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Boutique wineries flourish in North County

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In the 1990s, garagistes rattled the collective cage of the class-conscious Bordelais, proving with top-rated vintages that the size of a winemaker's production facility is no indication of the vintner's commitment or ability to make great wine.

In North County San Diego, boutique wineries are the norm rather than the exception. Vineyards have been part of the agricultural landscape since the Franciscans planted grapes for making sherry, and wineries in or around Escondido were known for producing high-quality muscatel wines until Prohibition all but ran them out of town.

Escondido's Ferrara Winery is run by third-generation winemaker Gasper Ferrara Jr., whose grandfather began producing wine in 1932, the year before Prohibition was repealed. Theirs is the oldest active winemaking family in the county. Designated a State Historical Point of Interest in 1971, the winery produces 28 varieties including fortified and specialty dessert wines.

Orfila Vineyards sustained some damage to merlot vines in the October wildfires. Photo courtesy Orfila Vineyards

At one time, the family had 1,000 acres under vine, but now purchases grapes from Temecula, Cucamonga and Monterey, Calif., to crush at the Escondido facility -- 24 tons an hour, 40 to 100 tons a year with a yield of 150 gallons per ton.

Now 53, Ferrara started in the winemaking business at age 14.

"The industry has changed from Europeans making a living at the winery to a prestigious business," he said. "New wineries have restaurants, wedding reception areas -- you have to do other things to make a living."

Ferrara wines are sold at select retail shops, but most sales come from the winery's own store. The company doesn't have a wine club, nor does it advertise.

"The best advertisement is word of mouth," Ferrara said. "We have regular customers all over the world."

The 40-acre Fallbrook Winery was established in 1981. Ted Gourvitz and his father, Ira, took over in 1995 and replanted 14 acres with merlot, petit verdot, cabernet franc, syrah and Malbec vines to produce Rhone and Bordeaux-style red and white wines in 2003. The remaining acreage is dedicated to production facilities and natural habitat.

Fallbrook Winery bottles shown laying atop a bin of just harvested grapes. Photo courtesy Fallbrook Winery

It takes three years for a vine to produce grapes fit for winemaking. The 2006 vintage will be the first 100 percent grown, produced and bottled at the estate, and will yield an estimated 200 cases. The winery also produces 15,000 to 20,000 cases annually with grapes grown in other regions including Santa Barbara, Monterrey and Paso Robles, Calif.

Fallbrook Winery sells to restaurants, select retailers and via quarterly shipments to its 180 wine club members. Ultimately, "The goal is to produce wines that appeal to restauranteurs," said general manager Gourvitz.

Fallbrook Winery's marketing program is a grassroots effort: attending wine tastings and other events, making introductions to restaurants and sales calls to retailers. The company's biggest challenge is getting the word out that it is a viable winery competing against wines made in Sonoma, Napa Valley and Australia.

"We're not situated geographically where we get a lot of walk-in traffic and we're looking to improve that because when people get a chance to taste the wines, they really like it," he said.

Distribution is a challenge even for Orfila Vineyards, San Diego County's most well-known winery. Orfila has won more than 1,200 medals, including one for its Estate Viognier "Lotus" Lot 45, one of only three gold medals awarded to U.S. wineries in the 2007 Challenge International du Vin in Bordeaux, France.

"In my opinion, that's always been the challenge," said Orfila's general manager and winemaker, Leon Santoro. "The key to success is distribution."

The medals prove that premium Rhone-style wines can be produced in San Diego, but according to Santoro, "It's hard to be a prophet in your own town."

Santoro emigrated from Italy when he was 17 and began his winemaking career in Napa Valley at Louis Martini Winery and Stags Leap Wine Cellars. He was co-owner/winemaker at Quail Ridge Winery until joining the Thomas Jaeger Winery in 1991, where he began experimenting with grafting and growing viognier, syrah and sangiovese grapes. In 1994 Ambassador Alejandro Orfila bought the San Pasqual Valley winery, which has soils and conditions similar to those in Southern France.

Orfila sustained damage to irrigation lines and 200 merlot vines in the 2007 wildfires, representing about 1 percent of more than 20,000 vines planted on 40 acres. Santoro won't know if the vines survived until the end of March, but he's an optimist.

"We pruned them and now we pray. If they come back it will be fine -- if not, we have to replant," he said, adding that the cost of replanting could reach $100,000.

To maintain quality, Santoro selects the best lots for bottling under the winery's label, and produces approximately 15,000 cases annually. The remainder is sold in bulk to other wineries. Orfila's wines are distributed in Florida, Texas, Georgia and Wisconsin. The winery exports to Japan, Germany, Switzerland and Cuba and is pushing hard to be part of the Olympics in China.

"To be part of the Olympics would make my year," he said.

According to Santoro, recent wine and spirit consolidations mean small wineries get lost in a big distributor's book. The next stage for San Diego wineries is to increase case production and take their show on the road, much like he and other Napa Valley producers did road shows in the '70s.

"To grow the grapes and make the wine is nothing," he said. "The recognition won't come to you -- you have to go get it."


James is a Carlsbad-based freelance writer.

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