William Holzhauer spent 20 months in a POW camp in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. "While I was there," he recalls, "I dreamed of places. You built places in your mind — you did all kinds of things like that. I drew a house, Spanish-style, surrounded by fruit trees, with a rounded wooden door." Years later — back in the '80s, and back in San Diego — "I showed it to my wife. One afternoon, she was driving around Ramona, and she found the house. It was for sale; I came up to look at it and wrote a full-price offer." Adobe, surrounded by avocado trees, with a commanding view of the valley below — and a rounded wooden door. "We had the name — Hacienda de las Rosas — even before we had the house."
It turned out that the apple orchard on the property — some 600 trees — had grown too old to produce any longer, but Holzhauer wasn't overly perturbed. The space was ideal (after a fair bit of earthmoving) for a horse's round pen — together with his wife Tammy, he raises Peruvian Paso Horses. "We both had horses as kids, and when we first started riding gaited horses, we found that there was no posting — no bouncing. We can drink wine while we ride." And on the slopes above and below the pen, he could plant his vineyard. He took some viticulture classes at Davis and set to work, sinking rebar at the ends of his rows and building white concrete end posts around it. He ran more wire than some — he'd put only good soil on the hillside and needed a way to manage plant vigor. Increased vine density and a lyre trellising system — which gave him eight feet of cordons in a four-foot space — did the trick.
"I love horticulture," says Holzhauer, "and I liked the idea of the vineyard, that whole ambiance that comes with it. It's not the same as an orchard. It's more than just a farming kind of thing. You take your time with each plant -- maybe you have to cut off one or two leaves to allow sun on the grapes. It's more of a lifestyle. You don't usually sit in an orchard and talk about the fruit on the trees. With grapes, you sit out there with your friends and talk about the dreams — living the good life."
He wasn't alone in his dream of the vine-growing life. "When I started putting in our vineyards, people started saying, 'I'd love a vineyard! I'd like to grow grapes! I'd like to make my own wine!' Then I started hearing these stories: 'Well, my grandfather made wine back East — we did it all together. It was horrible, but it was a blast to do. I want my kids to have that.' They have the dream that they're going to make this incredible wine, or they're somehow able to let their blood pressure go back down. And it's just a blast to take raw land and turn it into something that's going to last for years."
Eventually, Holzhauer heard enough stories that he thought there might be a business in it. "Part one is getting the vineyard in and getting them through the first season. We do site location. We check to see where the winds come from, so that the wind comes through the rows. We check where the sun is — we want maximum sunlight toward August and September, when you need to get those sugars up. We do everything on drip irrigation, and we try to use gravity as much as possible in letting the water run. And we put in a good infrastructure — the posts and wires. If it's not strong enough, then the whole thing will collapse in three or four years. Plus, for a percentage of the year, there are no leaves on the vines — it's just bare posts and wire. So we try to make it look as nice as possible."
Part two is vineyard management. "We can maintain the vineyard for them, and we can take the fruit to market for them, help them sell it. And we offer custom crush — we bring the fruit here, bring in whatever equipment we need, and start making the wine. Sometimes, they take it home with them in the barrels. They want to have their own private label — the family wine. I planted a vineyard for a nice old lady who calls her ranch Serendipity. On my invoices, it just said, 'Granny's vineyard' — I called her 'Granny' out of respect. Sure enough, she now has business cards that read, 'Serendipity Ranch: Granny's Vineyard.' That's the dream."
The word is spreading. "I do a lot in Ramona, but I have some in Alpine, some in Jamul. I'm putting in ten in Blossom Valley this November. We're getting homeowners together from a development or a neighborhood — you can get eight or ten families together that all want to have grapes." (Those lots will all run around an acre, but Holzhauer is happy to put in five or six rows in an urban backyard.)
Holzhauer administers a root-absorbed chemical to battle the glassy-winged sharpshooter (bearer of the vine-killing Pierce's disease), but other than that, he tries to keep things organic; he's not creating small-scale industrial farms. "I've found out through life that things are just better naturally. If you've ever tasted a garden tomato versus a grocery-store tomato...it's not the same thing. We don't poison rodents — we put in owl boxes and predator perches. If your dog gets hold of a ground squirrel, it doesn't have arsenic in it." As for pests, "I guess the corn weevil is one of my big things. They couldn't get rid of this bug, and they kept putting pesticides on the corn, and the bug kept getting stronger. All they had to do was change their fertilization process and use organic material, and the bug went away. And we try to keep things sustainable — something you can pass on to the next generation and something that's really nice for your neighborhood." He voluntarily adheres to the code set forth by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, which espouses environmentally sound, socially equitable, and economically feasible practices.
And he recently purchased a copy of Ancient Agriculture: Roots and Applications of Sustainable Farming. "This is the handbook that was given to all the Spanish explorers before they left Spain — it covers everything from raising oxen to making and storing wine. People think this organic, sustainable stuff is new. It's not new. It's what everyone had to have. The author, Gabriel Alonso de Herrera, writes, 'Agriculture offers a secure and stable life...The land is the source of all things, and because of the great benefits derived from it, we call it mother.' This guy is quoting the Romans, and I read that and say, 'Yeah.'"