Catching the Rhythm of the Valley – by Robin Dohrn-Simpson

WINEormous at Altipiano Winery

Peter Clark

“Wine has a rhythm to it,” muses Denise Clark, musician, music lover, winemaker and co-owner of Altipiano Winery. “It’s like a symphony waiting to be played. There’s a beat and a rhythm of the vines swaying in the wind. Sometimes it’s frantic and sometimes its controlled chaos.” Just like life. We’re all moving to the rhythm of the world. The dipping and swaying of philosophies; the low notes of Prohibition and the high notes of Renaissance.

Highland Valley is definitely into its renaissance. Highland Valley, a close neighbor to verdant San Pasqual Valley, during Prohibition, changed from grapes to avocado and citrus, now 90 years later, with the high cost of water, and a renaissance of the wine industry, grapes are becoming the crop of choice. With this resurgence of the wine industry in San Diego County, four wineries now operate with another one slated to open in 2015. The Highland Valley Wine Country Alliance has been formed. Vintners gather to discuss the past, present and future.


Roberto Espinosa, Espinosa Vineyards, has researched the history of the valley.

Wine production in San Diego has been traced back to 1781 with the Mission San Diego de Alcala, and with what’s called the Mission Grape, there was varied success. In 1893 grapes were established in the Highland Valley.

Espinosa Vineyards was a winery as early as the 1930s. William Winn originally acquired the 40-acre property from a land grant originally in 1893. The area was then called Bernardo. Part of the deal was he had to grow timber for the railroads. He grew eucalyptus, due to its quick growth. According to a 1949 census from Escondido, there were an estimated 187 acres of vineyards in the valley, an estimated 127,000 vines.

With this rich history, it is natural and fitting that some of the land be returned to the grapes.


Four wineries grace Highland Valley Road with nine other vineyards in the immediate area. Landowners have planted 5,000 vines this spring and others are in the process of converting their fields to grapes.

Highland Valley Vineyards

WINEormous at Highland Valley Vineyards

Ray Schnorr and Jeannine O’Brien-Schnorr

With a nod to the past Ray Schnorr and Jeannine O’Brien-Schnorr, owners of Highland Valley Vineyards built their facility in Craftsman Style. Their logo is reminiscent of the distinguished graphics of the 1920’s, similar to what you would find at an old theater, with repeated boxes of grapes and leaves.

Summer of 2014 will be opening this winery on Bandy Canyon Road that was a mere glimmer in their eyes when they made the final decision to become a winery. The 3-acre property started as raw acreage, is now 1- acre planted.

“We planted what we like to drink,” says Jeannine. “Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.”

Nostalgia reigns supreme here where in the 1970’s the property was a vineyard for the acclaimed actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr, of Fairbanks Ranch.

The next plans are to build a tasting room and a lab in the garage of their winery.

The Schnorrs have many hopes, dreams and goals in their future. Good thing they have lots of enthusiasm to go along with it. It will be fun to watch them grow.


Espinosa Vineyards:

WINEormous at Espinosa VineyardsRoberto and Noelle Espinosa got in to the wine business on a fluke. They came to San Diego from the Bay Area after the 2007 fires destroyed some property of Noelle’s parents on Highland Valley Road. With the intention of helping the family rebuild, the idea was formed to grow some grapes and make home wine. In 2009 they planted 4 grape vines, went to 600 in 2010, decided to learn how to make wine and ultimately to start a winery.

Roberto had a long successful career in the Biotech field with a background in Microbiology.

“I understand yeast,” Roberto says of his training in winemaking. “It’s all about knowing what yeast reacts to, why and how.”

By 2012 they knew their wine was good, in 2013 they planted another 1400 vines followed 2014 with another 800 vines. Today they have a total of 2800 vines. Their new goal is 10,000 vines and 1,200-1,500 cases. Their current production is around 450-500 cases.

Altipiano Vineyard and Winery:

WINEormous at Altipiano WineryWINEormousWhen life gives you fires, make wine.

As with many wineries in San Diego and Ramona the 2007 fires cleared hillsides, destroyed crops and structures. The Clarks lost many acres of avocado trees and decided to plant grapes instead. Thus began their journey into the wine world. Peter Clark loved Brunello having enjoyed it on a trip to Italy. That is where they decided to start their grape growing experience. The grape thrived in the decomposed granite soil and to this day has flourished. Next came Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc and coming soon is Nero D’Avilo.

Denise Clark is the winemaker. She uses her keen palate to create fresh wines with grapes from their vineyard and also with grapes sourced from Central California. From her perch on the kitchen island, one can watch her manage and control her household and winery.

Denise’s keen sense of art and beauty is evident at their winery and home. Their lovely tasting room is a cool respite from the world. The patio with fireplace, bar and French designs with blue and yellow tablecloths is refreshing and calming.

The Music of Wine is their motto and truly this winery is like a lovely concerto.

Cordiano Winery:

WINEormous at Cordiano WineryFueled by passion and a genuine love of wine, Gerry Cordiano told his lovely wife Rosa that he needed to return to his roots of winemaking. From his younger day growing up in Italy with a winemaking family, it was in his blood. His flagship wine, “Primo Amore” – first love, refers to both Rosa, and winemaking.

Selling their Italian restaurants throughout San Diego the couple traveled through Highland Valley ascending higher and higher until they found the right property with a stellar view of the San Pasqual Valley. In 1998 they purchased the 20 acres of avocado farm and proceeded to build a winery.

This winery has grown and multiplied many times over since they opened. Recently Gerry purchased another 10 acres of property adjacent to his current vineyard with plans of planting Sangiovese and Malbec.

Gerry was instrumental in starting the wine country ordinance. He always knew he wanted a patio with a pizza oven, a tasting room and was not about to take no for an answer. For this we will forever be grateful to him.

Today, their lovely patio is just what he envisioned and more. With many tables surrounding a lovely fountain, guests enjoy homemade pizza and their choice of a bottle of wine or wines by the glass.

The Cordiano family excel at Italian hospitality. Family members and staff make everyone feel comfortable in their “home” and treat them as if they are best friends or family. That is why people return again and again to enjoy the sunset on the patio, listen to music and be regaled by Rosa’s stories. Well, that and the excellent wine.

“The secret is to be ahead of the curve and on top of our game,” says Gerry Cordiano. “All of our vineyards are young. As they grow and mature, we will be better than Napa/Sonoma and Paso Robles. Our soil is harsher here. That makes for stronger more flavorful grapes.”


The different wineries all agree that they want to learn from Napa and Sonoma and even Temecula at how to manage growth. Nine other vineyards are currently growing grapes in the immediate area and one winery, Artifact Winery, said to be opening in 2015.

There are many components and complexities to this symphony that is Highland Valley Wine Trail. Just as music is measured in beats per minute, grapes are measured by the vintage. The rhythm of the vines are both largo and allegro. Allegro connotes joy and largo means broadly. The joy of wine. The breadth of the growth of the Valley. Come and enjoy the wines, the views, the symphonies and the hospitality.