May 20 2014 05:35 PM

Locals are turning the sunny, backwater hillsides into fine wine

Joe Cullen of Cactus Star Vineyard
Joe Cullen of Cactus Star Vineyard
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

They may be winding, but the roads leading from urban San Diego to Ramona aren't as long as you might think. Take Highway 67 and you'll hit the rural town within 35 to 45 minutes (from North County, Highway 78 will get you there in just under an hour).

The drive itself is beautiful. The road climbs and twists north and east through a landscape peppered with scrub oak and boulders and home to some of the county's best hikes. The moment you leave Lakeside, you feel free and far away from city life.

But taking a drive to Ramona isn't high on most folks' bucket lists. Outsiders tend to think of the place as weird, or just a backwater town without much to offer. However, campers looking to earn their wine badge this summer will find that the grape-rich region is far more than just a pit stop on the way to somewhere else.

"What we're trying to focus on is making Ramona a destination, as opposed to what it has been in the past, which is the town you have to go through to get to Julian," laughs Marilyn Kahle, an owner of Woof 'n Rose Winery and Vineyard, one of Ramona's many wineries.

Driving up the narrow, dirt roadway leading to Woof 'n Rose (17073 Garjan Lane), a barking yellow lab or Shepherd mix will likely be the first indication that you're in the right place. The smell of roses wafting through the hot, dry air is the second clue.

Kahle and her husband Stephen have been growing grapes on their gorgeous swath of land on a hillside in western Ramona since 1995. They opened their modest winery and tasting room in 2007 alongside several other local grape growers who set up shop around the same time.

In 2006, Ramona Valley was officially designated as an American viticultural area, opening up permitting options and setting the basic groundwork for what's become a budding wine region that's home to more than two-dozen wineries—a number that continues to grow (check for a map and details about the wineries and vineyards).

Dog paraphernalia and red wine abound at Wolf ‘n
Rose Winery.
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

"We'll hit 30 before too long," Kahle says, pouring a peppery, estate-grown, award-winning red wine as she notes that she knows of at least two or three more Ramona wineries set to open this summer. "We all get along here. I think the majority of the winemakers and owners in Ramona realize that if there's only one winery up here, the public won't come up. So, the more of us there are, the more the public will come. They can make a day of it."

Ramona's winemakers seem to know, accept and even celebrate their place in the wine world. They'll never be Temecula, where some big wineries boast helicopter landing pads on their front lawns. Instead, Ramona has staked claim on the type of cozy, rustic boutique wineries where the person growing the grapes and making the wine is the same one pouring your glass.

While Los Angeles socialites have claimed Temecula as their wine-fueled SoCal party city of choice, Ramona wineries have set their sights on San Diegans.

"You have to remember that Temecula is in Riverside County, not San Diego County," Kahle says. "Most of the folks from San Diego that do eventually come here say, 'We used to go to Temecula, but now we come here.'"

A few minutes' drive on the dusty roads surrounding Woof 'n Rose will get you to Cactus Star Vineyard at Scaredy Cat Ranch (17029 Handlebar Road), a quaint place that owner Joe Cullen proudly describes as "what might be the smallest winery in California."

Like many of the winemakers in Ramona, Cullen has a day job, and he considers making wine his passion project. A small patio outside his home doubles as his tasting room. Visitors can meet the very dogs and horses that inspired his wife's artwork featured on his wine labels.

"I make everything here," Cullen says. "In fact, we're standing on my crush pad right now."

Cullen, known for his tasty Estate Tempranillo, says that Ramona's mom-and-pop charm is what makes it a unique wine region. "I truly believe that at the small wineries, you meet the winemaker, and I think you get a better grasp of what the wine is," he says. "Wine really is the character of the winemaker in a glass."

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The original version of this story said that Marilyn Kahle and her husband planted their first vines in 2005. It was actually 1995. We apologize for the error.


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