By Miriam Raftery
Kristin Kjaero also contributed to this report
May 26, 2012 (La Mesa) – “La Mesa May End Prohibition” proclaimed a headline in La Mesa Today this week, after Council voted 4-0 to ask staff to prepare an ordinance to legalize making wines and craft beers within the city limits.
The ordinance in fact dates back to 1979 (not the 1919-1933 Prohibition era of speakeasies flowing with illicit liquor). According to Mayor Madrid, La Mesa’s ban arose at a time when wine making required large industrial facilities. But today, times have changed. Small-scale vintners and brewers are flourishing—and putting San Diego County squarely on the map as a premier region for both.
“This year, the state fair has initiated a wine making category for San Diego County wine makers,” Linda McWilliams, who co-owns San Pasqual Winery along with her husband, Mike, told the Council. “It’s going to showcase the good quality of wine making in San Diego County and we are excited to be able to highlight this here in La Mesa.”
San Pasqual Winery has a popular tasting room in downtown La Mesa, but currently produces its wines in a small 1,400 square foot facility in Pacific Beach. They hope to open up a 3,000 to 5,000 square foot winery in La Mesa.
Mike McWilliams is president of the San Diego County Vintner’s Association. He studied wine making at the University of California, Davis, and says he wants to put San Diego County on the map as a wine making region. Three of San Pasqual’s wines recently won meadow in the San Diego International Wine Competition, including a gold medal for their Summer Vine Blanc Passionfruit Wine.
Other local vintners are drawing global attention to East County as a winemaking region. Ramona now has a federally designated wine making appellation. Recently, three Ramona wineries went head-to-head against French wines in a blind tasting competition—and took first place in every category, stunning industry insiders. Another Ramona winery took two gold medals in Temecula. Hawk Watch winery in Warner Springs has won international awards, while Orfila Vineyards in San Pasqual has won over 1,300 awards for its locally-produced vintages.
Now some local wineries are doing such brisk businesses that they’re seeking local sources for grapes—fueling a burgeoning grape growing business.
Those wanting to learn the art of winemaking won’t have to rely on trial and error, nor crushing grapes in a bath tub.
Greg Maness, owner of Maness Vineyards in Jamul, has started a consulting business to help would-be grape growers get started. A newly formed Mount Helix Grape Growing Association founded under his tutelage is planting vines on sunny slopes locally as eager homeowners seek to cash in on growing demand.
East County has strong roots in wine production, dating back to the 1700s when Spanish friars planted grapes in the El Cajon valley and fermented the crops to create wines used in sacraments. In its heyday, East County was actually the grape-growing capital of California. But with Prohibition, grape-growers ploughed under crops and paved over fields, many finding more profitable yields from real estate developers eager to meet burgeoning housing needs.
San Diego now boasts over 50 wineries –most in East County.
The County also has over 50 breweries – and is fast earning a reputation as the craft brewing capital not just of California, but the nation. “Craft beer is to San Diego what high-tech is to the Silicon Valley, but our products taste much better!” declared Lisa White, vice president of White Labs, a San Diego-based supplier of yeast to the brewing industry.
The New York Times recently highlighted San Diego’s burgeoning brewery industry. In June 2011, Mayor Jerry Sanders declared a San Diego Beer Week to highlight awards such as Ballast Point, named best Small Brewing Company in the World at the Great American Beer Festival. “If you’re 21 or over and enjoy good beer, it’s your civic duty to support local breweries,” Mayor Sanders urged area residents.
Our region’s growing wine and beer businesses have drawn support from local legislators—and not just wine-sipping liberals. Assemblyman Brian Jones (R-Santee) pushed through legislation to cut red tape for breweries to run tasting rooms, while Supervisor Dianne Jacob, also a Republican, supported a measure cutting costs for small-scale wineries to open tasting rooms locally.
Mayor Art Madrid introduced the issue before Council. City Manager Dave Witt agreed that the old ordinance was antiquated and in need of an update to reflect changing times. Staff aims to propose a zoning change with a conditional use/discretionary component “as expeditiously as possible,” according to Witt.
Madrid made a motion to move forward with a new ordinance. Council approved the motion 4-0, with Dave Allan absent. Can a La Mesa grape-stomping festival be on the horizon?
Meanwhile, the City’s Centennial Committee is making plans to sell wine glasses with a centennial logo for the Centennial Legacy project—doing its part to raise funds for La Mesa along with civic spirits.