By Miriam Raftery
March 7, 2016 (Jamul)—60 guests hoisted glasses last month to toast the grand opening of East County’s newest wine tasting room: Casi Cielo Winery, located at their historical adobe ranch house at Maness Vineyards atop a sunny hilltop in Jamul just off highway 94. It’s a dream that has been a long-time coming to fruition –a dream that began with two Italian immigrants back in the last century. As the afternoon sun bathes the adobe bricks and vineyards beyond in golden rays, it's not hard to see how Casi Cielo (Almost Heaven) got its name.
The winery offers a selection of hand-crafted wines made with 25% grapes grown at the estate and 75% grapes grown in San Diego County. With a motto “from juice to jelly,” Casi Cielo Farm & Vineyard also has a charming gift shop licensed under GregoArt.com featuring a new line of delicious vineyard jellies (served up over chocolate cheesecake—pure bliss) as well as colorful hand-crafted quilts by Kathy, vineyard lifestyle attire and more.
The adobe house was built in 1973 using 17,000 bricks fired on-site, patterned after the old Spanish Mission church in San Diego. Paul Vesco, an elevator operator, and his wife, Marie, were the original owners. They formed a close friendship with Herman Salerno, a fellow Italian immigrant, opera singer and baker who dreamed of opening a winery.
Salerno grafted olive trees on the side and made port—still aging in the winery’s secret barrel room. At a ribbon-cutting with San Diego East County Chamber of Commerce members, Greg Maness served up well-aged samples from a silver flask as a special treat for guests.
“It all started here,” he says. Salerno and Vesco dreamed of starting a winery on site and planted some vines in the 1980s. But Vesco died before that dream could become a reality. So Salerno headed north, establishing Salerno winery in Ramona. He has been a mentor to other local vintners, including Maness—now a vineyard consultant as well as vintner.
“In 2006, Maness Vineyards set out resurrecting what Paul Vesco could not finish,” says Maness, who has planted over a dozen varietals on the site. Wines currently offered including standards such as chardonnay and cabernet as well as some special blends such as Van Gogh’s Red Vineyard in a collectible bottle, a petite syrah old-school-style estate wine dedicated to the Vescos, and a meritage described as a “Corridor 94 Blend” of Heavenly Grenache, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Soon to be released are a muscat blend, rudy cabernet, syrah (described as a “flirty girl wine” and a barbera, a rich vintners’ reserve. Maness is also considering adding a citrus wine to the mix.
“Every year hence forth, we’re going to double our production,” Maness predicts.
Maness has led a veritable revolution along highway 94, where wineries are spring up seemingly faster than wildflowers after the El Niño rains—mentored and tutored by Maness.
Here at Casi Cielo, Maness makes the wines with help from John and Liz Keily, his wife, PJ, and sister-in-law, Kathy in this family-run operation. They’ve been bottling now for several years and this spring, got their license to open a tasting room—a costly and time-consuming proposition. They plan to remain a boutique winery (unlike some larger wineries locally stepping up to higher tiers of licensing).
They want to keep the rural character, which includes a mini-farm with chickens, goats, and other livestock as well as a fruit orchard.
The opening day celebration include special proclamations from Congress, the State Legislature, County, Chamber of Commerce and the San Diego County Vintners Association as guests toasted to the success of East County's newest wine tasting venture.
Strolling the grounds, which include a hilltop patio with views of sun-drenched countryside and distant mountains, you’ll also see informational vineyard signs celebrating the history of the vineyard and adobe estate, details on varietal grapes and winemaking as the art of winemaking is born again, revitalizing Casi Cielo, comleting Paul Vesco's visionary dream.
The new tasting room is open Saturdays by appointment fro 12 noon to 6 p.m.(and will eventually open Sundays,in a few months). Wine tasting costs $5, or complimentary if wine is purchased.
To make an advance appointment, call Greg Maness at 619-251-1819. The winery is located at 3044 Colina Verde Lane in Jamul. For more information, visit the website at www.manessvineyards.com.