First Impression: The North Mountain Wine Trail

Sally and I are always looking for good wine made in San Diego County. 

Most of what we’ve tried hasn’t been too great. A lot of these wineries resemble a bar more than they do purveyors of fine wine. You know you have a problem when bedazzled t-shirts, wine-scented candles, and “Wine a Bit” posters outsell the wine.

There are a few gems.

A trip to Ramona revealed a few wineries to watch, including Kohill. There are a few urban wineries that show promise too, most notably Carruth Cellars in Solana Beach. Urban winery Vinavanti even produced the surprise winner in our Cabernet Franc blind tasting.

Yesterday, we discovered another hidden gem that’s far off the beaten path.

The North Mountain Wine Trail is a collection of four wineries near Warner Springs. This is a small community on Highway 79 in the most northern part of the county, about a 30 minute drive from Julian.


Hawk Watch

Our first stop was Hawk Watch Winery. A narrow dirt driveway took us from the road to the winery. The patio outside their wine room offered sweeping views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.

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Inside we met Lisa Schnell, who owns and operates the winery with her husband Mike. They opened the winery in 2008 and focus on making high-quality, fruit driven wine. All of the production is done in-house with an output of about 1,700 cases per year.

We were both pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wine. Almost everything we tasted was pleasing to our palate and the $20 - $30 price points were reasonable. 

The two standouts for us were the 2011 Syrah and the 2011 Zentangle. The Syrah had a nice smokey nose with a hint of cinnamon, good dark fruit and spice on the body, and a black pepper finish.

The Zentangle is a Meritage blend consisting of 64% Cabernet Franc, 27% Merlot, and 9% Petit Verdot. The nose smelled like blueberries and oak with eucalyptus, cherry, and dark fruit flavors on the palate that gave way to a nice tannin finish. 

 

La Serenissima

You need an appointment to visit La Serenissima. Schnell suggested we make one as we left Hawk Watch. We’re glad we did.

Getting to La Serenissima requires a short trip down a dusty dirt road. There’s no sign to tell you you’re there. Only the address confirms you’ve made it. Fortunately, owner and winemaker Tony Tiso was there to greet us as we pulled in.

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Two and a half hours somehow evaporated as Tiso poured his wine, shared his wine-making philosophies, and gave us a tour of the operation. 

One highlight was tasting the 2010 Claret from three different barrels. The Claret consists of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, and 15% Cabernet Franc. It’s known as a field blend because the wines are all aged together in the same cask. Tiso uses French, American, and Hungarian oak casks to bring out different qualities in the wine before blending them all together just before bottling. It was fun to experience different notes from the same wine coming out of different barrels.

The wines are all estate grown and they produce around 800 cases per year. Tiso makes some well-known varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah along with some lesser-known grapes like Arneis.

His 2013 Arneis was really distinctive. It’s a white wine that originates from Italy. The wine is bright and refreshing with a floral nose that gives way to stone fruit tastes and light minerality. It felt like a good deal at $20 per bottle.

 

More Wineries to Visit

The long drive and leisurely tastings didn’t leave us time for any other stops. The other two wineries in the area are Shadow Mountain and Sierra Roble.

We’ll have to come back soon.