North County wineries striving to harvest visitor interest

Visitors to Altipiano Vineyard & Winery in Escondido can enjoy outdoor patio dining with great views.
Visitors to Altipiano Vineyard & Winery in Escondido can enjoy outdoor patio dining with great views.

By Leigh Ann Dewey

When Southern California wine-tasting tours are being mapped out, the road most frequently travelled often leads up Interstate 15 to the Temecula Valley in South Riverside County.

“You mention San Diego County wineries to people and they say ‘Temecula,’” said Samantha Pewitt, marketing manager of the San Diego County Vintner’s Association, whose members include 40 of the estimated 70 wineries in the county. “That causes a lot of frustration.” And while she concedes that Temecula wineries have been very successful marketing themselves to San Diego and beyond, “we have wonderful wineries right here in our own backyard.”

Pewitt said the public is becoming more aware of what San Diego-area wineries and vineyards, most of them family-owned, have to offer. She said the atmosphere local tasting rooms provide and the rural setting that surrounds most of the wineries is drawing increasing numbers of visitors.

“You get a real hometown feeling with wineries here,” Pewitt said. “There is a wine country, intimate feeling people like.” A drive to most local wineries takes visitors into rustic areas, away from freeways and cities, down scenic roads leading to valleys and hillsides that are home to the vineyards and tasting rooms where the final products can be enjoyed. Interest in San Diego County grape growing and wineries is also on the increase, she said, because word is spreading that quality wines can be experienced where it is produced close to home.

“Ten years ago, there were only about a dozen wineries in San Diego County,” said Pewitt, whose family has owned Bernardo Winery since 1889. Recent changes to the San Diego County Zoning Ordinance have made it easier for people to open wineries and tasting rooms. Small wineries that could only sell wholesale can now sell to the public, increasing the opening of new tasting rooms.

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Vineyards at the historic Bernardo Winery.

“Smaller wineries are popping up all over,” said Ross Rizzo Jr., president of the San Diego County Vintner’s Association, and president and winemaker at Bernardo Winery in Rancho Bernardo, the oldest producing winery in Southern California. Rizzo attributes much of the success of San Diego County wines to their diversity. Varying climates within the county can create a different tasting wine from label to label, although they are produced from the same variety of grape.

“We all benefit from our micro-climates,” he said. “A sirah produced in Ramona tastes different than a sirah made from grapes grown in San Marcos.” Rizzo said he has noticed a definite increase in visitors to the winery and interest in local wines in the past few years.

“The numbers of people we are seeing (visiting local wineries) are exploding,” said Peter Clarke, who with wife, Denise, owns the Altipiano Vineyard & Winery above the San Pasqual Valley in Escondido. “The Temecula Valley has a large open valley susceptible to very large operations,” he said. “San Diego County will barely scratch the surface of Temecula’s volume, and that’s a good thing. Each San Diego County winery is an individual, unique experience. My wife and I don’t want to expand. We want to contact people one on one. Most of the heads of corporate wineries have probably never made their way into the tasting room.”

Rich and Zoe McClellan, who established Highland Hills Winery in Ramona in 2005, opened their tasting room in October. Since then, Rich said he has seen an upswing in visitors and a growing appreciation of San Diego-area wines. “The numbers are gradually picking up,” he said. “People who come to tastings are very positive about the San Diego wine industry and return bringing other people. We’d like everyone visiting Temecula wineries to at least be aware that there is great winetasting here.”

Ira Gourvitz, who established Fallbrook Winery in 1995 with his wife, Rebecca, believes the popularity of San Diego County wineries is growing because the quality of local wines is improving. “Some better winemakers are appearing and we want to support that,” he said. “We are dedicated to proving that we can grow the same quality of grapes as Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties.”

“It drives us crazy when we hear people talking about visiting San Diego wineries and then talk about going to Temecula,” said Dave Wodehouse. He and his wife, Kathy, founded Witch Creek Winery in 1993. Based in Carlsbad, the winery has tasting rooms in Carlsbad and Julian. Temecula wineries “are not San Diego County,” he said. “We make a lot of great wines right here and have a lot of potential customers. People just need to learn about us.”

Educating the public about the San Diego County wine industry and providing networking opportunities for vineyard owners and winemakers are two top goals of the San Diego Vintner’s Association, said Pewitt. “There isn’t a lot of money for marketing among small wineries,” she said, but the group and its members make themselves known via their Web pages and social media. The association also offers an educational program with workshops open to the public and growers on wine-related topics.

For details regarding wineries belonging to the San Diego County Vintner’s Associaotion, visit

http://sandiegowinecountry.wordpress.com

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The San Diego County Vintner’s Association is sponsoring its annual San Diego Wine Country Festival from 1 to 6 p.m. July 27 at the Bernardo Winery, 13330 Paseo del Verano, in Rancho Bernardo. More than 20 wineries and association members will be represented. The event will feature winetasting, food vendors, wine education booths and a chance to meet local winemakers. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door. For more information, go to http://sandiegowinecountry.wordpress.com .
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