Category Archive: Wine Education

Don’t be a Samelier

Posted on September 12, 2017


(Article released for the Somm Con blog)

The beverage industry has changed dramatically and gets more complex each year. Sommeliers who went through testing 20 years ago had a very different experience than those testing today. It has forced young sommeliers to look past France and Italy and discover wines from Croatia, Brazil, and other nontraditional regions. Many sommeliers are up for the challenge and build programs that stand out from the rest. Others are not up for the challenge, and I call these somms sameliers.

In addition to not adapting to changes within the wine industry, sameliers have not adapted to the fact that wine now shares the dinner table with spirits and beer. I hear more guests asking questions about the milk punch or the hops used rather than the grape.  Many more people are enjoying a cocktail or craft beer with their meals rather than a glass of wine.

Restaurants cannot afford to have a sommelier, a cicerone, a whisky expert, and a tequila aficionada walking from table to table recommending pairings. One person needs to do this job. The sommelier needs to diversify. He/she needs to explore much more than just new grape varieties and regions. It really is an easy transition, especially for those somms who love history. Wine, beer, and spirits share a long, intertwined and incestuous history.

What does a true sommelier look like? Take Master Sommelier Thomas Burke. He not only represents Chateau Margaux, but is also a certified cicerone. Master Sommelier Richard Betts not only makes old vine Australian Grenache, but helped grow the Mezcal category with Sombra. Steve Olson, aka Wine Geek, travels around the country enlightening bartenders, sommeliers, and distributors on the wonders of wine, beer, sake and spirits.

You can be a true sommelier too. Go out and make friends with brewers and distillers. Some might be just as resistant to change as the samelier. Regardless, give them a hug and maybe they will stop hiding behind their beards and embrace wine.

This year at Somm Con, enjoy learning about the wines from Central Europe, and blind tasting with the masters, but also go out and expand your boundaries by taking a spirit or beer course. Don’t be the samelier — diversify! You may find it fascinating.

sommcon 2017

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CRG Cocktail Month is Here!

Posted on March 24, 2017

CRG Cocktail Month

 This April my focus is to run an extensive cocktail month across my many restaurants. Most of you know me as the wine guy, but for the last 3 and a half years my focus has been much more so on liquor and beer. The trends across my restaurants are liquor and beer increasing as a percentage in sales a much higher rate than wine sales. It makes me sad to say that wine has taken a steady decline. But I cannot get dragged down by, I have to focus on what people want. And it seems as though they want spirits. April will be CRG Cocktail Month.  I have a lot of really cool promotions, events and dinners planned out. Make some space on your calendar and check out a few of these events.


Two company-wide promotions you will have to check out. We kick off the month with $5 cocktails. Come in to any of the participating restaurants and check out my bartender’s creations for $5. Each restaurant will have a different selection of 5 cocktails for $5, all day long for 5 days!  This will take place April 2nd-6th.  Come mid-month, just as you are turning in your taxes, and we will turn on the cocktail specials again. This time enjoy 2 cocktails for the $10.40. Drown your tax woes with a friend and try any of the participating restaurants’ fresh cocktails. Whether it is Vodka, Gin, Tequila, Rum or Whiskey; we will have something for you.

CRG Cocktail Month $5       CRG_TaxCocktails_031317


The most fun part of my job is coming up with creative events where you can enjoy an afternoon or evening with friends. Some are educational while others are a good party. The first event of note is a two part event. At Sea 180 Coastal Tavern I am inviting local distillers from Henebery Whiskey, Malahat Distillers and Cutwater Spirits for a panel discussion and tasting.  We will meet in the Boca Rio room where the distillers will talk about their projects and walk us through their spirits in a classroom style tasting. Following the panel, we head out to the Patio for a cocktail party. Sea 180 will provide snacks and live music. You will enjoy live cocktail demonstrations with local spirits. See, you can have your cocktail and eat it too, get educated while you party! Only if this was available when I was in college.

Sea 820 Local libations

Mid-month we pay homage to my favorite spirit, Tequila!  Our first annual Tequila Fest will be held on the Harbor Float at Coasterra. Deborah Scott features the signature dishes from her 5 restaurants, Coasterra, Island Prime, C-Level, Vintana & Indigo Grill. Tequila and Mezcal producers will taste you on their best agave spirits. I will be releasing our collaboration with Modern Times and Azunia Tequila. I have been working on a very special beer aged in Tequila barrels and flavored with salted plums and tamarind just for this event. And to bring even more life to an already bumping party, DJ Süsio spins Latin Beats. Your ticket gets you 5 food tickets, 1 signature cocktail and unlimited tastes of agave spirits. For those of you looking for wine, beer or creative cocktails, a full cash bar will be available.

Tequila Fest

The last major event is a San Diego Bartender Competition. We have invited the top bartenders in the city to join us at Analog for a friendly competition with Makers 46.  Maker’s Mark will be there sharing and teaching guests about whiskey and their many brands. All the while, a live bar competition will take place. Bartenders will compete in a two part competition. The first, they bring with them their best Maker’s Mark 46 cocktail.  For the second competition they will be given a limited amount of time to create a cocktail using a secret ingredient. Analog will provide snacks for everyone, tastes of Maker’s whiskeys and a full cash bar will be available in the Karaoke room.

Maker's 46


To round out the month our chef’s host dinners at their restaurants. All cocktail inspired of course. 333 Pacific, our vodka lounge, has Chef Steven Zurkey pairing his delightful creations with Absolut Vodka. C-level’s chef, Mike Suttles is pairing whiskey with his creations. Bo Beau + Garden’s chef, Tyler will have a variety of spirits to choose from and doing a cocktail dinner. Finally, Vintana is hosting an interactive brunch, Brunch en Blanc.  Every one dressed in white trying white spirits paired to Chef Bryan Brown’s brunch favorites.  In true Vintana fashion, live music will be played during this brunch while bartenders shake up white spirits for you to enjoy.


Absolut Vodka Dinner

Whiskey Dinner



Spirits Dinner     Mezcal Dinner


Don’t Let Wine Labels Get The Best of You

Posted on October 12, 2016

wine labels

A few months ago month I spoke at the Ramona Valley Vintner Association’s Wine & Grape Symposium about wine labels.  Local wine makers, winery owners and home wine makers met at the Escondido Center for the Arts and listened to professionals give advice on wine making, vineyard management and wine sales.  RVVA asked me to speak about wine labels.  The earlier month while judging the Ramona Valley Vintner Wine Competition I opened my big mouth and said something like, “it is really hard to sell Ramona wine when the labels look like this.”  I was referring to a wine with cursive writing and photo of a tree and animal.  It looked like a label made for a wedding.  I realized several people became interested, they wanted to hear more and asked me to expound on the subject. It annoyed me that I added to my work load, yet I felt flattered they asked for my opinion and I could help my local friends.  I put together a presentation called Wine Labels: how to sell to restaurants.

I began my talk by mentioning they need to know their consumer before designing a label.  Are you intending to sell your wine to one of the Orange County Housewives, to a sommelier at a fine dining restaurant or out of the tasting room to a tourist from Nebraska?  The basic principle of marketing is knowing your consumer and tailoring your product to fit that consumer’s taste.  Most wineries would say that all three consumers are their targets.  So this means the label would have to attract a larger consumer base, and now designing the label is that much more difficult.

Consumers need to know some very basic things when looking at the label.  What type of wine is it?  Is it red or white? Is it a Cab or Pinot? Where is it from? How much alcohol does it have? Luckily these are all required by law.  What the consumer does not know is if the wine is good or not. They do not know the wine’s quality by looking at the label.  I told the RVVA members that it was their job to tell the consumer what the wine tastes like through the design of the label.  Every winemaker believes their wine is a wine of quality.  Not everyone will agree, but they have to sell it so when the consumer sees the label they associate the wine with quality.

HAH!! Not what I mean.

This is not easy to do, especially if you are not a graphic artist. I gave examples of labels ranging from old traditional Bordeaux labels to labels with big black letters stamped across the front.  I showed pictures of thick dense bottles with textured paper and gold leaf.  I showed pictures of labels which were simple and minimalist.  I pointed out how the millennials are all about the graphics and how some very bad wines have eye-catching bottles millennials just need to buy.  I showed them graphic labels which combine old school elegance modern chic.  The basic premise was the label has to tell us how the wine tastes.






Too many wineries want to put their story on the label.  They have their code of arms, their favorite dog, the rocks by the ravine near the property and so on.  They fail to look at their label through consumers’ eyes.  “My grandmother loved to crochet so this ball of yarn and needle on the label pays tribute to her.”  NO! You cannot do that. You can tell your story, but it needs to grab the consumers attention.  Whether you choose the Chateau, the big bold black writing or engraved gold leaf, the design has to tell us what is in the bottle, not that your grandma sewed.

I then began thinking about the consumer.  It is hard to buy a wine.  There are so many wines on the shelves.  We each shop for wine in different ways. We are either looking for a certain type, meaning grape, grape blend or region.  We shop for by price. Sometimes we want a wine to impress and other times a wine to drink at the next barbeque. Boring as it is, most people buy wine because they are familiar with it. This explains why the large companies are buying and bidding for the old staples in Napa.

The wine business is colossal and unfortunately condensed into the hands of a small group of national and multi-national corporations.  You will never know when buying your beloved Sauvignon Blanc, classic New Zealand full of citrus and grassy aromas, you are buying from the same company that makes box wine in Brazil, brandy in France, animal graphic bottled Shiraz from Australia and overpriced Napa Cab. Consumers are left in the dark as to who really makes the wine and what that wine taste like.  This is why so many stick to what they know and are afraid to experiment.  I do not blame them,  they once bought an unknown eye-catching label with black background and red writing which looked like it would taste big and bold but turned out tasting of swill with residual sugar.  Probably one of the wines also made by the company that boasts the overpriced Napa Cab.

So as a consumer how do we know what to look for?  Before I help you with this question, I need to ask you a few.  What are you looking for? Are you looking for a story? Are you looking for an artisanal wine? Are you looking for something that is easy to drink and don’t have to think about?  There are many criteria to the consumer’s needs.  I do not think I can give you the best answer about what will be in the bottle just by looking at the label, but I can give you some clues.

Look for the alcohol level. It is found on the front, side or back of the bottle and usually hard to find. When you do find it, be leery. Legally they can fudge the percentage by a few points. The alcohol level tells us how the wine might taste.  The more alcohol means more body. Less alcohol means less body.  More importantly this will give you clues to the wine’s acidity level.  Consumers deem acidity as a bad thing, but it is the backbone of wine and it is essential to have balanced acidity or else the wine can taste and feel flabby.  If the alcohol level is higher, that means there was more sugar in the wine prior to fermentation.  If the grape has more sugar then its acidity is lower. If the wine has lower alcohol then it should have greater acidity.  So far the front label will give us clues to its flavor.  You know the grape, vintage, where it came from and have an idea of its body and acidity levels.

Now stop looking at the front label and turn it around and read the back.  Skip that mumbo jumbo about cherries, field flowers and chocolate. Focus your attention to the “Produced and Bottled by” part of the label.   Many  times the front label only has the name of the wine and not who made it, this information will always be on the back.   Here is what you need to know. The back tells us how much say the winery had in its production.

Cellared and Bottled by” & “Vinted and Bottled by” tell us that whoever bottled this wine had very little to do with the actual wine making process. They bought wine, maybe blended it with other bought wine, bottled it and slapped a label on it.  This exact same wine is most likely in other bottles with different labels.

“Made and Bottled by” tells us that at least 10% of the wine is made by the winery on the label. The rest of it is purchased wine and blended. Many of the wines with the above designations, will not have the winery’s name on the front, rather you will have to hunt for the name on the back.  Production of these wines is usually high. These are commodity wines, made to sell and fill the demand for inexpensive juice. However, many times they are not that inexpensive, but have great labels.

“Produced and Bottled by” lets us know that at least 75% of the wine was actually crushed, fermented and bottled at the winery.  The other 25% could have been made by someone else.  This does not mean they grew the grapes and made wine.  Most with this designation bought their grapes. However, many of these wineries have long-term contracts with grape growers and have a say in how to cultivate the grapes.

“Grown, Produced and Bottled by” is exactly what it means.  They grew grapes and made their own wine.

“Estate Bottled and Produced” means that the wine was made from grapes on the property where the winery stands, they had full oversight of the production of the wine and bottled on the estate.  These are the wines which slap their winery name right on the front label with pride.  They want everyone to know they produced the wine.

We think we are savvy consumers.  But be careful, there has been a lot of research by large wine companies on labels and selling wine. Marketing drives the wine business.  They still have the upper hand and sell millions of cases of swill because they invested their money on marketing and not the vineyard. Hopefully these few tips will help you in choosing your next bottle of wine. More importantly I hope our local friends at the Ramona Valley Vintner Association put more thought into their labels.  The competition is fierce and these massive wine conglomerates have no mercy.

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A Better Understanding of Baja Wines

Posted on June 23, 2016

Baja Wines Uncorked

The first Baja Uncorked went down last week.  Baja what?  Baja Uncorked is the first buyers trip to the Guadalupe Valley put on by La Mision Associates and La Competencia, two distributors of wine from the Guadalupe Valley.  Wineries of Baja invited wine writers, retail shop owners and sommeliers on a three-day journey exploring the wines of the valley.  They were treated to three packed days of seminars, winemaker greet and meets, tastings, winery tours and extraordinary meals.  The wineries presented their valley to a small group of wine professionals in hopes that people will have a better understanding of Baja wines. Today I’d like to fill you with intrigue and shed some of the mystic of Baja  wines.


To really understand Baja, we have to go back and see how it all began.  The first vines in the Americas came by way of Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500’s.  Once their supply of wine ran out, they turned to planting grapes in the Parras Valley in the state of Coahuila in central Mexico.  The first winery was established in 1597 by Lorenzo Garcia called Casa Madero.  The main grape planted in those days was a red grape known today as the Mission grape.  It is said to be the same grape as Listan Negro in Spain, also known as Criolla and Pais in other areas of South America.  This grape made light bodied wines intended for brandy production. Just as Mexico began to produce its own wines, the Spanish crown put an end to it.  The Spanish saw their wine trade suffering, and outlawed Mexico from producing wine.

Casa Madero

Valle de Parras

For many years, the production of wine in Mexico was limited to the missionaries wine for sacramental use.  Two Jesuit “padres”, Juan Uguarte and Junipero Serra made their way into Baja and established the first mission in 1767, in Los Cabos.  These were the first grapes planted in California.  Junipero Serra was tasked to move north and build missions in Alta California while Juan Uguarte built missions in Baja California.

It was not until the 1880’s that Baja built its first commercial winery, Santo Tomas in the Santo Tomas Valley, 30 minutes south of Ensenada. The first European grapes to come into Baja were Grenache and Carignan.  They came to Mexico by way of the Spanish.  During the turn of the century they were the work horses for Baja and Alta California.  It was not until the 1930-40’s when we saw Italian varieties make their way into the valley.  The man responsible was Camilo Magoni, who worked at L.A. Cetto for 50 years.  He was an Italian immigrant from Northern Italy.  Over many years he planted many Italian varieties such as Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Sangiovese and Aglianico.  The challenge he faced was Mexico’s warmer climate and lack of water. It was a very different climate from the mountainous cool region of Piedmont.  Today some of the best single varieties come from these Italian varieties brought by Magoni.

In the 1950-60’s winemakers started to look for fruitier, softer wines that could be enjoyed with pizza and tacos.  They turned to California nurseries and began to plant cuttings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. These Bordeaux blends made more sense in the market place. People had just heard about  the growth in California in the 1970’s.  Their Cabernets and Chardonnays were winning competitions in France, the Mexican winemakers decide to follow in their northern neighbor’s footsteps.  Back then there were just a handful of wineries such as Santo Tomas, L.A.Cetto and Cavas Valmar.  Cavas Valmar was started in 1983 by Fernando Martain.  He worked at Santo Tomas from 1978-84 and worked with the famous André Tchelistcheff.  Fernando has since been a great inspiration and significant part of the Baja wine movement.

Camilo, Zamora, Martian

Laura Zamora (Santo Tomas), Camilo Magoni & Fernando Martain

His friend Hugo Acosta came on the scene in 1988, he too worked at Santo Tomas.  Hugo Acosta studied at the School of Agronomy in Montpelier France and the Agricultural University of Turin.  He returned to the valley and began teaching people how to make wine.  There was plenty of fruit in the valley, but no one outside the major wineries knew what to do with it.  Hugo started “La Escuelita”, a wine making school for the people in the valley.  He has inspired many of the wineries in the valley and has been a crucial part of the valley’s success. Today he is regarded as the godfather of the Guadalupe Valley.  His brother, Alejandro has been an instrumental part as well.  Alejandro is an architect and has built many of the hotels and wineries that dot the valley.  His creative designs give the valley a special character you can find nowhere else.

glasses baja uncorked


The Guadalupe is about 1 1/2 hours south of Tijuana and 20 km east of Ensenada.  It was first settled by Russian colonies. In 1834 missions were built, however; the natives of the valley destroyed the missions and kicked out the missionaries. Today the valley is divided into 3 sections.  The first area is called San Antonio de las Minas and you come across it as soon as you enter the valley driving in from Ensenada.  If you continue on the Highway 3 eastward, you will reach Francisco Zarcos.  To the north is an area called Porvenir.  The wines of Baja California are not all grown in the Guadalupe Valley. There are many more vineyards outside the valley.  40 km to the east on the other side of the mountains is Valle de Ojos Negros.  Ojos Negros is a newer region where we are seeing much experimentation such as plantings of Pinot Noir.  20 km to the south of Ensenada is a small valley, the Uruapan Valley. 40 km south of Ensendada is the Santo Tomas Valley, the first area to plant grapes for wine production.  60 km further south is Valle de San Vicente where many of the grapes are harvested.

The Guadalupe valley is unique in that the soils are granite base with loamy sandy top soil.  Soils are great for drainage and repelling pests. The Valle is surrounded by mountains, blocking off the marine weather and allowing cool breezes to cool the valley at night.  The change in elevations is excellent for planting varieties on valley floors and at higher elevations providing winemakers with different choices.  Today there are about 120 wineries in Baja, and that number is growing everyday.

Guadalupe Valley Map


So why don’t we see more of these wines in the USA?  The first thing we have to understand, is that although grapes have grown in Mexico longer than anywhere else in the America’s, production of wine is fairly recent.  Baja California is still a very young region.  It was not until the 1980’s when we saw an increase in production.  While California was winning awards in Europe, Baja was still trying to figure out what to grow and how.  The Alpha part of the equation is water. There is very little water in the valley.  Low amounts of water limits the amount of wines which can be produced.  Yields are low due to the inability to irrigate.  Lack of water hinders the building and expansion of wine making facilities.

The Omega part of the equation is marketing.  How do they market their wines in the USA if production is so low.  Lower yields means less production and higher prices.  Wineries have to be sustainable, therefore increase prices to cover overhead and production.  The Baja winemakers choose to make wines that are more intense, from lower yields, therefore require a higher price.  This is very difficult for the general consumer to understand.  No one wants to buy expensive wines from an unknown region.  Why should they, there are so many quality wines at lower prices from Argentina, Chile and California.  The Chileans used another model, they bombarded the market with high yields and inexpensive wines.  Today they struggle to get recognized as a premium wine region.  Baja winemakers have decided to approach it differently, and aim for quality versus high yields.

Baja Vineyards

Now let’s say that the Baja wines make a splash in the market place. Let’s say that everyone falls in love with their intensity and flavor.  People start to seek them out and now Baja wineries cannot keep up with the demand. This can have two outcomes.  One, distributors become upset when they cannot fulfill orders to wholesalers and retailers, so they stop importing Mexican wines.  Or two, the wine collector, infatuated with hard to find wines,  will pay premium prices which increase the cost of wines for the public.  The wines become cult like in status.  Unfortunately, the more likely scenario is number one.  Baja wineries first need the importer and distributor to get the wines across the border, so the cult status would be a long ways down the road.


So what is the next step for Baja wines?  Remember, Baja is still very new.  They are sandwiched between veteran producers and consumers of California and South America.  At this time all they can do is grow and learn.  The new generation of winemakers are going outside of “la Escuelita” and learning from other great winemakers in other countries.  While studying abroad and working in other regions they bring back creative ideas on how to deal with their issues in Baja.  Baja already has many grape varieties planted.  Baja is diverse in elevation and soils.  This diversity along with their proximity to the ocean, allows them to plant and experiment with many grapes.  Today, Baja wines are known for their unique blends. In Baja, single varieties have a different expression and are atypical. Hence, allowing winemakers to create blends no one else can make. Sure, Australians can blend Cabernet Sauvignon with Shiraz, but they can’t do what the Mexicans do.  They cannot get away with blending Cabernet, Syrah, Tempranillo and Nebbiolo, crazy new blends only seen in Mexico.

guadalupe Valley

The future of Baja is based on wineries finding their niche and improving their wines.  What they have going for them is that they are not arrogant nor set in their ways.  Baja is one of the few regions which is open-minded and ready to try anything.  Baja is a great haven for bored winemakers of France, Italy and California.  They would have a field day exploring Baja’s wild west of wine.

Distribution is the next issue to tackle.  Baja winemakers need to enter the market with affordable wines.  This is becoming more and more possible.  More plantings are occurring each year.  Winemakers are learning to use what they have and will hopefully begin to produce by the glass offerings.  They need to enter the market with $10-15 wines.  I would suggest they put more focus on whites and roses.  These are far cheaper to produce, they use less water and can generate a profit quicker than reds which need to age. If you are a consumer and you enjoy an affordable Baja Chardonnay, wouldn’t you be inclined to buy a more expensive red from that producer?

People like Michelle Martain, daughter of Fernando Martain is an important part of this growth.  Her import company, La Mision Associates imports Baja wine into the US and is going on 5 years.  She goes door to door, winery to winery trying to make this work.  She was raised in her father’s winery and is determined to share her country’s wines with the world. After much sacrifice, she has opened many doors for her wineries.  She is also very smart.  She knows she cannot do it herself and reached out to Tom Bracamontes of La Competencia Imports, a new Baja wine import company.

Baja uncorked

Michelle Martain (La Mision Associates), Myself, Michael Langdon (Whole Foods), Tom Bracamontes (La Competencia) & Danny Fancher (Estancia Hotel)

Tom’s background was in the music industry, hip hop.  Tom, a “Gringo-Mexican” who does not speak Spanish made a name for himself at Tommy Boy Records.  Tom does not pretend to know it all. However, he understands people and how to approach situations with transparency and a no bull attitude.  This has earned him trust among wineries in Napa Valley and wine buyers in many states.  He represented Mi Sueno winery for many years and took a handful of Mexican-American owned Napa wineries under his wing helping to bring their wines into a competitive market.  He is a marketing all-star who today has opened 5 new markets for Michelle and the Baja Winemakers; California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Chicago.  Together, Michelle and Tom will open the doors for these Baja wineries and our palates to new intriguing wines.

I suspect that one day when our children are drinking a glass of Baja Pinot Noir in Paris, they will be telling this history of Baja wines. They will mention Father Juan Uguarte planting grapes, Santo Tomas producing wines, Camilo Magoni expanding the horizons, Fernando Martain’s influence, Hugo Acosta’s inspiration and the risk and hard work of Michelle Martain and Tom Bracamontes.

Team Baja Uncorked


While spending those few days in the valley, I decided to make a wine for my restaurants.  My intention was to make a red blend which could be enjoyed by itself, but better with carne asada tacos.  I worked closely with Laura Zamora, winemaker of Santo Tomas, the oldest winery in Mexico. Tempranillo was my backbone.  The Tempranillo was aged for 6 months in American oak and provides the tannin and structure.  I then tasted several samples of Grenache, Carignan, Syrah, Barbera and other grape varieties.  I landed on adding an un-oaked Syrah.  I am looking for fruity, juicy freshness and the Syrah gave it just that plus body.  Something was lacking, so I turned to one of the grapes that I think grows best in the valley, Barbera.  The Barbera brought the wine together with acidity and red fruit.

Costa Tierra Blend

Blending Costa Tierra Wine

The name of the wine is Costa Tierra, meaning seacoast and land.  The reason for this is to unite California and Baja California.  For centuries we have shared the same sea-coast, the same land and the same people. When it comes to food and wine the border is a fictitious border.  I want to tear down the wall and unite the two regions.  We may speak different languages and celebrate different holidays, but we both share in the rewards of a thriving epicurean future.

Costa Tierra Wine

The wine will be available at Coasterra and other Cohn Restaurants.



Posted on July 17, 2015

California broken

Civil war might break out in California at any moment.  Northern California is up in arms about sharing their water with Southern California.  Can’t we just call it a truce?  Northern California took our wine industry, so why not share water with us?

Long before Napa and Sonoma made wines, San Diego had a thriving wine business.  The first vines planted in California were in San Diego around 1769 by the Spanish missionaries coming up from Mexico.  There were no borders back then.  The area from  the Guadalupe Valley  to San Luis Obispo was one region.  Mexico gained control of Alta California in 1821 after Mexico’s independence from Spain.  American settlers were in search of Mexican citizenship to buy land and build ranches throughout Alta California.  Jean Louis Vignes, a Frenchmen founded the 1st California winery, Aliso Winery in Los Angeles.  He became known as the Father of California wine. Vigne along with other European settlers brought grapes and wine-making techniques to this region.  By the 1830’s ranchers throughout San Diego, the Guadalupe Valley, Riverside County and Los Angeles were growing grapes and producing a fair amount of wine.

Some of the most important people in the history of Sonoma and Napa passed through San Diego before settling in what was to become California wine country.  Agoston Harazthy, San Diego’s first sheriff arrived in San Diego and tried planting vines.  Unfortunately, he planted his vines in Mission Valley, where as we all know in the rainy months can flood.  This was “no  bueno” for grapevines.  Instead of planting in the mountains of Ramona or in Valley Center he decided to leave San Diego in search of wealth in San Francisco.  As history would have it, he ended up becoming the “godfather of California wine”, known for bringing hundreds of grape varietals from Europe.

Another very important man was Cyrus Alexander, a fur tradesman who came to San Diego to work in Captain Finch’s ranches.  After a short stay in San Diego, Finch sent Cyrus to Northern California in search of land.  After many ups and downs, Cyrus found success selling food to the gold miners.  He then loaned money to settlers so they could buy land and plant grapes.  Today that region is known as Alexander Valley.

Although many people left San Diego in search of gold, San Diego still had many reputable wineries, some reaching consumers in England.  One of the largest wineries was the Daneri Winery.  Emanuel Daneri produced well over 20,000 gallons of wine from his underground facility in Otay.  Back then, wineries would sell their barrels to retail shops downtown where shop owners would sell growlers to thirsty consumers.  Some of these wines were getting national recognition such as the Zinfandel produced at Monte Vino in Alpine.  Asher Maxcy, an arrogant and cruel rancher had a very large production in what is now Valley Center called Vineyard Ranch Winery.  He brought French wine maker, Pierre Hagata to make his wines.  Pierre was very influential, spreading proper wine-making techniques and assisting other wineries throughout the region.  His heirs continue making wine today.  Steve Hagata is the winemaker for Falkner Winery.  All was fine and dandy for many years, both Sonoma and San Diego were thriving.

Unfortunate circumstances put a stop to our wine culture.  In 1916 the Otay dam broke and destroyed Daneri’s winery.  Daneri lost his winery, equipment and several workers.  He was never able to rebuild.  Prohibition also took down many wineries.  Few survived by making sacramental wines.  The few surviving wineries in San Diego grew grapes for home wine makers.  This business was not lucrative. Grape quality was no long a concern for wineries, proper growing and wine making techniques were soon forgotten.  But why did the wineries in Napa and Sonoma continue to grow after prohibition? Why did San Diego wine get left behind just when California wine was beginning to boom?

There was a small clause in the repeal of prohibition which did not allow wineries to sell bulk juice to consumers.  This was not a concern for Sonoma and Napa, they had bottling lines.  The Northern Californian wineries had financial support from investors in San Francisco.  Cash flow allowed them to invest in bottling lines.  Bottling wines allowed the wineries to sell directly to consumers, transport was easier and led to consumers collecting wines from a particular vintage.  I believe that this is when we see a shift in the perception of wine.  Prior to this, wines were made in ranches to be enjoyed by all.  Once wine could be packaged, labeled, shipped and sold, wine became a status symbol. The birth of pretentiousness.

We have to remember that although San Diego and the rest of the South Coast were making good wines, post-prohibition they could not compete.  South Coast wineries were in the business of bulk wine direct to the consumer.  The sale of bulk wine was prohibited.  Wineries in Southern California did not have the same infrastructure as the wineries in Northern California.  Industry in San Diego shifted from ranches to fishing and military.  With the start of War World II, the agricultural landscape changed.  Grape growing subsided to grains and other crops to support the war effort.  Wine never had a chance.

San Diego wineries have fallen way behind those of Northern California.  Land is much too expensive for farmers to convert into vineyards.  Those that are planting vineyards and making wine cannot compete with other regions such as Lodi, Paso Robles and Mendocino. Not because of quality, but the cost of production is higher and cannot compete in the marketplace. We are starting to see an interest in wines from San Diego and the Guadalupe Valley.  There are more and more wineries and winemakers shifting their attention towards the South Coast.  We are still a ways away from making a dent in the market, but with more awareness we may see more investors exploring our local wineries.

Why San Diego wine?  What does San Diego have to offer? San Diego can grow grapes at some of the highest elevations which allow for better ripening, intense UV light and wind, a natural pest control.  The soils are predominately gravel and sand, which are bad for bugs and stress vines.  San Diego’s hot days provide excellent ripening while the Pacific Ocean brings cool nights which balance sugars and acids.  Many different types of grapes can grow in San Diego, allowing wine makers to experiment with unique varietals such as Carignan, Vermentino and Barbera.  Lastly, the people here are super cool, no egos and all about making wine for pleasure and not business.

Many people don’t even know that San Diego produces wine.  A town known for beach and beer seems to be an unlikely place for wine connoisseurs.  What people don’t know is that San Diego has a rich history and was the starting point for California. Heck, the Wine Spectator was founded on the streets of Ocean Beach.  If it wasn’t for the Wine Spectator tooting Napa wines, Napa may not have had the same popularity. So stop complaining about giving us water, you took our wine.  It is only fair that you trade.

Go visit a local winery and support our long wine making history, drink San Diego wine.