Fillies are winning more than major horse races. They are making kick-ass vineyards better than the guys. Winemaker's Journal kicks off a series of reports on "San Diego Women in Wine" with Sandy from Old Coach Vineyards.
Sandy's European grandmothers, who were winemakers, allowed her to taste wine in their cellars as a young child, planting the seeds which sprouted into Old Coach. The founding of her winery goes back 20 years when the 41-acre property was acquired at the end of a dirt road surrounded by nothing. (Encroaching development has it situated a T-shot from the renowned Maderas Golf Club in Poway, CA.) Founded as a llama ranch in 1988, Sandy planted her first vines in 2003, and she's still planting. Over 5 scenic acres of Syrah, Petit Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet, Mourvedre, Tempranillo vines and more recently Italian clones including Primitivo and Nebbiolo. She, and other San Diego vintners, see a bright future for "the Italian" varietals grown in the region, and she planted another 600 Aglianico potted vines last week. The llamas, house, winery and most of the vines survived the October 2007 wildfires inspiring the name for the 2007 "Firestorm" blend.
The building housing the former llama nursery, six llama stalls and the vet lab has been converted into the crush pad, fermentation and bottling space. Sandra used her Bobcat to create an impressive naturally cooled cellar into the hillside which contains the cellaring operations. Like many winemakers these days, Old Coach uses 100-gallon and 300-gallon flex tanks, the Australian pioneered breathable tanks which are easy to maintain and allow for micro-oxidation of the wine as if it were in oak barrels. The attention to detail and quality in the cellar, vineyard and wine are impressive. Early on, she threw out a batch of Zinfandel made from three year old vines, because it didn't meet her standards (I bet the coyotes howled in delight!) "We've found that by aging wine for two years before bottling the results are better," she said.
During a tour of the vineyard, Sandra mentioned she watered the vines 3 times a week (an unusual routine not often encountered by Winemaker's Journal). Two emitters are on either side of each vine, and Pete Anderson, vineyard instructor from Mira Costa Community College suggested that the vine roots had grown into a ball near the surface (since deep watering was not used). Pete recommended she experiment with deep watering on one row once a week.
Determining the correct amount of water to use has been a real challenge at the site, because of granite domes and impenetrable rock formations not far under the surface. Despite the adverse conditions, with Sandy's perseverance the vineyard has taken hold.
Sandy loves to drive her Bobcat. Not only did she dig out the cave, she used it to terrace the land and dig holes for the end posts. She grew up on a farm in the Midwest, so farming is in her blood, and she does much of the vineyard work herself. A thick, leaf-dripping fog you can almost swim in has swept in this evening, and she's itching to get on her tractor and spray the vines to protect them from a mildew infestation.
When I visited again a few days later, she was strapped into the Bobcat, drilling post holes with an auger into compact decomposed granite. "See what I have to work with," she says about the lousy soil.
She decided to forgo nets three years ago, and establishes colonies of humming birds with feeders placed strategically throughout the vineyard. "Humming birds are aggressive and will keep away the other birds," she says. She also employs a computerized sound system that emits various bird distress calls. "I'll be out there and it will sometimes sound like a bird is getting killed -- but it's just the recording of a bird in distress. I've selected bird calls on microchips specific to the species we have in the vineyard, and it works. We don't start using the recordings until as late as possible -- otherwise the birds will catch on [that they're being tricked]."
Sandy and her son Jason (a certified financial planner during the day and 4th generation winemaker) have won 25 awards in San Diego's and Orange County's annual wine competitions which encouraged them to get bonded and begin selling their wines. I purchased one of their 2006 Petit-Sirah's on-line for $25 and was not disappointed and Bluey (cellar master of our winery) gave it 3-licks (always a good sign) and the wife and I fought over the last glass (always a good sign). Since there is no tasting room for the public, the wines are sold through an on-line cellar club, over the Internet and to a few upscale restaurants.
An award winner. One of San Diego's finest. Founded and run by a woman. Old Coach Vineyards.