One of the things that make Ramona Ranch Vineyard and Winery truly unique is that it is a working ranch and vineyard that believes in sustainability and wildlife conservation. Owners and winemakers Teri Kerns and Micole Moore sat down with me one very rainy Sunday afternoon to talk about their thoughts, passions, and winemaking philosophy. Yes, this is a long one… but so very worth the read. 🙂
SoSD: I know Micole has been the principal winemaker at Ramona Ranch and gets most of the spotlight, however, you have been getting more involved yourself haven’t you? So, why did you want to become a winemaker?
Teri: Actually it was my idea. It was my idea to put the vineyards in and my idea to open a winery. Micole and I actually just started making wine together for fun.
SoSD: Where did you source those first grapes from?
Teri: For that first wine we made we got the grapes from the Edwards Vineyard. In February of 2005 we joined the RVVA (Ramona Valley Vineyard Association). We helped the Edwards harvest that year and they gave us grapes to play with; as well as coached us through the winemaking process.
SoSD: Do you remember what kind of grapes they were?
SoSD: So, how did that first wine turn out?
Teri: Oh great. So, we just started making wine for fun. Small batches. With no intention of going commercial. And then in 2009 we had made a Zinfandel out of Hatfield Creek’s grapes and it won the largest amateur wine competition in the world; forty-three hundred wines. And that’s when we made the decision to go commercial.
SoSD: I think a lot of winemakers, especially here in San Diego, they just kind of stumble into winemaking and then discover a passion they didn’t know they had.
Teri: Right, we just starting doing it just for fun and decided we liked making wine. In fact, we would take our vacations to wine regions.
SoSD: What’s your favorite wine region that you’ve visited?
Teri: Southern Oregon. I love Pinot Noir and it’s a unique area. And of course Italy.
SoSD: How many acres of Ramona Ranch are currently under vine?
Teri: We have about two and a half acres. We have another vineyard going in right now; a Viognier.
SoSD: What varietals do you currently grow?
Teri: Okay, here we go… I’ve got about 18 varietals. So, it’s a bit of a long list. But the primary ones are Tannat, Sangiovese Grosso, and Symphony.
SoSD: I find it a common theme among the winemakers here in San Diego County that the sky is the limit about what can be grown here and it really lets the winemaker play with different grapes. Have you found that there are certain grapes that grow really well her versus those that just don’t do well?
Teri: Sure, Sangiovese is extremely well suited to Ramona. As are any of the Southern France Rhône varietals. Southern France, Italy, Spain… those varietals do well here. However, we planted Mourvèdre; it’s one of my favorite wines, it just doesn’t seem to thrive here. Aglianico is also a challenge, for example, our Aglianico didn’t get ripe until the middle of November. So, we were pressing it right before Christmas. It made for a six month winemaking window for us here.
SoSD: Have you ever had to give up on a grape here?
Teri: No, because our first vineyard here was a test vineyard and we planted seven different varietals to see what grew well. And so that vineyard is still the basis of our Estate blend or if we want to experiment. That’s where the Syrah did well and the Sangiovese thrived; but the Mourvèdre did not. We still have the Mourvèdre, but we don’t get much of it.
SoSD: So you’re producing both red and white wines here?
Teri: Yes, we’re both. We’re actually one of the few wineries in Ramona that has all the equipment to make white wine. It’s actually way more expensive to make white wine, that’s why most wineries stick to making red wine.
SoSD: Do you think Southern California will ever have its own distinct varietal that will evolve over time?
Teri: No, all of our vineyards are planted on scions; so its American rootstock grafted to European varietals. There are native grapes in the United States, Vitis vinifera. Some native grapes I believe in Missouri or Mississippi. However those native grapes do not have the same quality or drinkability that a European grape varietal would have.
SoSD: So, let’s talk about your winemaking philosophy.
Teri: For one thing, we are extremely grateful to the people who had the vision to start Ramona as a wine growing region. And believe that we have an obligation to uphold the fidelity of that. And really as a first generation wine region and winemakers we believe strongly in doing the very best we can.
SoSD: What does that mean exactly? Does that mean using estate or locally grown grapes as much a possible? Is it about technique?
Teri: Well two different things I think, one is just a respect for all of the work that goes into starting a region and the importance of doing things to the best of your ability. Stylistically, we believe that great wine is made in the vineyard. If we don’t use estate grapes we use grapes from other vineyards which we’ve installed and watch the quality closely; or we have close relationships with our growers.
We have very specific targets of what we look for in the vineyard before we pick. We have a TA target, Total Acidity Target, pH target and a sugar or brix target. We have a specific triangle that our fruit has to fall into before we pick. If you go just on sugar, your acid might be too high… if you go just on pH your sugar might be off. We have a specific triangle and all of our wine falls in that range; we have numbers that we target in the vineyard so all of our wines should stylistically taste the same.
We also try to use yeasts that are suited for that varietal, for instance, for our Sangiovese one of the things I do is pick the yeasts, I picked a yeast for that one out of Italy called BM45; it was a yeast that was isolated in Tuscany.
SoSD: I know that some winemakers may adjust for flaws or errors in the barrel, do you?
Teri: We try not to adjust and we won’t release a wine that’s poor quality and in fact will discard it. We won’t release anything that we don’t think is exceptional.
SoSD: Speaking of exceptional, I can’t think of any of your wines that haven’t won an award.
Teri: Yes, and we’ve just picked up two Silvers from the Chronicle. Which is one of the most prestigious wine competitions in San Francisco.
SoSD: So with all the awards that your wines have won over the years, do you have any that you are the most proud of?
Teri: Our Estate Tannat. It won Double Gold Best of Class up at the Sonoma Grand Harvest last year. So up against all the “big boys” up in Napa, Sonoma, Paso… a little Ramona estate wine won. That and the Zinfandel wine that I mentioned earlier that we made from Hatfield Creek.
SoSD: It has to be a little nerve-wracking submitting your wine for judging.
Teri: It is, yes. And it’s expensive too. But for us it helps us make adjustments to the wine, so if a wine doesn’t win a medal what do we need to improve it? But more importantly we don’t just do it for ourselves. We do it for the region because it puts Ramona on the map; when you see Ramona wines winning competitions against huge, well known regions.
// Micole joins us from working in the vineyard to field some questions as well. //
SoSD: Time to field this question to you now Micole, why did you become a winemaker?
Micole: We basically just got started as amateur winemakers and really just enjoyed it; and then it kind of snowballed. We just started making more and more and getting good at it.
SoSD: What’s your favorite thing about making wine and what’s your least favorite?
Micole: My favorite thing about making wine is drinking wine. And my least favorite is cleaning everything. 90% of winemaking is cleaning. It’s important to make sure that no pathogens or bacteria are left behind.
SoSD: What other winemakers either mentored or influenced you?
Micole: In the beginning, most of the originals, just like with the RVVA, were there to help and guide you.
Teri: We went to classes that Lum Eisenman taught.
SoSD: His name does seem to pop up everywhere.
Teri: That’s one of the things we are most proud about; during Micole’s time as president of the RVVA he brought back the Lum Eisenman wine competition. We actually had the number one sommelier in America, Fred Dame, speak at the last RVVA Lum Eisenman wine competition. Again to our goal of putting Ramona on the map.
SoSD: That was outstanding actually, I remember reading about it when that happened. What was it like meeting Fred?
Micole: It was great, and I had actually met him at the SommCon the year before. He gave me his card and said, “If you ever need anything, give me a call”. So I did.
Teri: He’s a delightful gentleman. I got to spend half hour to forty-five minutes talking with him and got to hear his history and how he became a sommelier; and all the hurtles he jumped through.
Definitely inspired by people like Lum Eisenman, Fred Dame, William (Hacienda de la Roses), John York… people who take the time to give back to the community and share what they’ve learned.
SoSD: So in those beginning stages many of you all learned together.
Teri: Absolutely, a lot of trial and error, sharing equipment and information. Some of our dearest friends are in the industry.
SoSD: That’s the one thing I really love about the wine region here is that it’s not about competition. It’s about raising each other.
Teri: During harvest season Micole’s phone rings off the hook. He gets questions every day from winemakers, and he’s quick to drop what he’s doing to help people.
SoSD: Well, at the end of the day, especially here in the Ramona wine region, a winery is representing every other winery here. Because we want the whole region to shine.
Teri: Which goes back to my earlier comment of how I believe we have an obligation to the people that had the vision to found the region to really do things correctly and support each other.
SoSD: Speaking again to your wine, how do you know when you have a good vintage?
Micole: We want to drink it.
Teri: One of the things we do is taste the wine through all the stages and I think when it’s being pressed and at the pressing if it tastes like good wine, you know you have something exceptional coming.
Micole: Plus, all the vineyards that we harvest from we check them out throughout the growing season and we also monitor our own vineyards. So you know if you’re having a tough vintage or a good vintage. Last year was a really good vintage, while the year before was a tough vintage because we had high winds, rain in the summer. Most the time, if we don’t get rain in the summer it should be a fairly decent vintage.
SoSD: You know as the grapes are growing and maturing, but it’s definitely that moment of first press where you really know if you have something good.
Teri: Yes, the first juice coming off the first press. When it’s baby wine and brand new. It’s just finished fermentation and your pressing it and getting ready to rack it and then move it into storage. Which usually in our case an oak barrel.
SoSD: So you’ve been doing this long enough to kind of know with that first taste how it’s going to mature?
Teri: You have an idea of where it’s going to go.
Micole: You have kind of an idea but you have to remember, you’re going to take your red wine and you’re going to put it through secondary fermentation. You’re going to change the acid in the wine.
Teri: That’s another thing that we do stylistically that everyone doesn’t do. So we put all of our red wines and some of our whites (starting this year) … that’s another fun bit of news, we’re making our very first barrel fermented Chardonnay.
SoSD: Oh, and this is a unique technique?
Teri: Yes, and so we got the grapes from Justin down at Orfila. They came from the central coast. So we actually fermented it and aging it in oak.
SoSD: Are there any risks involved with a second fermentation?
Micole: The risk is if you don’t do it. The risk is that it will do it in the bottle and have an effervescent to it. It creates CO2 so it would be carbonated.
Teri: Or if you’ve ever tasted a wine that’s tart, so malolactic acid is the acid that we are going for in the wine. Malic bacteria is introduced to the wine and it converts the malic acid to lactic acid. So if you’ve ever had a buttery Chardonnay, that’s lactic acid; the same acid that’s in milk. So a secondary fermentation greatly increases the cost, because malic acid is very expensive.
SoSD: And you do this to all of your wines… or just some?
Teri: All of our reds.
Micole: Well, unless they have residual sugar.
Teri: Right, because malolactic acid cannot compete with sugar.
Micole: Lactic acid and sugar don’t get along.
SoSD: What would you say is the most difficult aspect of making wine?
Teri: Selling it.
Micole: That’s it, selling it. Making it is easy.
Teri: Making it is fun, drinking it is fun.
SoSD: What makes it difficult to sell? It’s it because the word hasn’t gotten out enough about the wines?
Micole: It’s that and we’re not salespeople. And a lot of times people don’t buy something unless you ask them to buy it. And we’re just not good at that.
Teri: Neither one of us are salespeople but we have an amazing team of four very talented young women who all grew up in Ramona who work in the tasting room and are phenomenal.
Megan is our Director of Sustainability, she’s got a degree from Berkeley in conservation resource management. So she’s bringing that to our process, we’re working on getting our sustainability certificate. Then we have Alle who is going to Sonoma State to get a wine business degree and then we have Kimberly, who has been to culinary school. Lastly Loral is a visual arts master, she has a degree in photography.
SoSD: That’s awesome. Speaking of your wine tasting, you have your tasting notes that go along with each wine that suggest what flavors and experience the person drinking should expect. How is it for you when people don’t agree with the notes and have a whole different experience with the wine?
Teri: I think everybody has a unique palate, everyone tastes things differently. Your taste could be influenced by your sense of smell, what you’ve eaten that day, even your mood. So I expect people to taste wine differently than I taste it.
SoSD: Are any of your wines meant to be aged?
Teri: All of our wines can be aged. We use ten year corks from Italy, so any of our wines can be laid down. For us, for our own stash, we’re drinking the 08’s now.
SoSD: Only problem, your wine’s too good and no one wants to wait that long. 🙂
Micole: I recommend you buy 12 bottles, that way you can have one a year for the next twelve years. Every wine has its day and if you miss that day it goes downhill from there. They’ll be drinkable for seven to ten years; as long as they’re stored properly.
Teri: We try our wine and are always pleasantly surprised with the way it changes, and we wait to release it until we know it’s ready to drink. So you’re drinking the ‘13 Sangiovese, we just released it. It aged in the barrel for two years and the bottle for a year.
SoSD: Are you looking to expand the winery someday?
Teri: We are going for our small winery permit, and we have successfully passed unanimously through the Ramona Community Planning Group. Once the permit is finalized, we will be able to start having events here at the winery; such as winemaker dinners, weddings, birthday parties, corporate functions, and art classes. We will also be able to stay open after sunset. Until then, we will be keeping the focus on simply wine education and wine tasting.
SoSD: Do you make blended wine?
Teri: One thing I think is unique about Ramona Ranch is we tend to be vineyard varietal specific. So we don’t do a lot of blends. Blends are more the rarity for us than the norm. We like to know in the glass what vineyard it came from, what the grapes were, and who the grower is.
SoSD: Curious, are blends to correct wine that didn’t taste the way you first intended, or, do you make a blend because you are looking for a very specific outcome from the wine?
Teri: I think blends, in our case, we like blends because they enhance each other. So you take one plus one and you end up with three.
Micole: You can’t take bad wine and blend it together to make good wine, you have to start with good wine. Our goal is to take the wines that our good on their own, blend them together and make them spectacular. We do bench trials as well, because not every blend works. You have to sit down and put percentages together and taste them, because 50% / 50% doesn’t always work.
Teri: Our Tannat we actually grew to blend, but then we tasted it and we realized it was spectacular.
SoSD: Curious, what do you make your Rosé out of?
Teri: Oh we make it different every year, it depends on what the fruit looks like. So our current Rosé is a Montepulciano. We’ve made a Sangiovese Rosé.
SoSD: Any port style wines planned?
Teri: Yes, our Syrah. We have also made a dessert wine, our Indulgence, which is kind of like a port.
SoSD: How much use do you get out of your barrels until they become furniture?
Micole: That’s a trick question; barrels are good forever as long as they are able to hold liquid. Now, when you talk about “good”, the oak in them… the “toast”, is good for about three years. Then it loses the influence on the wine. With all the new adjuncts you can put in there… dominos, chips, staves… you can use your barrels forever.
Teri: Barrels are the perfect vessel because they let micro-oxygenation so even if they’re not putting off oak, the water in the wine is evaporating out and concentrating your wine.
SoSD: How many barrels do you currently have?
Teri: 66 barrels.
SoSD: Are your barrels primarily French oak, Hungarian oak or American oak?
Teri: A little bit of everything. We are more particular about who we get our barrels from than what our barrels are. So 100% of our barrels come from Barrel Builders in Napa and we have a good relationship with the owner of the company.
SoSD: Do you think it makes a difference whether or not the wine is in French, Hungarian or American.
Teri: Absolutely, I can taste a wine that’s been aged in 100% Pennsylvania oak versus a wine that’s been aged in French or Hungarian. French and Hungarian are very similar; the forest border each other in some regions, so the tree doesn’t know if it’s grown in France or Hungary; because it’s the same type of oak.
Micole: They’re all white oak. There’s a difference between European oak and American oak, European oak is more dense so it can be split, American oak is less dense they have to saw cut it to make the barrels.
Teri: The density of the grain will impact the level of micro-oxygenation
SoSD: Are oak barrels the only option?
Micole: There’s cherry wood barrels now, as well as acacia barrels.
SoSD: So there’s really no “law” that everything has to be aged in oak. But oak has become the preferred method, why?
Micole: It has to do with the way the veins run in the wood so it doesn’t allow it to leak like some other woods might. Also the flavors, because the wood sugars when they toast them it gives you caramels, vanillas, nutmeg, and cinnamon.
SoSD: We like to think that reds go in oak and whites are in stainless, but this isn’t always the case, is it?
Micole: For most wines yes, but there’s certain wines that oak will give an enhanced flavor. We went to Paso and visited a couple wineries and found they were oaking the Viognier and loved it. So when we came back I knew I wanted to do that; last year we oaked two barrels of Viognier and this year we oaked four barrels of Viognier; as well as barrel ferment two Chardonnays. And man they are tasting awesome.
SoSD: Do you find that it not only affects the flavor but does it affect the color as well?
Micole: No, it doesn’t change the color, as much as you would think it would. Because we are using neutral barrels which are either lightly toasted or medium toasted.
SoSD: I just have to segue a little, I find it fun to think of just how much you’ve learned about winemaking in such a short period of time.
Teri: Micole studies the process of winemaking probably about four hours a day. He has really devoted himself to being the very best winemaker he can be.
SoSD: And it shows.
As with all great things, this great interview has to come to an end. Micole and Teri were so very gracious to allow me into their home to share wine and conversation. I am very much looking forward to the years ahead not only for Ramona Ranch Winery, but for the entire Ramona valley and San Diego wine region as well.
// republished with permission