Mike McWilliams was looking for small a wine bar as a retirement business several years ago before he ended up buying something called an urban winery.
McWilliams and his wife, Linda , initially knew little about urban wineries, but after doing some research, they decided the concept could work and bought San Pasqual Winery in La Mesa in 2009. That concept was pretty simple.
“We’ll make our own wine and cut out the middleman,” Mike McWilliams said.
San Pasqual Winery is on track this year to produce — and cut the middleman out of — some 2,000 cases.
There are now nine urban wineries in San Diego County, with a few more on the way as more entrepreneurs tap into this market’s growing appreciation of locally made wines that rival those made in Temecula, the Central Coast or the Napa-Sonoma region.
The main distinction urban wineries have with traditional vineyards is their sourcing of grapes from outside farms, some from beyond the nation’s borders. The rest of the process — the crushing, mixing, fermenting, bottling and labeling — is done on the winery’s premises, which are often in industrially zoned areas.
Dave Woodhouse , who launched Witch Creek Winery in 1993 with his late wife and brother, said one of the best things about the concept is not dealing with growing the grapes.
“I never wanted to be a farmer,” said Woodhouse, who launched Witch Creek with about $11,000 in capital at the prompting from a few friends. Last year, the Carlsbad winery near the beach sold about 3,000 cases and grossed about $700,000.
“At our peak year in 2006, we grossed about $1 million and did about 5,000 to 6,000 cases,” he said. “Like everybody else, we felt the recession.”
Local Grape Growing is Growing
Lucinda Lattimer , Witch Creek’s general manager, said that while most of the grapes used for its wines come from Northern and Central California, it’s recently been using grapes from farms in Fallbrook, Julian, Ramona and Valley Center.
“Some of these farms were used to grow avocados, but the trees take so much water, the growers ripped them out and replanted grapevines,” Lattimer said.
Though it won’t be confused with the major grape-growing regions up north, San Diego County’s grape production last year soared 478 percent over the prior year to 4,813 tons, while the total value of the crop rose 512 percent to nearly $5.53 million, according to the San Diego County Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures’ annual report. The planted acreage increased 81 percent to 752 acres, the report said.
“A long time ago, we used to be one of the biggest grape-growing regions in the country,” said Shannon McCollough , the editor of San Diego Wine Journal , an online blog.
But the area suffered two severe body blows from a vine disease in the 1800s and Prohibition in the 1930s, causing a huge plunge in production, McCollough said.
And while most urban wineries source from well beyond the county’s borders, some are intent on using only locally based grapes.
Eric Van Drunen , the owner of Vinavanti Winery in Sorrento Valley, said his business recently became the first certified organic winery in the county, using only organic grapes from local growers and employing techniques that exclude adding acids, sulfi tes and other common wine-altering ingredients.
“We follow organic winemaking principles,” Van Drunen said. “We like to call it ‘minimally messed with wine.’”
Not Quitting Day Job Yet
Vinavanti, founded in 2007, produced about 450 cases of mostly red wines, including Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Malbec. This year Van Drunen expects to sell about 600 cases.
Like most urban wineries, Vinavanti sells nearly all its wine at its tasting room. Bottles range from $15 to $30.
Van Drunen started the winery as an outgrowth of his love for wine and the excitement he got from producing his first batches. Last year, he moved from leased space in San Marcos to a larger space in Sorrento Valley that’s closer to street traffic and gets some crossover traffic from people visiting the neighborhood’s several craft breweries.
The business is starting to get positive comments on Yelp and Trip Advisor , but attracting customers to the largely industrial area is still challenging, he said.
And like many of his fellow boutique winemakers, Van Drunen hasn’t quit his day job. He’s a project manager for insurance software maker Mitchell International . More Urban Wineries Desired
A bit older and more developed is Fifty Barrels Winery, owned by Brian Vitek , who named the business in reference to how much wine he’d need to make in order to quit his full-time job as a salesman for United Parcel Service Inc.
Vitek caught the wine-making bug in the late 1990s when he arranged to work a couple of harvests for Witch Creek Winery to learn all about the process. He did pretty well from the outset, winning several medals and gradually expanding his production.
In 2003, he moved out of his Carlsbad garage and got serious. A couple of moves later, Vitek is ensconced in a nice space in downtown Vista, where he produces 12 to 17 varieties of mainly red wines. Last year, his winery did about 2,200 cases; this year it’s on track for about 3,500 cases and about $275,000 in revenue, he said.
Asked about the growing number of competitors in the county, Vitek said the more the merrier.
“We want there to be as many urban wineries as possible,” he said.
Seeking to Triple Production
Also operating in the hillsides of Vista is California Fruit Wines, which makes wines from fruits other than grapes. Among the fruits that twin brothers Alan 2011 2012 and Brian Haghighi buy to make their product are apricots, peaches, plums, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. Their flagships wines, sold under the label Fre-be, are cranberry and pumpkin spice, Alan said.
“We’re more experimental and explorative in the wine we make,” he said. Haghighi says many of his customers tend to be younger millennials, especially women in their 20s and early 30s who prefer cocktails to wine and beer.
A former car valet at a local resort, Haghighi and his twin brother pooled about $12,000 to get the business going about four years ago. From a humble start of 400 cases in their Alan Haghighi first year, the business has exploded. It did about 1,000 cases last year and is on track to do about 2,000 cases this year, he said.
The Haghighis, who are 27, are also raising about $750,000 in capital from investors to triple their production and buy new equipment.
“Our long-term goal is to be in all the traditional retail channels, the Costcos and all major supermarkets,” he said.