'I had always liked growing tomatoes," explains Victor Edwards, co-owner with his wife Beth of the newly formed Edwards Vineyard & Cellars in Ramona. "I'm originally from Long Island, and we lived behind a big tomato farm. My parents were organic growers, and we always had a lot of home produce." Fast-forward a couple of decades, and Long Island has given way to Lakeside. "A college buddy who sort of comes in and out of my life showed up. I told him I was starting to drink some wine -- Cabernets from Stag's Leap or the Kenwood Artist Series. That was when they were eight or ten dollars a bottle. He introduced me to Silver Oak."
Fast-forward a little bit more, and Edwards is growing roses for competition but sick of pricking himself on the thorns when he prunes. "I thought, 'If I can grow roses, I can grow grapes.' I spent the next three or four years killing grapevines. But I was too stupid to know it was time to stop, and so I kept at it and kept at it. All of a sudden, one day, I said, 'Oh my God -- there's fruit on those vines!' "
A friend made wine from that '94 vintage and produced a knockout. "Then he proceeded to ruin the next two vintages. We had hydrogen sulfide problems -- that comes from not punching down the cap. And we had Brett," the gnarly bacterium that lurks in wineries and makes wines smell of Band-Aids and horse sweat. (Some people like a touch of Brett -- mmm, horse sweat -- but Edwards is a fan of fruit and oak, provided they aren't overly amped up. "I like to be able to identify what the wood is. I find French oak gives you a sort of dried-flower quality, and American oak gives you more backbone. But used barrels" -- new French oak can run up to $800 a barrel now, so Edwards often buys used -- "can be full of contaminants like Brett. When I go to buy barrels, I pull the bung out and stick my nose in -- fortunately, I've got a nice big one. Oak smells a certain way, and the barrel needs to smell like fresh wood. If it smells like anything else, if it's musty, I say, 'That's not for me.' ")
So in '97, Edwards decided to make his own wine. "That happened to be a stellar year for grape-growing. The wine was just big, and the acids were perfect. I thought, 'This is easy.' Naturally, '98 and '99 were harder years, and I learned about adding tartaric acid to the wines to improve balance" -- a common practice in Southern California. But the harder years weren't enough to smother the growing desire to make wine commercially.
"We figured we'd do it as a retirement plan -- something fun for later, when the kids were out of grade school," recalls Edwards' wife Beth.
"We talked about moving to Lake County," continues Edwards. "We thought Ramona land prices were way too expensive. A decade ago, Lake County was a newer viticultural area, and since then, it's taken off rather well." But Edwards kept checking out "For Sale" signs, and two years ago, he found the spot he's in now, eight miles past the Sizzler, on the north side of Highway 78.
The house was thrashed; it had been left vacant and was vandalized. But the barn -- 8000 square feet and handsomely built -- was pristine and almost new. "When we saw it, we just said, 'That would make a perfect winery.' We can put the crush pad out back, and I'm thinking of closing the back corner in and insulating it really well for barrel storage. We could have the stainless-steel tanks in the back right section, maybe a room for receptions. And we could have a tasting room up front with windows looking over the valley."
"You can actually see the Cuyamacas," notes Beth.
Still, notes Edwards, becoming a tourist destination means providing a wine experience for visitors, an activity related to, but distinct from, making good wine. What sold the place was the soil. "I went digging, and I said, 'This is actually soil. It's not just decomposed granite or hard clay.' And I'm very pleased with the deepness. When we got here, I took the auger and dug down three feet. Then my son and I got a shovel and dug down another three feet. It kept getting sandier, but it was still a nice, sandy loam. The water will drain through, and the roots will chase it. That's a lot better than my last vineyard, where we had two feet of soil and then a hard layer of clay. The water just sat in that two feet and got dried up by the sun." And the roots weren't about to push into the clay in search of underground moisture.
"The soil is probably too nice for grapevines," says Edwards. "But I'm lucky to have it; it's at a nice pH of 6. Up in Napa, there are people having to rip into the soil and add buckets of lime to reduce the acidity. And then they have to do it again in three or four years."
Victor and Beth bought the place, planning to take things slowly, still aiming at a retirement project. Then the company that employed Victor "packed up and moved back to Iowa." Beth started working full-time, and Victor threw himself into starting the winery. He figured out how to ride a tractor. He finished a room in the house for cold storage. (He has his eye on some pens situated under part of the house for a temporary winery, but Beth reminds him that the space is slated to become her new kitchen/dining room.)
Edwards estimates that "By the time we finish this year, we're going to be at about two acres. We'll probably expand to get this whole nine or ten acres planted here" -- "here" being the gentle south-facing slope leading down to the road -- "but it's just me, my wife, and our three sons. Things take longer than you think they're going to."
The family put in the vineyard themselves, and they maintain it themselves. "The growth tubes around the vines serve a multitude of functions," says Edwards, "but they're mostly there to protect. They keep rabbits from chewing on the vines, and when you've got younger boys weed-whacking...the last thing you want is that nylon strip slashing up your vine." For trellising posts, they used steel poles studded with metal loops. "The original owner was going to use these pipes for some of his cattle fencing. It'll probably take forty years for them to rust; my youngest son will have to switch them out. Hopefully, he'll be there telling people about when he and his father planted the vineyard."