the wasteland that some assume it is. And not only that, the Phylloxera is creating a different wine climate in California, and some of the glut we’ve suffered from is going to be reduced. I know it’s hard on the smaller producers who’ve borrowed up to their necks with the banks and aren’t being given a chance, but the reduction of wine will have some good effects too. And it might give us down here something of a chance to assert ourselves in the market.”

Menghini himself began making dandelion wines as a boy and came to San Diego not to make the grape kind but to go to school. In 1975 the San Pasqual winery in Escondido had just started, and by Menghini’s graduation, a passion for wine had flowered into a sense of vocation. That led him to San Pasqual and his first apprenticeship. From there, he moved on to Callaway at Fallbrook before buying his own estate. Perceiving at once that Julian’s climate was essentially identical to that around Napa, with the same snowfall and annual precipitation, he set out to create varietal wines that differed from the then-current avalanche of heavy, buttery, oakey Chardonnays and over-complex, sumptuous Cabernets.

“I think that there is probably an inevitable drift toward dryness in consumer taste. Like many people, I’ve gotten really tired of the California Chardonnay syndrome. It’s become utterly boring, utterly predictable. Winemakers in this state are guilty of making wine for winemakers and not for people who actually drink wine with food. Fabulously complicated and impressive in isolation, but not necessarily good with food.

“Now, I have a problem with my wines, because although I think they’re good to drink with food, they’re too low in tannin, too low in acid to made an impression at competitions. They feel thin compared to the powerful California average. I think that’s a potential for strength in them in the long run, because I can create delicacy and lightness of touch where others can’t. But in the competitions it’s a weakness. And I know because I’m a judge at the Riverside event.

“We use no oak at all in our Chards, and we get a wonderful mellow, muted effect that is incredibly refreshing after the butterballs. Our Julian Blossom, made with a Napa Gamay grape, is our answer to the White Zinfandels. It’s fruitier and we can sell it at around $7.00. We have a cheerful, fruity Gamay Nouveau, and a delicious, slightly honeyed Riesling, because it’s absurd that only three percent of California terrains are planted with that amazing grape, and we love to make Rieslings.

“The Blossom sells most, mainly, I suspect, because it has the word ‘Julian’ in it. You see, people don’t visit the winery — we wish they would — and so they see it up in Julian in the stores without tasting either it or any of the others. Only three retail stores buy any wine at all.

“Personally, I love to make Sauvignon Blanc, because every time you make it you get something totally different. Ten tanks of Sauvignon Blanc will give you ten different wines. But again, there is the marketing problem. Believe it or not, people just can’t pronounce the name. Mondavi ended up calling it Fume Blanc, which is exactly the same wine, a Sauvignon Blanc. Those things are going to have to change.”

Menghini’s winery is a mom-and-pop operation with a genuine sense of mission. The foil spinner, the label poster, and the bacteria-tight filters are assembled in one small area and operated by one or two persons. The creation of a Menghini bottle from beginning to end takes place within a space of several square feet. Every wine is a gamble, a stone thrown in the dark.

And, as Menghini says, every crafted Sauvignon Blanc is unlike another. You couldn’t be further from most of the wineries of San Diego’s past and present.

At some point in the viticultural development of Southern California, it must have seemed that the only way to make Americans drink wine in reasonable quantities was to make wineries into vaguely wine-oriented shopping malls. One such example, producing one of the few San Diego wines you can buy in your local Vons, is Deer Park. Here, cosily close to Lawrence Welk’s resort just north of Escondido, Deer Park advertises itself as an antique car museum. Beyond the relatively small raised area devoted to wine itself, you are plunged into the uncomplimentary world of Buick Roadmasters, fish-tailed Lincolns, Packard Caribbeans, and Cadillac Eldorados.

A life-sized cut-out of Marilyn Monroe squinting into a milky beam of sunlight dominates the showroom. All around you find not informative maps of wine-growing valleys but teddy bears in aviator’s goggles, Ferrari mugs, Dixie gas signs, and antique “Have A Coke” machines. True, you might find a set of scrimshaw bottle stoppers in the tasting room or sets of Fitz & Floyd ironstone plates with grape motifs out front, just as you might be tempted to pick up a box of California wine soap or chess sets with the god Dionysus surrounded by a plethora of grapes (the rooks, ingeniously, are castle-like clusters of wine bottles). But none of it has much to do with wine itself. Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps folks are actually, well, scared off by wine...you have to reassure them with a few bars of wine-scented glycerine soap or a 1959 Lincoln. And even in the wine-tasting room itself, you cannot get away from the monstrous juke box in the corner and the huge chrome automobile radiator jutting out from the wall behind the counter. Just to make you feel at home.

It is true that Deer Park gathers in the public for its annual Escondido Crush at the end of August and the post-crush bottling. You can watch the sterilized bottles being purged with nitrogen, the necks being foiled, and the first stages of fermentation being undertaken. And at their Spring Concours d’Elegance on June 14th, they released their first Chardonnay produced entirely on the estate.

Other vineyards have commercialized their wine operations in a slightly different way. Bernardo Winery in Rancho Bernardo has been producing wines since 1889, making it one of the oldest in California and unquestionably the oldest in San Diego. Some of the vines here are 100 years old, planted on land that was originally a Spanish grant. The vineyard is also surrounded by olive trees; its nostalgic Sicilian owners wanted to re-create a familiar agricultural landscape.

Ross Rizzo, the master vintner at Bernardo, took over the ownership in 1962, continuing his father’s traditional practices. The Rizzos first bought the place in partnership in 1927 and have been sole owners since 1932. “Ross,” says the Bernardo brochure, “makes his wines in the Old World style, producing big, full-bodied wines.” Bernardo is certainly a curious place, a veritable bazaar of jewelry and clothes stores laid out by the roadside entrance, as Rizzo says, “to lure in the ladies, our biggest consumers.” And the winery itself, a jumble of antique 1900 buildings sprawled around a massive barn housing the 70-year-old redwood storage vats, is a stage set straight out of The Waltons.

Rizzo, a burly, tanned figure with a whiff of Anthony Quinn as Zorba, sets up glasses of Bernardo’s deep-colored, pungent Napa Camay at an outside table by the tasting rooms. “I’m sure you heard it before, but from here we used to send wine back to the East Coast by rail, before the water got so expensive. These were the best vineyards in California and the most productive. But later they had proper irrigation up north because there was proper development as far as wine went. They understood what you had to do to have a wine industry. Here, development took a different turn — real estate, mainly. The explosion of Los Angeles and the demands on the water supply were not good news for the winemakers around the time of Prohibition. But before that, the missions set up a large wine business and thousands of Italians came here to work it.

“The mission also planted olive orchards, most of which have disappeared, which is why you can’t buy Southern California olive oil in the supermarkets. We make it here, but we only sell it on the premises. When the cost of water went up, though, the vineyards in El Cajon, San Diego, and Escondido were hit really hard. It costs $475 an acre to water land here; it’s about $10 for the same thing around San Francisco. When you combine that with high taxes, which are hostile to small farmers, or rather a residential tax that doesn’t recognize vineyards as agricultural land at all, you can sec the roots of our problems in this part of the world. And they’re entirely man-made problems. Think of white sweet corn. I used to farm them years ago; could sell them for $4.00 a pound. I did it for three years and bust a gut but couldn’t make it work because of the water costs.

“That isn’t a comforting thought. I think Bernardo is fairly typical in that we sell only locally, right here in Escondido, and that we have to make a whole load of things other than wine: jam, wine vinegar, olive oil. In other words, we have to make ourselves touristy.

“We have to have the jewelry stores and the fashion shops and all that. And the strange thing is that San Diegans actually know their wines, or a certain class of them does. And investments in wine are increasing, even if that doesn’t mean that new vineyards are being planted. They’re not, unfortunately.

“But there are still good wines around — Hart, John Poole, Callaway, Ferrara. Of course, we could be making great wines, and we aren’t. But there you go. Things can change quite quickly. Think of the Australians. Think of Chile.”

Like Zorba, Ross is robustly nostalgic for the past, pre-supermarket, pre-suburban, the past of small farmers producing crafted food and tools in their own selected environment. Papa

Rizzo making brushes from the pelts of hares, smoked Sicilian sausage from deer, cheese more than dimly reminiscent of the bovine udder and free of plastic casings.

Rizzo leads the way uphill, past barrows of banana squash, to the old brandy vats and the 19th-century vat house, where swarms of ghostly antlers and stag heads hang from the beams, the trophies of half a century’s hunting. “The deer would eat the grapes, so we’d have to shoot them. The meat was sweet, beautiful!”

His son and nephew work the estate with him, but it is doubtful whether the young have the stomach for the labor of small-scale agriculture, vinous or otherwise. “The food world is going had places these days. I can’t stand the stores we have in California now. The produce is crap. Why can’t you get a decent cheese except at exorbitant prices? Why can’t you find an interesting sausage or a tomato that actually tastes like a tomato?

“Kids today know absolutely nothing about food. They’re just barbarians, pure and simple. I’ve taught my kids to really savor food, to make pasta properly, to put it all together. And it’s no big deal. It’s normal. California could have fantastic food, but the people are just being led up the garden path by the food conglomerates. What couldn’t you grow here? This is the best climate outside of Italy. Gentle, warm, consistent. A farmer’s paradise. And you can’t even buy a cheese. It’s incredible.”

Bernardo’s 2300 gallons per annum will probably stay in Escondido, unable to project themselves farther afield, but they have their sensitive-nosed customers who make the trip. “For us, women have made the white wines. They underwrite the whites, just as the men shore up the reds. A woman goes for a Chablis or a Chardonnay, a man for a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Petite Sirah. Otherwise, we depend on the people who are sick of never being able to enjoy the open air when they eat and drink. We put on dinners out back for parties, and they love it. That is the true context of wine — immersion in the land. People here have very little sense of their own land.”

Mr. Rizzo, glowing with robust health and pagan color, expostulates on the virtues of imbibing dry Mediterranean air and the nectar of the gods in the same mouthful. He looks as if he will live to be 110. “Don’t listen to doctors,” he declares. “Wine is much, much wiser.”

The organic small farm will inevitably become the standard for the wine business in the decades to come for both good reasons and bad. Organic wines rarely impress sommeliers or wine writers by virtue of some internal quality unique to the way they have been produced. But Californians are turning to organic methods for ideological, not just viticultural reasons. The standard was set by the wine maker Charles Richard, a classical guitarist who bought Bellerose Vineyard in Healdsburg in 1978 and turned it over to the organic way as a matter of ecological principle. His example has been followed by dozens of Northern California wineries since. The giant E. & J. Gallo, Fetzer of Mendocino County, and Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards have adopted the ladybug-versus-Ieafhopper method, eschewing insecticides and artificial fertilizers and bonding their souls with the palpitating organism of Mother Nature.

In Southern California, though, organic methods are probably more a luxury than a realistic option for commercial winemaking. What vintners here will look to is a repetition of Napa’s and Simi’s success in the years after Prohibition. Back in the ’30s, the California wine industry was revived almost single-handedly by a Russian emigre named Andre Tchelistcheff, who arrived in Napa in 1938 after several years in Bordeaux. Tchelistcheff trained the first Napa winemakers in French method and converted the semi-abandoned, half-rotted vineyards that Prohibition had consigned to oblivion.

Beginning at the Beaulieu Vineyard, he instigated a host of technical innovations over the following 35 years, including the fermentation of wines in small oak barrels to give American wines flavors they had never possessed before. He also left behind the first truly great California vintages, the Private Reserve ’51, ’58, and ’68, now fetching upwards of $1500 a bottle. Tchelistcheff s attitude toward “living with wines” is simple: “I’m responsible to the wines from the first point of production. I accept that as a duty — a moral obligation, just like it’s the responsibility of a good father or mother. [Grapes and wines] are asking me as a friend to help them with their problems.... It’s a daily contract.”

The man who once described a great wine as being “like the breast of a young woman in winter wrapped in fur” knows the intimate, irrational basis for exalted winemaking — the surrender to instinct and the passion for nature. The qualities of the vintner are not at all ordinary, and in the end it is these that will determine the quality of the vintages coming out of the Southland’s estates.

Some think that Southern California’s best hope lies with vineyards like Thomas-Jaeger in the San Pasqual Valley, which used to be the San Pasqual Winery before that business went bankrupt in 1987. Today the vineyard is a very different place, owned by the Thomas family of San Diego and the Jaeger family of Napa Valley (which also has ownership interests in Rutherford Hill, Freemark Abbey, and Jaeger Inglewood) and overseen by winemaster Leon Santoro.

It is one of the most picturesque of the San Diego wineries, mantled over rolling hill country, 120 acres of groomed, verdant, wine-bearing land of which 30 acres are estate vineyards producing an experimental and unusual mixture of grapes — not just the usual Chardonnay, but the Italian varietal Sangiovese and Sirah. Farther north, Thomas-Jaeger’s 60-acre parcel in Fallbrook, owned by Tony Godfrey, produces Mer-lot, Chardonnay, Johannisberg Riesling, and Muscat Canelli grapes.

Santoro’s wines were chosen for the first summit meeting in Iceland between President Reagan and Premier Gorbachev and for the White House dinner in honor of Princess Diana and Prince Charles. And 14 years in Napa have given him the confidence to measure up to the famed valley in his San Diego base.

The winery itself is commercial in the usual way, terra cotta angels over the display case of sweets, shelves of candied fruit and toffees, etc. But just behind the tasting area, the hum of a large factory dispels the impression of quaintness. And you are reminded by the text pinned to the wall that wine has a mythology of its own. Bacchus had to earn his entry into Olympus by inventing a drink that was derived from a plant that grew from the grave of his beloved best friend. The bunches of grapes resembled the dead boy’s cheeks, and the vine leaves his curly hair.

Thomas-Jaeger is the slickest, the biggest, and the most ambitious winery in this area. And Leon Santoro is its dynamic and canny overseer determined to push his wines not just all over California but all over the United States and beyond. When the vineyard decided to have its grapes blessed — a Santoro stunt designed to mimic the Italian blessing of fishing fleets — he found a priest named the Reverend Barry Vinyard at USD to do it. “It’s an old European tradition I would like to continue,” the winemaster says. “I joke around that a little bit of luck and a good blessing doesn’t hurt.” The point, however, was that the Rev. Vinyard appeared on page one of the Times Advocate.

Santoro is a restless, flirtatious soul who has turned the ordinary San Pasqual winery into potentially one of the first rank in California. He came to the United States from Villa Santa Maria, a small town east of Rome, to take a degree in chemistry at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The next 14 years were spent in Napa, at the prestigious Stag’s Leap and then at Quail Ridge, of which he was part owner. Under his direction, production at Quail Ridge increased from 900 to 30,000 cases, and U.S. distribution rose to include 30 states. The winery went public in 1987, increasing its capital to $1 million, a spectacular rise that was suddenly and unexpectedly devastated by the stock market’s Black Monday. He lost everything in four hours. He and his partner sold the winery, and Santoro moved on to Chateau De I.eu and then Thomas-Jaeger.

“When I first came here, of course, everyone in Napa said, ‘You’re crazy, you’ll ruin your career.’ The problem is that Napa has definitely stolen the limelight, but all that is just a matter of chance. You know why they started growing grapes up there? Because they couldn’t make it growing prunes! Twenty-five years ago, Napa was abandoned. It was a wasteland. Then Stag’s Ixrap won a medal at the Paris tasting of 1976, and the French, the Swiss, the Japanese all moved in to capitalize on the fact that you could use exceptional climatic conditions to make excellent wine.

“But Napa could have been paved over. Easily. Persistence, luck, favorable economic conditions, these are the things that decide these matters. When I came down here, I saw exactly what was wrong with this region. It was just that they had decided to develop it in one way rather than another. They had decided they wanted houses rather than vineyards. All right, that’s bad, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do something with what you have. For example, San Pasqual was an ordinary vineyard, mostly Chardonnay. I’m bored with the Chardonnay game. So I decided to make a historical first for Southern California and mix several varietals: Sirah, Merlot, Sangiovese. And we can get Semil-lon, Chardonnay, and Riesling grapes from Tony Godfrey in Fallbrook, which is only six miles from the sea. You see, we have a grape-growing area that is the same distance from the sea as comparable areas of Napa. Same climate, same result.

“Anyway, we can make a rainbow of wines instead of just one or two things which are dependable because people know them. Why do people not treat Riesling as one of the most aristocratic grapes in existence? Rieslings a century ago sold for more than Bordeauxs. Now everything is Chardonnay. Why? Because it’s predictably tasty. Because it’s been heavily marketed. Because it’s easy to grow. And yes, it’s sellable. That’s very important in this country.

“Americans aren’t really interested in wines. They just don’t want to know. They don’t give a damn. What’s the point of talking about educating people? What the hell does that mean? You can’t just educate people. They have to want to know, and if they want to know, they’ll know one way or another. That’s the way markets are shaped, and we have to fit into that. So you don’t educate people, you simply impose yourself on the market. You change the market. You influence the tastes that prevail in the market. And this you do by innovating, by being aggressive. This is why I’ve always tried to be ahead of everyone when it comes to innovation.

“I was way ahead of the game when it came to malolactic fermentation; in fact, I was the first, and now everyone in Napa does it. I was the first to experiment with hand-painted bottles, now 60 percent of vineyards up north do them. Now I’m trying to show the wine business, which is always out of tune with the world, that frugality is the essence of the ’90s and that upscale wines will not really sell in the current climate. Expensive wines are finished now. Good wines are now relatively cheap, which they should be. Chardonnays just could not hold their price, so Napa wines came down by 50 percent.

“The Jaeger wine of the ’90s will go for under $ 10, I can promise you. We have a Merlot at $25 that we can now sell as a ‘future,’ that is, before it’s been made or matured. That’s the top of our pyramid, and it works because people will spend $25 on something that they know is superb. They’ll buy it even as a future. In fact, we’ve al-

ready sold 60 future cases of that Merlot, almost all of the ’91 harvest.

“Next, the varietals. We’ve made unique grafting experiments here that no one has done elsewhere. We grafted about 1500 Chardonnay vines with a whole spectrum of things — Merlot, Sirah, and Sanviogese, which is the Italian equivalent of ' the Cybernet Sauvignon. No one has ever grafted Sanviogese in this country, and the results will be beautiful and intriguing, I can assure you. We can jump three or four years ahead of Napa here, while still recognizing and accepting that the reason that white Zinfandels and Chardonnays are so phenomenally successful is that the American consumer just happens to want sugary, lightly fruity quaffing wines. You can’t change that fact; you can only leap ahead of the game. In ten years’ time, it’ll be a different story, with a bit of luck.”

In the production area Leon Santoro points out with loving familiarity the Seitz filler, the Bertolaso corker (“a beautiful machine, easily the best in the world”), the Cavagnino e Gatti bottle labeler, and the Swiss-made Bucher presses outside among the gently sloping landscaped lawns. From here will come the two California appellations from the San Diego area, the Jaeger Merlot and the Chardonnay, which will place San Diego on the national wine map. And the winery itself, re-landscaped by architect Karen Scarborough with rose gardens and airy marquees, is attracting 3000 visitors a month.

Passing the Merlot vats, Santoro siphons off two glasses of juice barely six weeks old from the last harvest and suggests a taste. Amazingly, it is not disgusting. It is almost palatable. “The Merlot here is incredible; it’s going to be a nationally — an internationally known wine. We’ll have sales of $2 million by 1994, and the Merlot will spearhead it. Doug Braun was making this wine two years ago, and it completely charmed me. But as soon as I tasted it, I was improving it in my head. I know a lot of Napa Valley Merlot that is more expensive and not as good.

“You see, the problem with California wines has always been that they have too much taste. Two friends came over from Italy last summer, and I took them around everywhere, tasting everything. At the end of the two weeks, they were feeling sick. It was too much for them. Too rich, too sumptuous. Not good for eating with food. Wine is for eating with food, pure and simple, and if it doesn’t sit well with food then there’s a big problem. I think we can make wines here in San Diego that will teach Napa a lesson, that will show them that wines as good as theirs can be made anywhere in California and that the logic underlying winemaking in this state has to be thought over again, at least in part and in some areas.

“The United States is a very, very homogenous country. Everywhere you go, same hotels, same food, same neon signs. It’s the same with wine, unfortunately. The American consumer wants security above all. He wants an assembly-line product. That’s what so much of Napa is doing. Assembly line Chardonnays. There are delicious wines there, of course. But we are going to change the wine landscape with the new varietals and by taking a radical approach across the board. We are going to sell across the country — immediately.

“I’m discussing with an English importer right now to start selling San Diego wines in Britain. This city doesn’t have to be parochial and provincial. Where’s the gain in that? Why not a Thomas-Jaeger winning a gold medal in Paris?”

It seems that finally the ghost of Prohibition is about to be laid to rest, not in the bars and saloons, where it died a long time ago, but at the source, in the vineyards. An Italian sees the assault of Prohibition as an assault on his culture and therefore is never likely to take its legacy lying down. The Italian eye for a wine angle in the luminous hills of coastal San Diego has returned with a vengeance, a rejuvenation of a century-old tradition, and the result will in all likelihood be — in some not-so-distant future — a bottle of San Diego Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon or Riesling swaggering about on the shelves of an otherwise Napa-crazed London wine store. And the gold medal in Paris? Leon Santoro is counting the years merely on his fingers.

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The film is helped immensely by casting four leads to play their own tennis
Southern California’s hope lies with vineyards like Thomas-Jaeger in the San Pasqual Valley. - Image by Paul Stachelek
Southern California’s hope lies with vineyards like Thomas-Jaeger in the San Pasqual Valley.

Over the last year the powerful, sumptuous vineyards of Northern California, the Napa and Simi estates that have poured the Golden State’s vinous nectar across the globe, have been the scenes of viticultural carnage of unprecedented ferocity.

Bernardo Winery in Rancho Bernardo has been producing wines since 1889 — the oldest in San Diego.

The worm that has eaten into the rose? The winemaker’s most deadly louse: Phylloxera. Whole vineyards have been ripped up and replanted, 1600 acres in Napa alone, 420 in Simi. Says Napa County farm advisor Ed Weber, atleast another 6000 acres are infected. In short, catastrophe. Type B of the bug is a new strain, attacking the AXR#1 root stock planted in the 1970s to combat the original strain of Phylloxera of a century ago. And as Napa and Simi run into their biggest crisis yet, some eyes are turning southward to the virtually unknown wine-producing estates of Temecula and Escondido. There may as yet be no great wines here, but, contrary to accepted opinion, the materials to make them are.

Old cask at Deer Park, site of the annual Escondido Crush

Few people realize that Southern California was the original site of the state’s wine industry. At the turn of the century, as many as 35 full-time wineries operated in the San Diego area, and dozens more around Los Angeles. A legacy of the passions of early Mexican settlers, the vineyards produced most of California’s jug wines and were profitable until Prohibition, which destroyed their economic and cultural platform and left the southern half of the state destitute of a wine industry for the next half-century.

100-years-old vine at Bernardo, planted on land that was originally a Spanish grant.

Yet parts of coastal Southern California are climatically identical to the fertile wine zones of Northern California. As most wine growers know, it is not north and south that determine the qualities of great wine land, it is elevation and distance from the ocean. In San Diego County, people are cultivating grape varieties six miles from the sea in conditions as nearly perfect as any that could be desired.

Michael Menghini in Julian: “We got this place in 1982 and put in everything ourselves."

In the region around Julian lie some of the most unexpected vineyards in the Southland. The Menghini Winery sits on 10 acres nestled among the cool, undulating hills, the first winery in Julian, now run by the grandson of an Italian miner from Wyoming. On one of those autumn days that brings a biting Santa Ana crashing down through the valleys, the estate looks an austere and unlikely place for vines.

In the region around Julian lie some of the most unexpected vineyards in the Southland.

At first you see no vines at all, just small, rustic buildings closed up against the ferocious wind. Yellow grass, wooden barrels, tufts of huckleberry. But inside one of the barns are not only the usual magnificent vats and the intricate, strange machinery of the winemaker’s laboratory, but matching silver Art Nouveau chandeliers transported from a defunct bank in Wyoming and Menghini pere's old dentist’s chair. Renaissance viola da gambas and flutes tinkle over the radio; packets of English toffee and cheese strings sit on homely shelves. In his little office out back, Michael Menghini sits with a cat curled on his lap, surrounded by carved wooden chairs, an iron stove, flowers, and a pile of huge pine cones.

Leon Santoro’s wines were chosen for the first summit meeting in Iceland between President Reagan and Premier Gorbachev.

“We got this place in 1982 and put in everything ourselves. As you can see, it was an apple barn before, very charming, a lovely 1940s structure, and we just put in new floors. It took about $700,000. My father put up the money, fortunately. In the wine trade they say that if you want to make a small fortune you should begin with a large one. Anyway, wine is certainly a difficult business to make dependable money out of, at least in the short term. Last year, because of the recession, was terrible. We bought no grapes at all, and as yet we have no commercial crop, although our wines are really better than ever. We’re producing about 3500 gallons a year, which we sell mostly locally in Julian.

Ross Rizzo: "It costs $475 an acre to water land here; it’s about $10 for the same thing around San Francisco."

“The problem for most wine growers in Southern California is distribution, without a doubt. Selling out of state is out of the question, and you won’t see our wines in supermarkets in San Diego. October is our best month because that’s the apple harvest month and tourists flock up to Julian. They see our wines and buy them because they’re a kind of memento of the town. Now that is simply a matter of business, of general culture and of markets. Because actually you can grow wine grapes anywhere in California, and you can make great wine anywhere in California.

Winetasting at Thomas-Jaeger. Thomas-Jaeger is the slickest, the biggest, and the most ambitious winery in this area.

“And it’s also a matter of history. Land was cheaper up north after Prohibition, and the commercial development was different. They have a real agricultural economy up there. Here, it’s gentleman farming, $30,000 a square mile, exorbitant water costs, and so on. It all adds up. Farming doesn’t make it here, especially if you’re a small outfit. So most vineyards here make jug wine, old-fashioned average restaurant stuff, because that’s what they’ve been doing for decades, and that’s what they can rely on commercially. To do anything else is something of a risk, as you can see with our experience.

“But then for me, wine is the most important thing. I want to make good or even exceptional wine, and I can do it right here. It’s just that we have to overcome certain attitude problems. For example, 15 years ago a young maverick down here started making a brilliant Sauvignon Blanc, a different wine, and everybody in the restaurants in downtown L.A. just hated it. They wanted the jug stuff because it was familiar. You couldn’t make good wines because the clientele hated them.

Well, they’re the best jug wines in the world, actually, but that’s a different story. That’s of no interest to me. What I want to do is make truly unique wines of character and high quality using the materials that we have here. And we do have materials. Temecula is a true viticultural region, as is Ramona. It’s certainly not Wyoming, where I grew up, where there’s nothing to start with at all.

“You have the materials in San Diego, it’s just a matter of time...and luck. And look at some of these local wines: Hart’s Cabernet, it’s excellent; Fallbrook, in Temecula; the Merlot being made at Thomas-Jaeger. It’s not the wasteland that some assume it is. And not only that, the Phylloxera is creating a different wine climate in California, and some of the glut we’ve suffered from is going to be reduced. I know it’s hard on the smaller producers who’ve borrowed up to their necks with the banks and aren’t being given a chance, but the reduction of wine will have some good effects too. And it might give us down here something of a chance to assert ourselves in the market.”

Menghini himself began making dandelion wines as a boy and came to San Diego not to make the grape kind but to go to school. In 1975 the San Pasqual winery in Escondido had just started, and by Menghini’s graduation, a passion for wine had flowered into a sense of vocation. That led him to San Pasqual and his first apprenticeship. From there, he moved on to Callaway at Fallbrook before buying his own estate. Perceiving at once that Julian’s climate was essentially identical to that around Napa, with the same snowfall and annual precipitation, he set out to create varietal wines that differed from the then-current avalanche of heavy, buttery, oakey Chardonnays and over-complex, sumptuous Cabernets.

“I think that there is probably an inevitable drift toward dryness in consumer taste. Like many people, I’ve gotten really tired of the California Chardonnay syndrome. It’s become utterly boring, utterly predictable. Winemakers in this state are guilty of making wine for winemakers and not for people who actually drink wine with food. Fabulously complicated and impressive in isolation, but not necessarily good with food.

“Now, I have a problem with my wines, because although I think they’re good to drink with food, they’re too low in tannin, too low in acid to made an impression at competitions. They feel thin compared to the powerful California average. I think that’s a potential for strength in them in the long run, because I can create delicacy and lightness of touch where others can’t. But in the competitions it’s a weakness. And I know because I’m a judge at the Riverside event.

“We use no oak at all in our Chards, and we get a wonderful mellow, muted effect that is incredibly refreshing after the butterballs. Our Julian Blossom, made with a Napa Gamay grape, is our answer to the White Zinfandels. It’s fruitier and we can sell it at around $7.00. We have a cheerful, fruity Gamay Nouveau, and a delicious, slightly honeyed Riesling, because it’s absurd that only three percent of California terrains are planted with that amazing grape, and we love to make Rieslings.

“The Blossom sells most, mainly, I suspect, because it has the word ‘Julian’ in it. You see, people don’t visit the winery — we wish they would — and so they see it up in Julian in the stores without tasting either it or any of the others. Only three retail stores buy any wine at all.

“Personally, I love to make Sauvignon Blanc, because every time you make it you get something totally different. Ten tanks of Sauvignon Blanc will give you ten different wines. But again, there is the marketing problem. Believe it or not, people just can’t pronounce the name. Mondavi ended up calling it Fume Blanc, which is exactly the same wine, a Sauvignon Blanc. Those things are going to have to change.”

Menghini’s winery is a mom-and-pop operation with a genuine sense of mission. The foil spinner, the label poster, and the bacteria-tight filters are assembled in one small area and operated by one or two persons. The creation of a Menghini bottle from beginning to end takes place within a space of several square feet. Every wine is a gamble, a stone thrown in the dark.

And, as Menghini says, every crafted Sauvignon Blanc is unlike another. You couldn’t be further from most of the wineries of San Diego’s past and present.

At some point in the viticultural development of Southern California, it must have seemed that the only way to make Americans drink wine in reasonable quantities was to make wineries into vaguely wine-oriented shopping malls. One such example, producing one of the few San Diego wines you can buy in your local Vons, is Deer Park. Here, cosily close to Lawrence Welk’s resort just north of Escondido, Deer Park advertises itself as an antique car museum. Beyond the relatively small raised area devoted to wine itself, you are plunged into the uncomplimentary world of Buick Roadmasters, fish-tailed Lincolns, Packard Caribbeans, and Cadillac Eldorados.

A life-sized cut-out of Marilyn Monroe squinting into a milky beam of sunlight dominates the showroom. All around you find not informative maps of wine-growing valleys but teddy bears in aviator’s goggles, Ferrari mugs, Dixie gas signs, and antique “Have A Coke” machines. True, you might find a set of scrimshaw bottle stoppers in the tasting room or sets of Fitz & Floyd ironstone plates with grape motifs out front, just as you might be tempted to pick up a box of California wine soap or chess sets with the god Dionysus surrounded by a plethora of grapes (the rooks, ingeniously, are castle-like clusters of wine bottles). But none of it has much to do with wine itself. Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps folks are actually, well, scared off by wine...you have to reassure them with a few bars of wine-scented glycerine soap or a 1959 Lincoln. And even in the wine-tasting room itself, you cannot get away from the monstrous juke box in the corner and the huge chrome automobile radiator jutting out from the wall behind the counter. Just to make you feel at home.

It is true that Deer Park gathers in the public for its annual Escondido Crush at the end of August and the post-crush bottling. You can watch the sterilized bottles being purged with nitrogen, the necks being foiled, and the first stages of fermentation being undertaken. And at their Spring Concours d’Elegance on June 14th, they released their first Chardonnay produced entirely on the estate.

Other vineyards have commercialized their wine operations in a slightly different way. Bernardo Winery in Rancho Bernardo has been producing wines since 1889, making it one of the oldest in California and unquestionably the oldest in San Diego. Some of the vines here are 100 years old, planted on land that was originally a Spanish grant. The vineyard is also surrounded by olive trees; its nostalgic Sicilian owners wanted to re-create a familiar agricultural landscape.

Ross Rizzo, the master vintner at Bernardo, took over the ownership in 1962, continuing his father’s traditional practices. The Rizzos first bought the place in partnership in 1927 and have been sole owners since 1932. “Ross,” says the Bernardo brochure, “makes his wines in the Old World style, producing big, full-bodied wines.” Bernardo is certainly a curious place, a veritable bazaar of jewelry and clothes stores laid out by the roadside entrance, as Rizzo says, “to lure in the ladies, our biggest consumers.” And the winery itself, a jumble of antique 1900 buildings sprawled around a massive barn housing the 70-year-old redwood storage vats, is a stage set straight out of The Waltons.

Rizzo, a burly, tanned figure with a whiff of Anthony Quinn as Zorba, sets up glasses of Bernardo’s deep-colored, pungent Napa Camay at an outside table by the tasting rooms. “I’m sure you heard it before, but from here we used to send wine back to the East Coast by rail, before the water got so expensive. These were the best vineyards in California and the most productive. But later they had proper irrigation up north because there was proper development as far as wine went. They understood what you had to do to have a wine industry. Here, development took a different turn — real estate, mainly. The explosion of Los Angeles and the demands on the water supply were not good news for the winemakers around the time of Prohibition. But before that, the missions set up a large wine business and thousands of Italians came here to work it.

“The mission also planted olive orchards, most of which have disappeared, which is why you can’t buy Southern California olive oil in the supermarkets. We make it here, but we only sell it on the premises. When the cost of water went up, though, the vineyards in El Cajon, San Diego, and Escondido were hit really hard. It costs $475 an acre to water land here; it’s about $10 for the same thing around San Francisco. When you combine that with high taxes, which are hostile to small farmers, or rather a residential tax that doesn’t recognize vineyards as agricultural land at all, you can sec the roots of our problems in this part of the world. And they’re entirely man-made problems. Think of white sweet corn. I used to farm them years ago; could sell them for $4.00 a pound. I did it for three years and bust a gut but couldn’t make it work because of the water costs.

“That isn’t a comforting thought. I think Bernardo is fairly typical in that we sell only locally, right here in Escondido, and that we have to make a whole load of things other than wine: jam, wine vinegar, olive oil. In other words, we have to make ourselves touristy.

“We have to have the jewelry stores and the fashion shops and all that. And the strange thing is that San Diegans actually know their wines, or a certain class of them does. And investments in wine are increasing, even if that doesn’t mean that new vineyards are being planted. They’re not, unfortunately.

“But there are still good wines around — Hart, John Poole, Callaway, Ferrara. Of course, we could be making great wines, and we aren’t. But there you go. Things can change quite quickly. Think of the Australians. Think of Chile.”

Like Zorba, Ross is robustly nostalgic for the past, pre-supermarket, pre-suburban, the past of small farmers producing crafted food and tools in their own selected environment. Papa

Rizzo making brushes from the pelts of hares, smoked Sicilian sausage from deer, cheese more than dimly reminiscent of the bovine udder and free of plastic casings.

Rizzo leads the way uphill, past barrows of banana squash, to the old brandy vats and the 19th-century vat house, where swarms of ghostly antlers and stag heads hang from the beams, the trophies of half a century’s hunting. “The deer would eat the grapes, so we’d have to shoot them. The meat was sweet, beautiful!”

His son and nephew work the estate with him, but it is doubtful whether the young have the stomach for the labor of small-scale agriculture, vinous or otherwise. “The food world is going had places these days. I can’t stand the stores we have in California now. The produce is crap. Why can’t you get a decent cheese except at exorbitant prices? Why can’t you find an interesting sausage or a tomato that actually tastes like a tomato?

“Kids today know absolutely nothing about food. They’re just barbarians, pure and simple. I’ve taught my kids to really savor food, to make pasta properly, to put it all together. And it’s no big deal. It’s normal. California could have fantastic food, but the people are just being led up the garden path by the food conglomerates. What couldn’t you grow here? This is the best climate outside of Italy. Gentle, warm, consistent. A farmer’s paradise. And you can’t even buy a cheese. It’s incredible.”

Bernardo’s 2300 gallons per annum will probably stay in Escondido, unable to project themselves farther afield, but they have their sensitive-nosed customers who make the trip. “For us, women have made the white wines. They underwrite the whites, just as the men shore up the reds. A woman goes for a Chablis or a Chardonnay, a man for a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Petite Sirah. Otherwise, we depend on the people who are sick of never being able to enjoy the open air when they eat and drink. We put on dinners out back for parties, and they love it. That is the true context of wine — immersion in the land. People here have very little sense of their own land.”

Mr. Rizzo, glowing with robust health and pagan color, expostulates on the virtues of imbibing dry Mediterranean air and the nectar of the gods in the same mouthful. He looks as if he will live to be 110. “Don’t listen to doctors,” he declares. “Wine is much, much wiser.”

The organic small farm will inevitably become the standard for the wine business in the decades to come for both good reasons and bad. Organic wines rarely impress sommeliers or wine writers by virtue of some internal quality unique to the way they have been produced. But Californians are turning to organic methods for ideological, not just viticultural reasons. The standard was set by the wine maker Charles Richard, a classical guitarist who bought Bellerose Vineyard in Healdsburg in 1978 and turned it over to the organic way as a matter of ecological principle. His example has been followed by dozens of Northern California wineries since. The giant E. & J. Gallo, Fetzer of Mendocino County, and Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards have adopted the ladybug-versus-Ieafhopper method, eschewing insecticides and artificial fertilizers and bonding their souls with the palpitating organism of Mother Nature.

In Southern California, though, organic methods are probably more a luxury than a realistic option for commercial winemaking. What vintners here will look to is a repetition of Napa’s and Simi’s success in the years after Prohibition. Back in the ’30s, the California wine industry was revived almost single-handedly by a Russian emigre named Andre Tchelistcheff, who arrived in Napa in 1938 after several years in Bordeaux. Tchelistcheff trained the first Napa winemakers in French method and converted the semi-abandoned, half-rotted vineyards that Prohibition had consigned to oblivion.

Beginning at the Beaulieu Vineyard, he instigated a host of technical innovations over the following 35 years, including the fermentation of wines in small oak barrels to give American wines flavors they had never possessed before. He also left behind the first truly great California vintages, the Private Reserve ’51, ’58, and ’68, now fetching upwards of $1500 a bottle. Tchelistcheff s attitude toward “living with wines” is simple: “I’m responsible to the wines from the first point of production. I accept that as a duty — a moral obligation, just like it’s the responsibility of a good father or mother. [Grapes and wines] are asking me as a friend to help them with their problems.... It’s a daily contract.”

The man who once described a great wine as being “like the breast of a young woman in winter wrapped in fur” knows the intimate, irrational basis for exalted winemaking — the surrender to instinct and the passion for nature. The qualities of the vintner are not at all ordinary, and in the end it is these that will determine the quality of the vintages coming out of the Southland’s estates.

Some think that Southern California’s best hope lies with vineyards like Thomas-Jaeger in the San Pasqual Valley, which used to be the San Pasqual Winery before that business went bankrupt in 1987. Today the vineyard is a very different place, owned by the Thomas family of San Diego and the Jaeger family of Napa Valley (which also has ownership interests in Rutherford Hill, Freemark Abbey, and Jaeger Inglewood) and overseen by winemaster Leon Santoro.

It is one of the most picturesque of the San Diego wineries, mantled over rolling hill country, 120 acres of groomed, verdant, wine-bearing land of which 30 acres are estate vineyards producing an experimental and unusual mixture of grapes — not just the usual Chardonnay, but the Italian varietal Sangiovese and Sirah. Farther north, Thomas-Jaeger’s 60-acre parcel in Fallbrook, owned by Tony Godfrey, produces Mer-lot, Chardonnay, Johannisberg Riesling, and Muscat Canelli grapes.

Santoro’s wines were chosen for the first summit meeting in Iceland between President Reagan and Premier Gorbachev and for the White House dinner in honor of Princess Diana and Prince Charles. And 14 years in Napa have given him the confidence to measure up to the famed valley in his San Diego base.

The winery itself is commercial in the usual way, terra cotta angels over the display case of sweets, shelves of candied fruit and toffees, etc. But just behind the tasting area, the hum of a large factory dispels the impression of quaintness. And you are reminded by the text pinned to the wall that wine has a mythology of its own. Bacchus had to earn his entry into Olympus by inventing a drink that was derived from a plant that grew from the grave of his beloved best friend. The bunches of grapes resembled the dead boy’s cheeks, and the vine leaves his curly hair.

Thomas-Jaeger is the slickest, the biggest, and the most ambitious winery in this area. And Leon Santoro is its dynamic and canny overseer determined to push his wines not just all over California but all over the United States and beyond. When the vineyard decided to have its grapes blessed — a Santoro stunt designed to mimic the Italian blessing of fishing fleets — he found a priest named the Reverend Barry Vinyard at USD to do it. “It’s an old European tradition I would like to continue,” the winemaster says. “I joke around that a little bit of luck and a good blessing doesn’t hurt.” The point, however, was that the Rev. Vinyard appeared on page one of the Times Advocate.

Santoro is a restless, flirtatious soul who has turned the ordinary San Pasqual winery into potentially one of the first rank in California. He came to the United States from Villa Santa Maria, a small town east of Rome, to take a degree in chemistry at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The next 14 years were spent in Napa, at the prestigious Stag’s Leap and then at Quail Ridge, of which he was part owner. Under his direction, production at Quail Ridge increased from 900 to 30,000 cases, and U.S. distribution rose to include 30 states. The winery went public in 1987, increasing its capital to $1 million, a spectacular rise that was suddenly and unexpectedly devastated by the stock market’s Black Monday. He lost everything in four hours. He and his partner sold the winery, and Santoro moved on to Chateau De I.eu and then Thomas-Jaeger.

“When I first came here, of course, everyone in Napa said, ‘You’re crazy, you’ll ruin your career.’ The problem is that Napa has definitely stolen the limelight, but all that is just a matter of chance. You know why they started growing grapes up there? Because they couldn’t make it growing prunes! Twenty-five years ago, Napa was abandoned. It was a wasteland. Then Stag’s Ixrap won a medal at the Paris tasting of 1976, and the French, the Swiss, the Japanese all moved in to capitalize on the fact that you could use exceptional climatic conditions to make excellent wine.

“But Napa could have been paved over. Easily. Persistence, luck, favorable economic conditions, these are the things that decide these matters. When I came down here, I saw exactly what was wrong with this region. It was just that they had decided to develop it in one way rather than another. They had decided they wanted houses rather than vineyards. All right, that’s bad, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do something with what you have. For example, San Pasqual was an ordinary vineyard, mostly Chardonnay. I’m bored with the Chardonnay game. So I decided to make a historical first for Southern California and mix several varietals: Sirah, Merlot, Sangiovese. And we can get Semil-lon, Chardonnay, and Riesling grapes from Tony Godfrey in Fallbrook, which is only six miles from the sea. You see, we have a grape-growing area that is the same distance from the sea as comparable areas of Napa. Same climate, same result.

“Anyway, we can make a rainbow of wines instead of just one or two things which are dependable because people know them. Why do people not treat Riesling as one of the most aristocratic grapes in existence? Rieslings a century ago sold for more than Bordeauxs. Now everything is Chardonnay. Why? Because it’s predictably tasty. Because it’s been heavily marketed. Because it’s easy to grow. And yes, it’s sellable. That’s very important in this country.

“Americans aren’t really interested in wines. They just don’t want to know. They don’t give a damn. What’s the point of talking about educating people? What the hell does that mean? You can’t just educate people. They have to want to know, and if they want to know, they’ll know one way or another. That’s the way markets are shaped, and we have to fit into that. So you don’t educate people, you simply impose yourself on the market. You change the market. You influence the tastes that prevail in the market. And this you do by innovating, by being aggressive. This is why I’ve always tried to be ahead of everyone when it comes to innovation.

“I was way ahead of the game when it came to malolactic fermentation; in fact, I was the first, and now everyone in Napa does it. I was the first to experiment with hand-painted bottles, now 60 percent of vineyards up north do them. Now I’m trying to show the wine business, which is always out of tune with the world, that frugality is the essence of the ’90s and that upscale wines will not really sell in the current climate. Expensive wines are finished now. Good wines are now relatively cheap, which they should be. Chardonnays just could not hold their price, so Napa wines came down by 50 percent.

“The Jaeger wine of the ’90s will go for under $ 10, I can promise you. We have a Merlot at $25 that we can now sell as a ‘future,’ that is, before it’s been made or matured. That’s the top of our pyramid, and it works because people will spend $25 on something that they know is superb. They’ll buy it even as a future. In fact, we’ve al-

ready sold 60 future cases of that Merlot, almost all of the ’91 harvest.

“Next, the varietals. We’ve made unique grafting experiments here that no one has done elsewhere. We grafted about 1500 Chardonnay vines with a whole spectrum of things — Merlot, Sirah, and Sanviogese, which is the Italian equivalent of ' the Cybernet Sauvignon. No one has ever grafted Sanviogese in this country, and the results will be beautiful and intriguing, I can assure you. We can jump three or four years ahead of Napa here, while still recognizing and accepting that the reason that white Zinfandels and Chardonnays are so phenomenally successful is that the American consumer just happens to want sugary, lightly fruity quaffing wines. You can’t change that fact; you can only leap ahead of the game. In ten years’ time, it’ll be a different story, with a bit of luck.”

In the production area Leon Santoro points out with loving familiarity the Seitz filler, the Bertolaso corker (“a beautiful machine, easily the best in the world”), the Cavagnino e Gatti bottle labeler, and the Swiss-made Bucher presses outside among the gently sloping landscaped lawns. From here will come the two California appellations from the San Diego area, the Jaeger Merlot and the Chardonnay, which will place San Diego on the national wine map. And the winery itself, re-landscaped by architect Karen Scarborough with rose gardens and airy marquees, is attracting 3000 visitors a month.

Passing the Merlot vats, Santoro siphons off two glasses of juice barely six weeks old from the last harvest and suggests a taste. Amazingly, it is not disgusting. It is almost palatable. “The Merlot here is incredible; it’s going to be a nationally — an internationally known wine. We’ll have sales of $2 million by 1994, and the Merlot will spearhead it. Doug Braun was making this wine two years ago, and it completely charmed me. But as soon as I tasted it, I was improving it in my head. I know a lot of Napa Valley Merlot that is more expensive and not as good.

“You see, the problem with California wines has always been that they have too much taste. Two friends came over from Italy last summer, and I took them around everywhere, tasting everything. At the end of the two weeks, they were feeling sick. It was too much for them. Too rich, too sumptuous. Not good for eating with food. Wine is for eating with food, pure and simple, and if it doesn’t sit well with food then there’s a big problem. I think we can make wines here in San Diego that will teach Napa a lesson, that will show them that wines as good as theirs can be made anywhere in California and that the logic underlying winemaking in this state has to be thought over again, at least in part and in some areas.

“The United States is a very, very homogenous country. Everywhere you go, same hotels, same food, same neon signs. It’s the same with wine, unfortunately. The American consumer wants security above all. He wants an assembly-line product. That’s what so much of Napa is doing. Assembly line Chardonnays. There are delicious wines there, of course. But we are going to change the wine landscape with the new varietals and by taking a radical approach across the board. We are going to sell across the country — immediately.

“I’m discussing with an English importer right now to start selling San Diego wines in Britain. This city doesn’t have to be parochial and provincial. Where’s the gain in that? Why not a Thomas-Jaeger winning a gold medal in Paris?”

It seems that finally the ghost of Prohibition is about to be laid to rest, not in the bars and saloons, where it died a long time ago, but at the source, in the vineyards. An Italian sees the assault of Prohibition as an assault on his culture and therefore is never likely to take its legacy lying down. The Italian eye for a wine angle in the luminous hills of coastal San Diego has returned with a vengeance, a rejuvenation of a century-old tradition, and the result will in all likelihood be — in some not-so-distant future — a bottle of San Diego Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon or Riesling swaggering about on the shelves of an otherwise Napa-crazed London wine store. And the gold medal in Paris? Leon Santoro is counting the years merely on his fingers.

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