Los Pilares has garnered national recognition as one of the tiny handful of natural wineries using San Diego-grown fruit. They are also my friends. They just finished their eleventh harvest in this, the Year of Our Lord, 2020. Michael Christian filled me in over Zoom about the brand new vintage. “Good years are the ones with no disasters”, so 2020 hasn’t been 100% shitty. At least for grapes in San Diego, 2020 was good overall. We had less rain than last year but were still above average. Temperatures were cool in the first half, becoming hot in the second half with a few heat waves on top of that in the last month.
Los Pilares works with three main vineyards; Highland Hills in Ramona, Hunter and Mazzetti in Pauma Valley on the Rincon Reservation and their own Coto de Caza near Santa Ysabel. Rich McClellan owns and farms Highland Hills. This vineyard sits at a lower elevation and features thicker cover crops. Hunter and Mazzetti, owned by Michael and Heather Hunter, is drier, with more uniform trellising. Coto de Caza, situated at 3500 feet, is a wild child. Planted in 2018 to a wide array of varietals, LP hopes to get enough grapes to make a little wine next year.
San Diego is often referred to as the Wild West of grape growing and winemaking. The traditions of the 19th Century have died out. We have no Grandpas to tell us how things were back in their day. We aren’t yet sure which grapes will thrive here. Records of temperature and weather patterns exist, but Christian hasn’t found anything that relates directly to grape growing. With this in mind, Christian and his partner, Koleman Zander, have meticulously charted their own data. Eleven years of harvest dates and temperature at harvest for each varietal demonstrates variation from year to year. It veers from hot to not that hot and back again. We frequently hear how harvest dates are earlier and earlier as a result of climate change in places like Burgundy, but so far, Los Pilares’ records don’t match that observation. The muscat from Hunter and Mazzetti used in the iconic La Dona pet-nat is always early. In fact, it is actually harvested later on average since 2013, with 2019 the latest with an August 10 harvest date. This year, there was none. Los Pilares lost all the muscat. It could have been the Grape Leaf Skeletonizers that lay their eggs on the undersides of leaves and hatch into caterpillars that eat the leaves. It could have been nematodes, but that requires confirmation. We do know, deep down, that it was 2020 doing its thing.
While climate change hasn’t really influenced how the Los Pilares team approaches harvest, it has guided how they chose their vineyard site and what was planted. The altitude of Coto de Caza ensures cool nights that preserve acidity. Michael believes that the coastal range from the border to Riverside County, particularly the mountainsides around Julian, present an amazing opportunity for aspiring vignerons with the capital and the gumption. As far as grapes, they planted all kinds of fun, Southern European varietals that are accustomed to heat and retain natural acidity. Grenache, Gamay, Moschofilero, and Assyrtiko have been given the opportunity to take root, and they are own-rooted, alongside Mission, Graciano and a few others.
Zander trains the vines to take care of themselves. He is betting on dry farming to be the most logical way around chronic drought. There is a well at Coto, so the baby vines were hand watered with buckets twice early in the summer to get them going, but they will be on their own soon. The vines are also head trained into bushes, which shade themselves in the sun and require no canopy management.
At the end of the day, of course, it comes down to money. Christian worries more about the challenge that grape growing and winemaking in San Diego presents to humans than he does about climate change. There are many passionate people working hard out there. They need to be physically, mentally, and financially able to tend vineyards for the long run. But, it is difficult to make a living. Expensive land, on one side, and low prices for grapes, on the other, squeeze growers in the middle. The price of grapes hasn’t caught up to demand. They have to charge so much from the top down and consumers are just starting to find the value in the higher price of a bottle of San Diego wine. There has to be a way to make growing more rewarding.
Christian’s closing thought is that this is our place for wine. It’s a serious place. If you live here, you have vineyards in your backyard. Wine always tastes better near the vineyard and you can have that experience here. Being an up and coming wine region means San Diego doesn’t have to pivot to adjust to climate change. We are starting from the beginning knowing what lies ahead.