On a recent Sunday afternoon, back in the foothills of San Diego’s East County, an unusual wine tasting tour was underway.
"There’s plenty of room to sit if you’re not holding your horse," said Marilyn Kahle to a group of 20 horseback enthusiasts. "So come on over."
The group took a ride off the beaten trail to visit some of Ramona’s newly opened wine tasting rooms, including
Woof 'n Rose Winery, owned by Marilyn and Stephen Kahle.
"We grow eight varieties of red grapes here, our oldest is our merlot," Marilyn explained.
It’s not quite yet Napa South, but the hills around Ramona now comprise one of California’s fastest-growing wine regions; The area got a boost recently with the advent of tasting rooms, even some that cater to horseback riders.
"We are one of Ramona’s hidden gems, our boutique winery here," Marilyn said to her guests.
The Kahle’s were among the first in Ramona to plant a vineyard. They started growing grapes in 1995 with no real intention or knowledge of making wine.
"We sometimes tell people that it was a landscaping project that went wrong," Stephen Kahle said, "because they did grow, and we just kept getting deeper and deeper in the project, planting more and more grapes."
The Kahle's recently finished harvesting nearly 10,000 pounds of red grapes to make eight different varietals. Their sprawling property is planted to capacity, just like many of their neighbors.
Today, the rural community of rolling hills and scenic landscapes is home to hundreds of family owned vineyards and 23 licensed wineries.
"And we have people coming from Los Angeles, San Diego — from all over the world — coming to Ramona now tasting wine," said Bill Schweitzer, a pioneer of Ramona’s wine region.
Schweitzer owns the 6-acre Paccielo Vineyard. Like many other Ramona residents, he wasn't sure what to do with his property when he first bought it.
“It was between avocados or grapes or broccoli," Schweitzer said. "And avocados use too much water and no one ever asks you what kind of broccoli you’re planting.”
Schweitzer said Ramona holds the perfect micro-climate for growing some of the best grapes in the world, but creating a wine region has been no easy task. It has taken years of hard work, vision and determination.
"The process is, first you have to identify yourself — you have to get a name," Schweitzer explained.
They got their name in January 2006: The Ramona Valley American Viticultural Area.
The essential AVA federal designation was a huge achievement, Schweitzer said. Nearly 90,000 acres in Ramona Valley are now officially considered a wine grape-growing region.
Ramona Valley is only the second AVA to be designated in San Diego County and the third in Southern California.
"Then after that you have to have a government environment that makes it conducive to making some money building wineries and vineyards," Schweitzer said.
That was accomplished this year with the final approval of San Diego County’s wine tasting ordinance, which allows boutique wineries to open on-site retail outlets and tasting rooms. The ordinance was approved in 2010, but a legal challenge by a citizens group kept the issue in the courts until June 2013.
“Because a wine operation this size, if you can’t have a tasting room, you can’t be in business," Richard McClellan said.
McClellan and his wife Zoe own Highland Hills Winery and vineyard. Their new wine tasting room is open on weekends. For a $10 tasting fee, they provide their guests a souvenir glass and seven tastes from their wine menu.
“Sales are increasing every month and it’s very fun," Zoe McClellan said. "I love working in the tasting room."
Richard, a former mechanical engineer, said he’s living a retirement dream. But he admitted investing in grape growing is not for the faint of heart.
"It's not cheap to plant the vineyard, and then you have trim the vines, prune the vines — it’s probably two years — the third year you’ll get some crop, four or five before it’s really producing," he said.
The McClellans produce 3,000 gallons of wine in a good year. They sell a half-dozen different bottles of wine starting at $20 a bottle.
They're excited to see so many vineyards and wineries cropping up because they said they can’t be successful in this business alone.
"Everybody’s excited when someone else opens because they’re going to be bringing all their friends and relatives so it’s just bringing more people to all of us," Zoe explained.
Richard said, now that they’ve overcome the political obstacles, the remaining challenge is getting the word out.
"There are people very surprised to find out, not only is there wine as close as Ramona, but there’s good wine here" Richard said.
Back at Woof 'n Rose, the Kahles have their prestigious national and international awards displayed.
"It gives us more validation that if we’re winning against the big boys then we’re doing something right down here," Marilyn said.
And they hope more wine aficionados will beat a path to their door, even if it's a bridle path.
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