Highland Valley Wineries: A Love Affair with Ramona Valley

Highland Valley Wineries Vista View
My second day in the Ramona Valley took me to four Highland Valley wineries. I found the day to be all about passion. Each winemaker had their interpretation of their love of wine, whether it be the winemaking process or the growing of grapes. Although the passion seemed to take on different forms, one commonality exists, a desire and love of their location in San Diego County. Each winery’s devotion to making a name for San Diego Wine Country was quite apparent.

The San Diego County wine region is divided into two sections, Ramona Valley on the East and the Highland Valley on the west. Both area’s topography is similar. It reminds me of Tuscany with its large boulder type rocks. It is also reminiscent of the vista ones sees in Valle de Guadalupe.

Like the Ramona Valley, the Witch Fire devastated the area in 2007. Pretty much all the plantings occurred after the fire. A wide range of grapes grow in the area but primarily Rhone, Bordeaux and Tuscan varieties.

Highland Valley Wineries

I visited four wineries in the area, and all presented unique takes on the terroir and what they are achieving with their winemaking. In this article, we will visit Espinosa Vineyard, Altipiano Vineyard, Domaine Artefact Winery, and Cordiano Winery.

Espinosa Vineyards and Winery

This winery has a Spanish flair. The Espinosa tasting room is an outdoor area with an enjoyable ambiance. The winery is built into a hill with a cave-like entrance. Roberto and Noel Espinosa are microbiologists from the Bay Area, but their passion is Spanish wine.

Originally, grapes were planted on the property in 1893 by William Winn, and the first winery was built in 1936 but later converted into a machine shop. The vineyard lay dormant for fifty years. In 2007 the winery burnt down during the fire.

The property consists of five acres that cultivate 1800 vines — planted in 2008 with Tempranillo, Malbec, Grenache, and other Spanish Varietals. They use both American and Hungarian oak.

Espinosa Vineyards Cave
The Cave at Espinosa Vineyards and Winery.

Espinosa Wines

In the Sauvignon Blanc, which ages in 20% concrete, I found a crisp wine with slight hints of grass on the nose yet on the palate exhibits bright tropical fruit flavors.

The Albarino displays aromas of citrus and flavors of stone fruit, making this wine bright and refreshing.

Composed of Grenache primarily and Syrah the Rosado grapes grow specifically for Rosé. With very fruity aromas I found nice acid and flavors of peach and watermelon.

The Grenache delivers a lighter style with aromas of cherry and marzipan while on the palette the distinct flavor of cherries come through.

Espinosa Vineyards Wine
Espinosa Vineyards Wine

Altipiano Vineyards and Winery

The passion of Peter and Denise Clark are red wines and the music they create. These wine are bigger and bolder. You might say they have a family affair with Tuscany because Italian varieties make up the Altipiano portfolio.

Altipiano Vineyards and Winery
Altipiano Vineyards and Winery

Peter and Denise were involved with many businesses in San Diego County, and when they purchased their home in 1997, they hoped one day to have a vineyard on the property. The 2007 fires open the door to their vineyard. Their vineyards lie on 2.5 acres. They planted Brunello Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Sirah.

Denise compares growing grapes to music. The vines represent the orchestra instruments, and mother nature conducts each year, giving a different tune to the orchestra each year. Denise thinks of bud break as Mozart and harvest as Beethoven. Once the wine ages in oak it is a beautiful marriage and ultimate evolution in the music of wine.

The following aspects describe Denise’s ideal wine; prominent aromatics and structure, big in the mouth, and bold rich wines so that the wine tells the story. They do not filter but experiment with oak treatment. They often use Missouri and Pennsylvania oak.

Altipiano Vineyards owner/winemaker Denise Clark
Altipiano Vineyards owner/winemaker Denise Clark

Altipiano Wines

The 2015 Sangiovese combines Brunello, Chianti, and Barbera. The wine ages separately in different kinds of oak. The Barbera in Hungarian, the Chianti in Pennsylvania Oak and the Sangiovese in French oak. This combination creates a more complex wine.

My favorite the 2016 Sangiovese Vintner’s Reserve contains 100% Brunello that ages in Kentucky and French oak. My comments said it all, “It smells like I am in Italy.”

The 2016 Syrah another favorite blend mostly Syrah with Petit Sirah and ages in Hungarian oak which Denise feels grabs the fruit. I found wonderful perfume aromas with flavors of blueberry and blackberry and hints of pepper on the finish.

The Barbera is a nonvintage wine that combines grapes from 2014 and 2015. Aging occurs with ½ the wine aging in New Hungarian oak and the other half in used oak. Both age separately for one year and are blended together. The structure and acid worked well in this wine.

Altipiano Vineyards Wines
Altipiano Vineyards Wines

Domaine Artefact

The name Domaine Artefact came about because of the Indian artefacts were discovered on the property. Today owners Mark and Lynn Robinson sustainably farm their property. When meeting both Mark and Lynn, you immediately feel the love they have for their winery and the property. Mark a chemistry teacher at an area high school, is a self-taught winemaker.

The soils of the Robinson’s 30-acre property consist of decomposed granite on top and clay loam on the bottom. These soil types are harsh and difficult, forcing the vines to dig deep. With a focus on Rhone-styled wines Mark and Lynn grow, Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Picpoul in whites and Carignan Grenache, Syrah, Mouvédre, Counoise and Petit Sirah in the reds.

Domaine Artefact Owners Mark and Lynn Robinson
Domaine Artefact Owners Mark and Lynn Robinson

Domaine Artefact Wine

Les Beaux Blancs means The beautiful white in French and describes the wine perfectly combines Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. The wine delivers a sweet fragrance accented by stone fruit.

Les Printempo is a Rosé made from Grenache exhibits flavors of strawberries with just the right amount of minerality and acidity.

The Grenache, which consists of two different clones, delivers a mouthful of berries.

The Mourvédre exhibited flavors of blackberries and was one of my favorites.

One must try the Vin de Paille. This dessert wine blends Grenache Blanc with Viognier to create a marvelous dessert wine that speaks of peach, orange blossom, and marzipan. Select grape clusters are dried on a bed of straw to bring out the sugars.

Domaine Artefact Wines
Domaine Artefact Wines

Cordiano Winery

Probably the oldest winery in the area, owners Gerry and Rosa Cordiano along with their son Frank run Cordiano Winery and Restaurant. Cordiano is the perfect winery to end your day of tasting because you can sit and enjoy your wine with one of many selections of pizza offered in the restaurant while watching the sunset.

Sunset at Cordiano Winery Highland Valley Wineries
Highland Valley Wineries – Sunset at Cordiano Winery

The Cordiano’s moved from Calabria, Italy to Syracuse, New York in the 1970s. Gerry started his restaurant career in a Pizzeria there. Eventually, he became the owner of the restaurant. After visiting New Orleans, Gerry decided to move to the south and opened a chain of pizzerias in the south. Visiting California he decided to pick up his roots, selling his pizza chain and move to San Diego. In 1991 he started the first of five Italian restaurants in San Diego County. Like his father, he always wanted to make wine, and that dream came true in 2000 when he started making wine. By 2008 he opened his winery to the public and of course, he had also to incorporate Pizza into the mix. Hence the winery has a restaurant serving pizza.

Gerry and Rosa Cordiano
Gerry and Rosa Cordiano

Naming the vineyards Primo Amore, which stands for first love, it signifies Gerry’s love of his wife Rosa and also his inherent love for winemaking. The wines Gerry creates show the love he and his wife cherish since the day they married. Primo Amore also represents the passion that Gerry and Rosa put into their winery. It is quite evident when you meet them both.

My favorite wine at Cordiano’s was the 2013 Sangiovese.

Highland Valley Wineries Devotion

The underlying passion show by each winemaker tells us the dedication and hard work that goes into this region to make a name for themselves. I think each winery has achieved their goal and for anyone who lives within a couple of hours of the Highland Valley wineries, it is worth the drive to discover what San Diego wine country has to offer for the wine enthusiast.

Note: Common to the wine and travel industry, this writer was hosted to this winery visits and eateries. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure.