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By Miriam Raftery

Photos by Sue Brenner and Miriam Raftery

June 19, 2014 (El Cajon) – They pioneered East County’s  now-flourishing wine industry.  So on May 31st, Maness Vineyards presented the 2014 Trail Blazer Awards during a celebration held at St. Madeleine Sophie’s Center in El Cajon—which also is home to a new vineyard of its own.  More than 200 wine enthusiasts flocked to the event, savoring local vintages amid beautiful gardens.

Herman and Rose Salerno, founders of the Salerno Winery in Ramona, received the coveted Lifetime Achievement Award. Other award winners were the William Clark family, founders of the Campo Creek Winery, along with Mike and Linda McWilliams, owners of the San Pasqual Winery in La Mesa.

Greg and Paula Maness of Maness Vineyards in Jamul started the Trail Blazer Awards tradition last year, when three recipients were honored for promoting or spreading the word about East County vintners. Last year’s winners were Supervisor Dianne Jacob, East County Magazine Editor Miriam Raftery, and Ramona Vintners Manager co-owner Teri Kerns, who also co-owns the Ramona Ranch Vineyard.

This year, Kerns led off the awards presentation with recollections of how far the wine industry has come in a very brief time.  She noted, “Just a few short years ago, our sleepy little town of Ramona had just begun its journey in search of establishing high quality wineries and an independent AVA…Amazingly, as we stand here today there are now over 35 bonded wineries and wine tasting rooms for all of you to come up and enjoy this summer and for generations to come. This wine expansion zoning opportunity is now spreading across the County to new areas like the historical Corridor 94 through Jamul, Potrero, and all the way down to historical Campo where families are working on their dreams just like we did a few short years ago.”

In honoring the Salernos with the lifetime achievement award, a crystal statue, Greg Maness recalled their  career changes from an entertainer and opera singer, bakery owner and real estate brokers  to growing vines and making hand-crafted wines the Old World Italian way.  Today, their winery in Ramona is also known for serving up wood-fired pizzas and fresh-baked breads along with wine-tasting on a patio adjacent to a fascinating sculpture garden. Herman Salerno, a former opera singer, even treated the crowd to an operatic performance.

“They dreamed together of establishing a world class winery someday,” Maness said, noting that the couple “fell in love with the vino long before the usage of modern age satellite linked computers, the Internet and cell phones.”   Nearly four decades ago, the Salernos also inspired creation of the 1989 Primitivo Tawny Port wine made at the site now occupied by  Maness Vineyards, also pressed and fortified in French oak barrels by Herman Salerno and Paul Vesco as their friendship grew. “Some of those old vines planted decades ago by them are still growing around our adobe house like theirs,” Maness said, giving thanks to the Salernos . “They inspire all of us to persevere, laugh, enjoy life and appreciate life’s pleasurable and fleeting moments.”

The Clark family has also helped other families along Highway 94 achieve their vineyard dreams, in addition to converting a portion of their family cattle ranch into a vineyard and winery. Bill Clark and other family members serve on the board of directions of the East County Vintners Association and he has also previously served on St. Madeleine’s board of directors in the past. 

“The spirit of living a vineyard lifestyle and giving back is still alive in us all, if we are willing to follow our hearts,” Maness added.

Mike and Linda McWilliams, both alumni of San Diego State University, bought the San Pasqual Winery when it was operating out of a small industrial space in Pacific Beach.  Both hold second jobs—Linda as a speech pathologist with local school districts and Mike as an industrial psychologist who most recently has been working with returning Navy veterans.  In 2010, they worked with La Mesa’s mayor to change zoning laws and allow both small wineries and micro-breweries to open up shop in the city.  They moved their winery to La Mesa and now produce over 2500 cases a year—also picking up man y gold medals at the San Diego County and California State Fairs as well as the San Diego International Wine Competition.  Linda is also the president of San Diego County Vintners Association and the couple helped protect vintners’ interests during updates to the County’s boutique winery ordinance. 

“This inspirational couple has opened the door for all of us to follow on our vines to wine journey,” Maness said.

He also praised the vision of Deborah Emerson, director of St. Madeleine Sophie’s Center and co-host of the Trail Blazer Awards event, along with John and Lissy Keily, also with Maness vineyards.  “St Madeleine Sophie’s Center continues for nearly fifty years as an amazing organization that retrains adults with intellectual disabilities to learn new skills,” he said, adding that 100 percent of proceeds from the Trail Blazers event were donated to benefit the organization. Maness also recently helped create "Sophie's Vineyard" at the Center, where developmentally disabled adults will now have vineyards to tend and nurture along with Sophie's Garden.

“This yearly event continues to expand awareness about the existing Ramona Wine Region as well as upcoming wine regions across San Diego County including the new Historical Corridor 94 zone,” Maness said of the County’s emerging wine lovers’ route traveling through Potrero, Dulzura, Campo and other small towns in rural East County. 

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