The Ramona Valley is 45 minutes northeast of San Diego, just past the first coastal mountain range. Cool, moist air from the Pacific twenty-five miles to the west mingles with the arid air from the Colorado Desert twenty-five miles to the east. During the October wildfire season, the Santa Ana winds tear through as they bring hot, dry air out to sea. It sees an average of 16.5 inches of rain per year, barely half as much as Sonoita in the Arizona mountains.
The region, which gained AVA status in 2006, is home to twelve wineries, though one was in the process of bankruptcy when I visited. There are no tasting rooms in Ramona that I know of. According to local sources, a tasting room on the premises requires an operating license that comes with the price tag of $250,000, which I find hard to believe, but the lack of tasting rooms and wineries in general serves as convincing evidence. The wildfires of 2003 and 2007 damaged some vineyards and contributed to a lack of development in the region. The primary grapes are originally from Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley.
The one establishment I visited was Eagle’s Nest Cottage and Winery. The operation is a husband and wife team who have planted Syrah, Cabernet, Merlot, Tempranillo, Viognier and Zinfandel . They offer a cottage for two, which is connected to the winery with a beautiful view of the valley below. Wife Julie manages the cottage and maintains the vineyards; husband Dennis concentrates on new plantings and the winemaking.
One of the perks for those who stay at the cottage are in depth conversation with Dennis on the winemaking process. The experience provided me with my first barrel tastings, which has been one of the highlights of the trip thus far because it allowed me to taste unfinished wine components that will be blended together.
The difference between free-run juice and press juice is stark. When the grapes are first put into the press, the weight of grapes on top of one another causes a first wave of juice to flow. This free-run juice is kept separate from the pressed juice. Its fermented and aged independently before being blended with the press juice to make the final wine. The free run Cabernet Sauvignon was light-colored, but it had a very concentrated, complex aroma. The press juice from the same harvest was dense, dark and tannic, but less complex.
The most exciting wines of the day were the white ports tasted in barrel. One was made from Viognier, the other from an obscure Rhone grape called Picpoul. I was more partial to the Viognier, but both were interesting.