“There’s nothing like a winemaker having their own footprints in the vineyard” says Denise Clarke, co-owner of Altipiano Winery in North County San Diego. “I come from a long line of farmers and always loved having my hands in the dirt.”
Perched high above San Pasqual Valley’s San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido’s Highland Valley Wine Country, Altipiano’s views are spectacular. We’re standing in the vineyard with Denise and her husband, Peter overlooking rows of vines surrounded by miles of verdant green sloping hills. It’s a stunning yet tranquil setting and we completely understand why they chose this impressively beautiful property for their home and vineyard.
Peter is a semi-retired attorney and Denise’s background is in human resources. She also worked with Peter as a paralegal in his law firm. The Clarkes always talked about one day owning a vineyard. It’s in her blood as Denise recants the story about her great-grandmother making fruit wine during the Prohibition.
March of 2007, the couple toured Venice and Southern Tuscany and fell in love with the hill town of Montalcino, just south of Siena, famous for its Brunello wines. The bucolic charm of its countryside and beautifully serene vineyard views touched something inside the Clarkes.
And unbelievably, it was the San Diego wildfires of 2007 which made their dream a reality when fires destroyed the avocado trees on the land. This had to be a sign. And in June 2008, over 2600 beloved Brunello grapevines were planted along with Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Syrah varietals.
Shaded, welcoming patios, umbrella-covered tables, fountains, flowering potted plants and terraced gardens line the handsome Tuscan-inspired property that invites guests to sit, sip and take in the majestic and compelling landscape. We wondered how many wine club members prefer to pick their wines up in lieu of shipping, just to take in these glorious views.
The Clarke’s home located on property takes us back to our days in Tuscany. The tasting room also carrying the Italian theme is open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Denise is the winemaker, one of only twelve female vintners in San Diego. And she’s more than happy to talk about her award-winning wines and the suggested foods to pair them with.
We started with the 2014 Pinot Gris made from Monterey grapes. Dry and crisp with hints of green apple, pear and honey – perfect for a warm and sunny California day. It was one of many outstanding wines we tasted and took home with us to remember our visit.
Reds, however are king here at Altipiano. Most are estate-grown and aged for 18 months or more in Hungarian, European, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Neutral oak barrels. The specific types of oak are tailored to enhance the individual flavor characteristics of each varietal.
The 2015 Merlot burst with flavors of Bing cherry, mulberry and spice, with subtle tones of toasty oak. 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon was full-bodied, peppery and spicy with black current, mulberry, plum, vanilla and cassis notes – definitely one of my hubby’s favorites.
I loved the 2015 Syrah, medium-bodied, nice and smoky, leathery with hints of tobacco, dark fruits, blackberry, blueberry and savory oils. A 2015 Deaver Petite Sirah was equally luscious, full-bodied sporting flavors of chocolate, cocoa, plum and black pepper.
A special treat was tasting the big bold 2013 Super Tuscan, a noble blend of Estate Sangiovese, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. One sip of this seraphic creation and there’s no doubt it why it garnished a coveted gold medal at the 2017 San Francisco Chronicle wine competition. Full-bodied, smooth with a long, long finish, the wine featured earthy flavors of spice, truffles, black cherry with surprising floral notes.
Another multi-medaled winner – the 2013 Estate Sangiovese Reserve, earned Gold Medals at the 2016 San Francisco International, Monterey International and Finger Lakes International Wine Competitions. This impressive wine also captured a Silver at the Women’s International 2015.
Denise attributes her winemaking successes to the “art of collaboration.” Yes, she has a marvelous gift and sense for making a good wine, along with a keen nose and palate she inherited from her father. The Clarkes handle the entire process from grape to glass. But she says it’s through her relationships with other winemakers guiding her down the right path that has made all the difference. She surrounds herself with people she trusts. Their shared wisdom and sage advice provided encouragement and gave her the confidence she needed to take on this new chapter in hers and Peter’s life. She adds “and of course you still must work with what Mother Nature gives you.”
But, making wine this good has to come from much more. And that “much more” has a decidedly musical bent to it.
When Denise walks into the vineyard, she says it’s like a symphony. The grapes are the composer. Their variety and terroir establish the melody. The vineyard is the orchestra, the plants waking up each morning to the sounds of Mozart or Brahms. When they get in full swing, it’s a Beethoven. But once the grapes are harvested, there’s no question – Denise is the conductor, bringing out the best in every varietal and blending their voices in perfect harmony. And oh do these wines make music.
As we sat down in the courtyard with our wines celebrating a spectacular sunset, we asked the Clarkes which wine is the best they’ve ever made. With a twinkle in his eye, Peter replied “I don’t know, we haven’t made it yet.”
Denise says the wine she’s most proud of is the 2013 Sangiovese Reserve which has long sold out. However, her 2016 Estate Sangiovese is still aging gracefully in the barrels. So it’s not ready for bottling and consumption quite yet. But rest assured, we’re certainly looking forward to it.