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Eat | Drink

No need to cross the border, San Diego has its own booming wine scene

Red wine grapes, such as syrah grapes, are easy to grow in our region.
Red wine grapes, such as syrah grapes, are easy to grow in our region.
(Getty Images)

Wineries generated $41.59 million in gross sales in 2018

Anyone who has taken a weekend drive into San Diego’s backcountry -- along state Route 78 between Ramona and Julian or state Route 79 from Santa Ysabel to the Riverside County border -- knows that the local winery industry is booming.

You can’t go more than a mile or so without seeing a directional sign to a boutique winery where vineyards and often tasting rooms await.

Nearly 10 years after the county eased restrictions and regulations on boutique wineries, the number of tasting rooms, wine-making facilities and vineyards has exploded.

An annual report released last week shows there are now 142 wineries in the county, either in operation or under construction. They can be found everywhere, from urban tasting rooms along the coast to a plethora of small wineries in the center and northern parts of the county. They stretch across the county from a winery hot spot along Highway 94 to Fallbrook, from the San Pasqual Valley to Ramona and Escondido.

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“There is a lot of good news in this report,” said Ed Embly, president of the San Diego County Vinters Association and owner of Hungry Hawk Vineyards and Winery near Escondido. “One of the biggest was the 50 percent increase in the value of our sales.”

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The economic report commissioned by the association shows that wineries generated $41.59 million in gross sales in 2018, a 57.1 percent increase over 2017 ($26.1 million) and a 71.9 percent increase from 2016 sales ($23.9 million).

It also shows that as grapes mature in vineyards across the region more are being harvested.

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In 2018, San Diego County growers harvested 3,248 tons of wine grapes with a production value of $4.59 million. In all, 1,642 acres of wine grapes were harvested, an amount more than 50 percent higher than the acre tally from 2016 (930) and more than 1,000 acres from just 10 years ago.

The business, Embly said, is changing a bit. Fewer new wineries opened this past year.

“This past two years we’ve shown a bit of a decrease in the number of new wineries,” he said. When the county eased boutique winery restrictions, it “created a lot of incentive for people to get into the business. Now I think we’re getting a more maturing industry. The bar for entry is probably a little bit higher now because you have to compete with some really established wineries that have their act together already.”

A few highlights from the report:

  • 62 varieties of grapes are now being grown in the county. “I think that’s great,” Embly said. “It’s a big increase over the past few years and gives the customer a greater choice.” Only 45 varieties were grown in the region in 2017. The top five varietals grown, cultivated and/or sold in the region were Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Sangiovese and Zinfandel.
  • The local wine industry generated a $58.6 million regional economic impact in 2018. The industry supports a total of 928 jobs in the region, a figure which includes direct (611), indirect (149) and induced (167) jobs. Of the direct jobs, tasting room/hospitality jobs lead the way with winery operations second and vineyard operations a close third.
  • The county now ranks fifth out of all California counties in terms of number of state winegrower licenses. The number (181) is dwarfed by the giants of Napa, 1,674, and Sonoma, 1,292, but is more than Riverside County’s 100. The other two top winegrower licensed counties are San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara.
  • Surveys of local winery owners showed that six out of 10 said Millennials are a growing portion of their clientele comprising 20 percent to 30 percent of their sales in 2018.

Hannah Gbeh, the executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, said the local wine industry is focusing quite a bit on agritourism.

“Ramona has a wonderful winery community that they are working to build up and to create an entire agritourism industry so people won’t have to go out of our county, to Temecula, to experience a high-quality wine experience,” Gbeh said. “Jamul has a similar wine tour.”

The economic report asked growers and winemakers what are the biggest problems they face. For the first time, labor topped the list.

Labor costs, followed by “talent/labor supply,” were the highest-ranked concerns.

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“Certainly, federal immigration polices are not helping our labor shortage,” Gbeh said, impacting not just the wine industry, but all farming in the county.

“This is something our farmers face and often they have to take a step back and wonder if it’s worth them planting their fields or is it worth harvesting their crops, because we simply don’t have the labor to make that work.”


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