I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to get a little stir crazy. Doing nothing but working from home, taking occasional trips out for food, the rare trips to the office and the complete reimagining of other jobs has me dreaming of what I’ll do once restrictions are lifted. Mrs. Wine Critic and I were scheduled to be in Great Britain two weeks ago, taking in the new sparkling wine region southeast of London (and the new staging of Les Miserables at the Sondheim) but it was not to be, and I suspect it won’t be for some time to come.
But this is what we wine folk do! It’s more than just running through samples in a tasting office and trying to keep up with the resulting cardboard pile – it’s getting out and seeing the places that our favorite beverages come from. It’s meeting the people who invest their time, effort and money following their passion to bring those beverages to us and finding out what makes them tick. Since the easing of restrictions will likely go out in small doses and keep travel fairly local, let’s pay an introductory visit to some of my favorite local producers here in San Diego County – California’s original wine region – and see a renaissance in progress. Maybe I’ll entice you to travel this direction when the world opens up again….
Volcan Mountain Winery in Julian, a small mountain town about an hour outside of San Diego, has an impressive lineup of wines. February’s Toast of the Coast Wine Competition at the Del Mar Fairgrounds yielded two double gold medals for the tiny producer in an international competition. Owner/winemaker Jim Hart is a second-generation winemaker following in the footsteps of his father and Temecula pioneer Joe Hart, and he’s got a knack for not only growing and vinifying, but for finding small vineyards around the county that produce superior fruit. The vineyard atop Volcan Mountain sits at an elevation of about 4000 feet, making it one of the highest elevation vineyards in the country. Purchased a few years ago from Jim Jenkins, it produces epic Pinot Gris that’s quite Alsatian in style, perhaps in part due to the winter snows that dust the area each year. (Wait…snow? San Diego?) Hart also makes three different expressions of apple wine from orchards on the property, and they are all quite tasty.
4200’ Elevation Vineyards at Volcan Mountain
Moving almost due west about sixty miles from Julian, Owner/winemaker Chris Van Alyea’s Solterra Winery and Kitchen in the coastal hamlet of Leucadia in San Diego’s north county is another take on what a winery can be. Chris was educated at Oregon University and comes from a wine producing family (his father grows wine grapes near Lambert Bridge in the Dry Creek Valley AVA) and he sources fruit from all over the state for his urban winery. The resulting wines are split into three different labels: Solterra features wines from the South Coast and Baja California, Christopher Cameron focuses on Van Alyea Ranch fruit, and Costa Azul showcases fruit from Northern California and the Central Coast AVA’s. It’s quite a portfolio, with multiple award-winners year in and year out, and a great little tapas bar style restaurant that’s a huge local hit.
A Taste at Solterra
Zig-zagging back east about 30 minutes you’ll find Domaine Artefact, one of the counties’ newer ventures that’s focused on Rhône varieties. Owner/winemaker Mark Robinson’s west facing slope vineyards are fully in production now, and he’s making some of the best wine in the county. His recent retirement from several years as a high school chemistry teacher have allowed him to focus completely on the wine. The former horse property has new construction underway, and the current tasting setup is a great place to while away a weekend afternoon. The Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc, not to mention the blends, are all excellent, and Mark and his wife Lynn are a pleasure.
Some of the Lineup at Domaine Artefact
A short hop to the north will take you to perhaps the youngest winery in the county, Jack Simon Vineyards in Valley Center. Initially working out of a custom crush facility in Escondido, the winery is taking shape on a gorgeous property that gets quite a bit of coastal influence thanks to the cut of the valleys that lead from the ocean to the site. This makes it possible for varieties like Albariño and Picardan to work well and maintain the lively acidity that is an integral part of their character. Winemaker Ryan Scott grew up in the county, and after stints with a few other local projects has found a solid home here, and getting to work with a list that includes Albarinõ, Picardan, Louriero, Macabeo, Arinto, Mourvedre, Grenache, Carignan and Tempranillo is a unique assignment in the state. The whites are almost fully online at present, and Ryan’s first red – the Tempranillo – has just released.
Jack Simon Vineyards – Valley Center, California
So – there’s a brief “virtual tour” of some San Diego County wine highlights for you. I had hoped that writing this would ease my frustration at not being able to get out on the circuit and meet, taste and gain deeper understanding, but I think what’s actually happened is that I’ve gotten myself in salivating mode with no place to go. Strange times we're in….
Here are a few reviews from myself and WRO Editor Michael Franz to whet your appetite for trying some wines from these properties:
Volcan Mountain Winery, San Diego County (California) Carignan McCormick Ranch 2017 ($36): I’m glad to see more of this variety standing alone on front labels in California. Carignan is a wonderful grape when shepherded by good hands in the winery, and Jim Hart has a set of good hands. This wine is situated on the bright side of the spectrum, with cherry, blueberry, easy oak spice and great acidity that pushes the finish well. I’d age this a while to more fully integrate the oak, but I’m picky that way. Decant well if you go in early, and enjoy. A Double Gold Award winner at the 2020 Toast of the Coast International Wine Competition. Rich Cook: 94
Christopher Cameron Vineyards, Dry Creek Valley (Sonoma County, California) Merlot Van Alyea Ranch Reserve 2016 ($60): “Merlot” and “Muscle” are two terms that many consumers aren’t inclined to consider in tandem, but this is certainly a wine that conjoins the two. Deep, dark ruby color shows what’s in store, and the pure aromas of red and black berries and plums are quite enticing. The palate holds true to the aromatic suggestions, offering excellent flavor impact and sensory depth and length. Although this is a big wine at a premium price, it is admirably free of extraneous oak, leaving a sense of purity in the long finish. A truly outstanding Merlot that can hold its own with big-time Cabernets, but in its own distinctive way. A Double Gold Award winner at the 2019 Toast of the Coast International Wine Competition. Michael Franz: 94
Domaine Artefact, San Diego County (California) Estate “As the Crow Flies” Red Wine Blend 2015 ($45): From a vineyard in the Highland Valley area, no doubt soon to be its own AVA, comes this excellent Rhone blend from owner/winemaker Mark Robinson. Aromas of black and blue berries are joined by savory elements of tar, pepper, vanilla, fall spice and a touch of orange zest. The palate has a rich texture, lively translation of the nose elements and supple grip that extend the finish. Give this a little time to fully integrated the oak spice -- decant long near term, or age 3 to 5 years for openers. An achievement in San Diego County. Rich Cook: 93
Jack Simon Vineyards, San Diego County (California) Picardan 2018 ($32): An obscure variety found in tiny amounts in the blends of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, one that’s prized for the acidity it can add to the blend, Picardan gets Diva treatment here as a featured soloist. The aromas draw you in with floral and peach scents in front, backed by citrus and wet stone. The palate shows the extra hang time given the grapes, allowing ripeness tempered acidity to round out the midpalate and let the fruit express itself fully. There’s plenty of brightness, and notes of bay leaf and white pepper add interest. Brava! Rich Cook: 90