By Karen Billing
Raccoons love merlot.
That little fun fact is just one of the many, many things Jocelyn and Colin O’Brien have learned during their last several years producing wine out of a vineyard of grapes on their Rancho Santa Fe property, OBRIEN + OBRIEN Estate Vineyard.
Their OBRIEN+OBRIEN 92067 wine is currently on its fourth vintage and their 2011 92067 Cabernet Sauvignon recently won gold at the San Diego International Wine Competition.
The premium Bordeaux-style wine that is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc also received a 91 rating.
“To be very honest, I was absolutely thrilled,” said Colin. “In our wine group we have lots of people who say nice things about our wine but they’re friends. This is a blind taste test, in a competition that is one of the third oldest in the United States.”
The medal is particularly rewarding for a couple who have spent a lot of time doing challenging, hands-on work in their vineyard to make sure their grapes and their wine is just right.
“The excitement of all the firsts is just astonishing,” said Jocelyn, recalling their first “harvest,” which was just a handful of grapes that fit on the kitchen counter, seeing their names on the first shipped wine barrels, choosing their first wine label which features the outline of the modern architecture of their home, picking their first corks and bringing home the first bottle of wine of their very own and opening and enjoying it.
Not to mention winning their first gold medal.
“This is not a hobby to us,” Colin said. “This is a professionally-made commercial wine with all the grapes grown in Rancho Santa Fe.”
Over the years Colin, a native of Australia, and Jocelyn, who is British, had visited a lot of vineyards and drank a lot of wine — favoring and collecting Bordeaux.
They had always wanted to buy a vineyard but when they looked around they found it to be a complicated business, involving farming, cooking and merchandising.
“Those are three very different things and that’s what makes it so difficult,” said Jocelyn.
The couple bought their property in Rancho Santa Fe in 1998 having all but given up on the idea of buying a vineyard. It wasn’t until 2006 when Jocelyn had the thought: why don’t they just plant a vineyard on their own acreage?
They knew nothing at all about the structure of vineyards and had to do a lot of research, including traveling to Spain and touring similar vineyards in remote small areas. They also sought advice from local experts.
“One of the first things we learned in the winemaking industry is everybody has an opinion and they’re all different and they’re all right,” Jocelyn said.
Colin’s background is in chemical engineering and Jocelyn is a “plant person extraordinaire” — together they made a great team.
In addition to their vineyard, Jocelyn runs their own little farm on their Rancho Santa Fe property. She makes honey from her hive of bees and tends to a big vegetable garden and an orchard that produces peaches, raspberries, apples, pears, apricots and just ready-to-pick cherries. The property also has a large eight-foot high hedge maze that Jocelyn built, as well as a labyrinth.
“We have 4 acres and my aim has been to cover them,” said Jocelyn, noting their land is home to quite a bit of wildlife — the deer have been known to do a number on one side of the vineyard as well as Jocelyn’s geraniums.
For the vineyard, first planted in 2007, they cleared an acre at the front of their property. Colin wanted all of his rows facing north-south on the slope so they could get sun all day. While his consultants claimed if he did it at different angles he could get more vines in, Colin was dead set on doing the job correctly and just the way he wanted.
“The aim was to produce a world-class wine in a style we like: Bordeaux,” Colin said.
“It wasn’t about quantity, it was about quality,” Jocelyn said.
They drop off any grapes they don’t think will be first class, even if it results in a lower yield, like in 2013 when they went from their peak of 140 cases to only 47 cases.
Colin knows exactly what he wants in his Bordeaux — he wants it to be lower in alcohol and higher in acid and is produced to his specifications by a winemaker at the Fallbrook Winery.
From February through the September harvest, the O’Briens are hard at work in the vineyard.
“The vines grow like wild things, they are being trained to go in the right direction,” said Jocelyn.
Together they work the leafy canopy to get better air movement and sunlight to the grapes, pruning until they top it off at about six-and-a-half feet tall. Jocelyn ties vines together with hand-cut string as she hates plastic and won’t have it in her garden or on her vines. As the grapes grow and start to ripen that’s when the wildlife gets interested and they have to net all of the rows.
“We’re not young chickens and it’s monotonous work,” Jocelyn said. “We don’t work longer than 90 minutes at a time.”
A table and chairs is set up near the vineyards where Colin said they take a breather with a beer after a hard day’s work.
“It’s constant work, you have to give up a lot of things because of it,” said Colin, who admits his golf game would probably be better without the vineyard but it is his passion.
A few years ago they made the mistake of taking a vacation to Mexico in April and the catch-up work was so impossible they claim they will never do it again — they now only take their only vacations in October.
The O’Briens pride themselves on doing all of the cultivation work themselves although they have gotten help over the years from Mike Hathaway and Phil Sauer from The Bridges; Filipe Hernandez and his crew from Rancho Paradise Landscaping; and their apprentice (and beekeeper) Sandra Boghozian.
“She’s a real enhancement and we think of her as family,” said Jocelyn of Boghozian.
During the harvest, Jocelyn’s friends also come for the picking. She warned them that it’s not as romantic as it sounds — it’s tough, dirty work that starts at the crack of dawn. All of the nets have to be lifted and it can take up to six hours to pick all the grapes and get them in bins to go up to the winery to be crushed and de-stemmed.
She always rewards her friends with breakfast afterward at The Bridges.
At the winery, the grapes are barreled in French oak barrels that Colin selected and the pair travels to Fallbrook quite often to check on the progress.
As far as merchandising their wine goes, the O’Briens started the Wine Bunch, made up of people who have bought one or more cases and it has been a successful venture.
Their wine is also served at The Bridges and they connected with Juan Blanchard, the food and beverage manager at the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club, to organize a tasting at the club on April 25. Their award-winning 92067 will now be on the wine list at the club.
“It just seems the perfect wine for the center of Rancho Santa Fe, which is the Golf Club,” Jocelyn said. “We’re very excited about that.”
OBRIEN + OBRIEN Estate Vineyard has 600 vines and the O’Briens said they couldn’t possibly look after more. As Jocelyn said, they are maxed out; there will never be more than 127 cases produced and that is just fine by them.
Colin said a lot of wine producers don’t bother to do what they’re doing — they could probably get more vines and produce more bottles but the wine wouldn’t have the intensity of taste and the quality they’re after.
“It’s a challenge, but we’re making the progress we want to make,” Colin said. “We learn and get better as we go along.”
For more information, visit obrien92067.com