Life is good for wine lovers in Orange County. We have more than our share of top-tier retailers, discerning wine bars and restaurants where the hefty wine list could crush a small dog.
But here’s something you probably didn’t know: OC is home to more than 20 winemakers, some of them among the state’s elite. And there was a time when this county produced more wine than anywhere else in California.
You scoff? Read on.
Anyone who has driven up and down our fair state knows that grapes do pretty darned well here. Since the early 19th century, California has been one of the world’s principal wine-producing regions, and in the last generation the state’s output has exploded. In 2016, California wineries shipped $34.1 billion worth to the rest of the republic, up 4.6 percent from the year before. Last year our state sent off 285 million cases to a thirsty world.
For a complete list of Southland wineries, see ocwinetrail.com
Southern California used to produce a sizable portion of California’s wine. The missions concocted their own utilitarian product, of course, but many of the first major commercial wineries were scattered far from the Camino Real in what is now Los Angeles and Orange counties, and the Inland Empire.
European immigrants who settled here in the early 19th century brought cuttings and wine knowledge from France, Italy, Germany and other places where winemaking was a tradition. By the late 1830s there were vineyards the length of the Los Angeles basin, and by the 1850s you could count more than 100 vineyards – a time when LA County was home to fewer than 4,000 people.
What drove the growth? The Gold Rush, for the most part. Ironically, Southern California winemakers were shipping their product north to prospector country, not far from what is now the California wine industry’s hub.
Anaheim was an early center of wine production. In fact, the city owes its existence to wine.
Anaheim was born in 1857, when 50 German-American families from the San Francisco area paid $750 each to invest in the Los Angeles Vineyard Society. John Frohling and Charles Kohler, German musicians who dreamed up the plan, hired George Hansen, Los Angeles County’s assistant surveyor, to purchase land and plat the wine-making colony (still part of LA County, since Orange County didn’t yet exist).
Prospering from the deal, Kohler and Hansen planted 400,000 vines along the Santa Ana River. They started a healthy local industry – by 1875 there were as many as 50 wineries in Anaheim, and the city’s wine production topped 1 million gallons annually.
But the prosperity was short-lived. In 1883, most vineyards in Anaheim were struck down with Pierce’s disease, caused by a bacteria spread by pests named sharpshooters.
Guess what took the place of the doomed vineyards? That’s right – oranges. If not for the die-off, we might now be living in Wine County.
Phylloxera, microscopic aphids that live on and eat roots of grapes, also took its toll, as did Prohibition, but winemaking persisted in Southern California through the mid-20th century. In 1936 there were 163 wineries between Santa Barbara and the Mexican border.
Southern California’s wine industry was finally killed by a man-made predator: development. After World War II, vineyards began shrinking rapidly, and by the 1980s most wineries and their acreages had disappeared. Only Temecula remains, relatively isolated and protected by its status as an American Viticultural Area.
In the last 20 years, Orange County has experienced a small renaissance of winemaking, but it’s more in line with 21st-century realities. Most OC winery owners and operators buy their grapes from the great viticulture regions of the Central Coast and Northern California, although a few labels also draw from small vineyards within the county.
Here’s the Coast roundup of Orange County’s best-known winemakers and wineries.
A Stone’s Throw Winery
Wines: chardonnay, a cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel from Paso Robles and Lake County.
A Stone’s Throw, the new kid on the block, opened its doors in December and makes its wine at Giracci Vineyards; Giracci’s Chad Kearns serves as its winemaker.
Until new labels come in, Stone’s Throw is pouring wine made by two neighbors, Giracci and Cowboy Canyon. Stone’s Throw prices will start at $24 for the chardonnay; other wines haven’t yet been priced. The tasting room is in the historic Swanner House, formerly the Roger Y. Williams house. A Craftsman bungalow, it features original light fixtures, built-ins in every room and a whole lot of character. Out back are about 3 acres of orange groves, the last vestige of the orchard Williams and his brother laid down in the 1920s. Grapevines planted by a more recent owner, Hamilton Oaks Winery, have been revitalized by David Fanucci, vineyard manager for Giracci, A Stone’s Throw and Cowboy Canyon.
29943 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano
Friday 3-8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Bellante Family Winery
Wines: viognier from Santa Barbara’s Happy Canyon, pinot noir from Santa Rita Hills, mourvedre, syrah from Santa Barbara. Some wines are single-vineyard.
Chuck Bellante and his wife, Sheri, offer tastings and sell their wine by the bottle or case. They released their first commercial vintage, 2015, when they opened their tasting room in March. The fruit is from Santa Barbara County and crushed at a facility in Santa Clarita, then bottled and shipped to Mission Viejo. The Bellantes made wine for 17 years in a co-op before hanging out their own shingle. Their wine sells for $37-$60 per bottle; $30-$48 for wine club members. Members get one to three shipments per year.
“We’re doing small-lot, age-worthy wines,” Sheri said. “My husband has a passion for this, and you have to have a passion to make great wine. He goes to a lot of extra work to make the wines really special. He wants to produce wine for people who really appreciate quality.” Chuck is in charge of all things wine; Sheri does marketing and everything else. During the day they run an industrial water-treatment business.
“People often ask me where I learned to make wine, and I usually respond, ‘I am a chemical engineer,’ ” Chuck says on the winery website. “This has become such a joke around our house my family has threatened to put it on my tombstone. That’s fine with me as long as they serve my wines at the wake.”
23854 Via Fabricante Unit D-2, Mission Viejo
Friday 5-9 p.m., Saturday noon-9 p.m. and Sunday noon-5 p.m.
Cowboy Canyon Winery
Wines: barbera from Sierra Foothills, sangiovese from Sonoma, red blend (primitivo, zinfandel, syrah and petite sirah) from Sierra Foothills, chardonnay from Mendocino.
Donna and Michael Cipolla own a printing and graphics company, but that’s just their day job. Their passions are wine and country music. “I learned about wine at my grandpa’s knee back in New York,” Michael said. He has made small batches for more than three decades, nabbing some awards along the way. The Cipollas are friends with the Kearns, owners of Giracci Vineyards, right next door. Though Michael is a generation older than Chad Kearns, they hit it off immediately when they met. “We talked about wine,” Michael recalled. “I told him, ‘I’ve been making wine for years,’ and he said, ‘Let’s do it together.’ ” Cowboy Canyon has been open since November 2013 and produces about 1,000 cases per year, sourcing from all over California. “We’ve settled into particular vineyards that we like in Sonoma and Sierra Foothills and Napa and Paso,” Michael said. “I have the luxury of picking the best fruit available.”
Cowboy Canyon shares winemaking equipment with Giracci and uses a corner of the Giracci barn as a tiny tasting room. Country music is the constant soundtrack, and live country
bands are a regular feature at the winery for special events and Friday cookouts.
16162 Jackson Ranch Road, Silverado
Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Frisby Cellars Winery
Wines: chardonnay, viognier/roussane blend, pinot noir, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, marvel cuvee (a Paso blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah). Prices are $25-$32.
In 2008, winemaker Josh Frisby, an Orange County firefighter, started making wine. Frisby Cellars’ Orange County tasting room opened five years later. There’s a production facility in Paso Robles, where about 1,000 cases per year are made, cellared and bottled. “Our mission is to source the finest grapes from distinguished Paso Robles vineyards and produce premium craft wines to be offered at our tasting room and Orange County restaurants and wine shops,” Frisby states on the website. When he’s not fighting fires, Frisby can often be found at the tasting room.
20331 Lake Forest Drive, Suite C-3, Lake Forest
Thursday-Friday 5-8 p.m., Saturday 1-6 p.m. and Sunday 1-5 p.m.
Giracci Vineyards & Farms
Wines: primitivo, zinfandel, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chardonnay.
“We started making wine in 2006,” said winemaker Chad Kearns. “We made three wines at a custom crush facility while we were applying for our permit down here.” Only a small amount of the grapes are sourced locally. “We have some estate fruit, but we source most of our wine from elsewhere – Santa Barbara, the Central Coast, Davis, Napa, Lake County, Sonoma.” Annual production is about 4,500 cases, all of it sold to visitors and wine club members. “We did well last year,” Kearns said. “We won a best of class for primitivo and a gold medal for our zinfandel at the Monterey International Wine Competition.”
29943 Camino Capistrano,
San Juan Capistrano
Monday-Thursday by appointment only, Friday 1-5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
16162 Jackson Ranch Road, Silverado
Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Laguna Canyon Winery
Wines: syrah, malbec especial (half malbec, half other varieties), cabernet sauvignon, syrah-cabernet sauvignon blend, pinot noir-petit verdot blend, California 4-Barrel Red Blend, Sonoma Valley 7-Barrel Red Blend, Sonoma Valley 5-Barrel Red Blend.
Marlowe and Darren Huber were born and raised in the harsh climate of Canada’s prairies. They perfected their winemaking skills after moving to Vancouver, sourcing their grapes from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, Canada’s premier wine region. Dreaming bigger, they moved south and completed construction on their Laguna Canyon Road winery in 2003. The Hubers get their grapes primarily from Sonoma and occasionally Napa and the Central Coast, but all the crushing, pressing, fermentation, barrel aging, blending and bottling happen in Laguna. The Hubers are selling 2,800 cases per year through the wine club and tasting room.
2133 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
Newport Beach Vineyards & Winery
Wines: zinfandel, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, from Russian River and Santa Maria Valley. Estate collection: 2010-13 O.C. Estate Unobtanium, a Bordeaux blend sourced on-site.
At this pretty hillside site you can walk among the vines and try Orange County’s only estate-bottled Bordeaux-style wine, Unobtanium, an organic, unfiltered wine that’s cabernet sauvignon-dominant. Richard and Marilyn Moriarty purchased the picturesque 3.5-acre site in 1998, and they’ve filled it with curiosities and built a small wine cave, making it popular for weddings and other events. Visits are by appointment only for parties of eight or more and include two to three hours of touring and tastings paired with cheese and charcuterie. Cost starts at $60 per person.
2128 Mesa Drive, Newport Beach
Orange Coast Winery
Wines: syrah, cabernet sauvignon, pink blend, Big Wave, sauvignon blanc, Beach Blend and many others. Grapes are sourced from Temecula and Lodi.
Doug and Debbie Wiens learned their winemaking and marketing skills in Temecula, where Doug is one of the founding partners at Wiens Family Cellars. (Doug is also well-educated for the task of winemaking, with degrees in horticulture and food science, as well as an MBA.) Looking for a winery to call their own, Doug and Debbie purchased Orange Coast Winery in 2011. They’ve received many OC Fair medals, including golds and double golds. They’re producing 5,000 cases per year, distributing it through their wine club and tasting room sales. General manager Peter Swanson runs a friendly and efficient tasting room. He’s there every day except Monday and Tuesday.
869 W. 16th St., Newport Beach
Monday-Friday 5-9 p.m., Saturday noon-9 p.m., Sunday noon-8 p.m.
Pozzuoli Vineyard & Winery
Wines: 2013 Red Blend (cabernet franc and merlot), 2013 zinfandel, 2015 viognier, 2015 chardonnay, 2015 estate rosato, Hog Canyon estate red (primitivo and merlot).
Pozzuoli Vineyard & Winery opened its tasting room in April 2012 in a nondescript storefront on Red Hill Avenue in Tustin, but its inside was far from humdrum. That’s because the owner and winemaker, Enrico Pozzuoli, is also an architect; his office is right next door. Recently, Pozzuoli created a second space called Centro in a historic building in Tustin, where they do most of their wine pouring; there’s a microbrewery there as well, and an inventive and tempting food menu.
Winemaking has always been a passion for Pozzuoli. “My dad used to make wine, my grandparents. It’s an Italian thing.”
Pozzuoli developed the 12-acre property, planting his first grapes in 2001. The vineyards thrive on moderately steep hillsides that maximize sun exposure and soil drainage. Production takes place up north. As soon as the wine is done fermenting, Pozzuoli dumps it into 300-gallon plastic bins, drives it down to Orange County and transfers it into barrels in the back of his Tustin facility. “I do all of my aging and bottling here,” he said.
140 E. Main St., Tustin
Monday 4-9 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday
11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday noon-8 p.m.
15481 Red Hill Ave. Suite C, Tustin
Saturday 1-5 p.m., 714.258.8817
Rancho Capistrano Winery
This busy place has produced more than 60 wines since it opened three years ago, “everything from cabernets to merlots,” according to owner Kyle Franson. “We’ve had 24 reds without a repeat. We typically have about four chardonnays on the shelf. Right now we have an African pinotage.” The idea was to have something new every time a regular comes into his restaurant/winery, Franson explained. Head winemaker Kylie Huffman works with juice from all over the world, and the fermenting, aging and bottling goes on in San Clemente and Rancho Cucamonga. Franson decided early on to buy juice rather than grapes. “I’m not interested in being a farmer, and good juice is readily available.” Rancho Capistrano has over 650 wine club members and sells a lot of its wine in its restaurant. Output is about 5,000 cases per year. Prices range from $25 to $65 per bottle. The priciest wine at the moment is a cabernet sauvignon sourced from Napa’s Atlas Peak.
26755 Verdugo St., San Juan Capistrano
Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Seal Beach Winery
Wines: The tasting room serves 20 wines, mostly single-varietal, and one red blend that’s syrah-based with tempranillo and petit verdot. The grapes are from the Central Coast, from Santa Ynez to Paso Robles.
While everything started at the Los Alamitos location, space limitations moved production to Orcutt, where they have “a crush pad – a shared space.” Now more than five years old, Seal Beach Winery produces 4,600 cases per year under the supervision of winemaker Michael Dawson. With an enology and viticulture degree from UC Davis, a degree in biochemistry and cell biology from UC San Diego, and a medical degree from USC, Dawson also has worked for 15 years as a radiologist.
3387 Cerritos Ave., Los Alamitos
Wednesday-Friday 4-9 p.m., Saturday 1-9 p.m., Sunday 1-6 p.m.
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