At Salerno Winery in Ramona, a man’s passion for art fuels growing collection


Jaime Chaljón loves art. He also loves to collect it.

The Mexican businessman, who owns a chain of furniture stores called Muebles Dico, has amassed a collection of contemporary Mexican sculptures that have found an unlikely home in a winery in Ramona.

The Salerno Winery, off Highway 67, houses more than 100 pieces from Chaljón’s collection, and the number is growing.

Among his latest acquisitions is an exact replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta cast in marble. It was created in 2009, one of 112 authorized by the Vatican, cast from a 1-on-1 mold from Michelangelo’s original work. The striking marble sculpture, set outside but under a canopy, is a departure from the contemporary pieces that usually catch Chaljón’s eye.

“He loves horses and also faces,” said Valdemar Carvajal, Chaljón’s senior adviser, who oversees the winery.

A grassy area in front of a deck where guests can sip wine Fridays through Sundays is the repository for equine sculptures. Among them is Rafael Levy’s horse in bronze, which is now on the winery’s label.

Most of the statues are displayed along two promenades that culminate in a Greek colonnade set with large statues of heads that includes Ricardo Cruz’s bronze Head of a New Generation, whose anguished look evokes images of Medusa.

“I love all my sculptures. The primary reason is because, as they are a figurative art, some transmit love, passion, grace, strength or fear. Others transmit fun, pain, anguish,” Chaljón said by email through a translator. “In the end, all of my sculptures transmit universal feelings, which means: If I don’t feel something for a sculpture, I won’t buy it.”

The collection ranges from the whimsical with Rodrigo de la Sierra’s stacked cartoonlike figures — whose seemingly faceless heads transmit an array of emotions — to the mysterious with a series of works by Jorge Marín. Marín’s distinctive bronze nudes wear beaklike masks and often wings. Fernando Pereznieto’s sculptures combine music and magic to create delightful pieces that blur the line between player and instrument.

Many of the pieces are nudes and couples — some have indigenous Mexican influences, while others are more abstract.

“Our works of art have a very high artistic quality, recognized by expert critics,” Chaljón said. The sculptures date from the 1980s to the present, and only works that are either one of a kind or limited in production are considered for the collection, which is steadily growing.

Carvajal said the vision is to expand the winery, which is one of more than two dozen boutique wineries in Ramona. Chaljón would like to buy more land and increase production of the wine by obtaining a general-use permit for the nearly 6-acre winery. A maximum of 15,000 bottles per year are currently allowed, and Salerno makes cabernet sauvignon, petit sirah, malbec, chardonnay and port.

“His love for this place is remarkable,” Carvajal said of Chaljón’s devotion to the winery, which he now owns.

It all started with Chaljón’s other love: opera.

Chaljón enjoyed spending weekends at the winery, which was originally owned by Herman and Rosaria Salerno. Herman Salerno, born in Reggio di Calabria, Italy, in 1934, was an opera singer who once performed in Argentina, Venezuela and Spain as well as the United States. After his singing career, he opened a bakery in Kearny Mesa. His love of wine led him to become a consultant for Bernardo Winery before striking out on this own, founding Salerno Winery in 1998.

Salerno enjoyed making pizzas and singing for his guests. He also invited other singers for lively afternoons of song and wine. He and his wife lived on the property in a 1940s adobe until his death in May 2016.

Chaljón and Salerno became friends and eventually co-owners of the winery.

“My very good friend Herman Salerno passed on his passion for opera and good wine,” Chaljón said. “Every Sunday, in the company of friends, we would make Salerno Winery a wonderful place to enjoy the surroundings. Coupled with my love for sculptures, I made the decision of taking over the winery and allow Herman to remain making his wine and to live in the old house until his passing in 2016.”

Since taking ownership, Chaljón has been upgrading the property. Visitors now enter through new 15-foot-tall gates embellished with sculptural glass. Plans call for installing a solar power system, adding a kitchen (a food truck now provides the winery’s menu items) and, of course, adding more sculptures as well as some paintings as indoor space opens to the public.

The winery is part of the transformation of Ramona, said Joe Stupar, executive director of the Ramona Chamber of Commerce. “It brings people up from down the hill. A lot of them come for the art,” he said. “We’re no longer a place where you just drive through.”

Chaljón would like to see the winery as a cultural destination — a showcase for artists and a place for good food, wine and music.

“The sculptures are part of my life, my passion, my persona. For those reasons I invest more and more on my sculptures, and I open the door so that all the world can see them and enjoy them,” he said.

Salerno Winery

When: Noon to sunset Fridays; 11 a.m. to sunset Saturday and Sundays

Where: 17948 Highway 67, Ramona

Phone: (619) 520-1703