University of San Diego

07/11/2019 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 07/11/2019 12:23

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Thursday, July 11, 2019post has photosTOPICS: Alumni, Changemaker, Community Engagement

Twelve years later, Jess Koehler, co-owner of Ramona's La Finquita Winery and Vineyard, can laugh about it. Her reaction to the first sip of wine she had after turning 21? 'I thought it was disgusting. I quickly chased it with a sip of a vodka-mixed drink. And now, I own a winery.'

Charlie Koehler, co-owner of La Finquita and Jess' husband, was the complete opposite. 'For my 21st birthday, me and five guys went to Temecula for a day of wine tasting. I've always been passionate about wine.'

Once she began dating Charlie in 2008, Jess' interest in wine blossomed. 'He took me winetasting for the first time and I was willing to try again. It just took me some time to develop a taste for it.'

That's good because wine is a major component of the life the Koehlers live together in Ramona, Calif. They've been a couple for 11 years, married for eight, are both University of San Diego alumni and are both former Information Technology Services employees at USD. Wine, these days, has their undivided attention.

'Wine is best enjoyed with a group of friends, sitting out on the patio or wherever you happen to be. There's never a bad day for wine,' Jess said.

A Relationship Like Fine Wine

Charlie, the 2006 USD alumnus with a chemistry degree and the Founders Chapel Choir's bass guitar player, began dating Jess, a 2007 alumna music major who played flute and worked with the choir. Their six-month anniversary date in October 2008 was at Ramona's Schwaesdall Winery. They enjoyed wine tasting, a winery tour and a private barrel tasting. The date not only grew the couple closer together, but it gave a peek into their future.

A year later, the couple were engaged. The romantic moment was accompanied by two bottles of the port wine they'd sampled at Schwaesdall. Prior to marriage, they moved into a house in Ramona and in between ITS shifts at USD, they worked in the wine tasting rooms at wineries run by their friends and learned more about the winery business.

Their passion ultimately led them to take the big step - so big that Jess admits, 'it came 15-20 years before we truly expected it to happen' - when the Koehlers purchased La Finquita in December 2013. They were, and still are, the youngest winery owners in Ramona and six years later still among the youngest in San Diego County.

A Labor of Love

'We just fell in love with it,' Jess said.

La Finquita, or 'the little farm,' is an eight-acre site developed in 1988. Charlie said two acres have been planted with another acre to be planted this year. The estate's vineyard is where the winery's Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Syrah are created. La Finquita has a second vineyard, Old Coach Vineyards, stationed behind Poway's Maderas Golf Course. Aglianico, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Mourvedre, Petite Syrah, Syrah and Tempranillo are created there.

It's a lot, but business has steadily grown, selling 500 cases of wine the first year to 1,750 cases in 2018.

'We were lucky because the vines were planted seven years before we bought the property,' Charlie said. 'I didn't think we'd grow as fast as we did, but this year we're going to grow even more.'

New equipment is expected to heavily reduce some of the workload time, enabling La Finquita the opportunity to do 'custom crush work' for other local vineyards. 'They can bring us their totes with grapes, we destem, crush and process them into another bin they can take home that's ready for fermentation,' he said.

The production and process of winemaking is something Charlie thrives on despite all it entails. 'It is nonstop. You have to have a passion for this or you'll burnout in about six months from what we've seen. We have Wine Club members who'll ask us. They have acreage here and want to plant it and start a winery. I encourage them to work with us for a harvest to make sure they enjoy it. If they still do, then they should jump into it.

'Clearing the land, grading it, digging holes, running the irrigation, the electrical, we do all of it ourselves,' Charlie said. 'We don't outsource it. We enjoy being outside. More are starting to do it because it allows you to get into it a lot easier and cheaper.'

There's always the need to know how to fix something when it breaks. The couple has several go-to resources who understand these needs and help keep operations going.

'Being a small winery, we do everything. I've learned about the air conditioning, the chiller, I can look at the system and see what repairs are needed. We know if the A/C goes out, within two days, things can go really bad.'

There are also nature's elements to contend with, Charlie cautioned. 'I walk the vineyards at minimum once a day. You make sure the irrigation is right and that there are no leaks. We have coyotes who've come and they like to chew through the lines at night to get to the water. Just last week we had to repair 20 different things in the Syrah because they were going crazy.'

Wine That's Worth the Work

There's always going to be setbacks and unpredictability in any business, but the hard work put in by the Koehlers and their staff is worth it.

'Interacting with everybody on our team, the customers, Wine Club members, they're really like family. It's not so much work, it's fun to hang out,' Jess said. 'The real beauty of wine tasting is that people don't generally do it if they're not happy.'

The wine is, of course, the star attraction. La Finquita has white, rosé and a bountiful number of red wines to choose from, a 'Happy Place' dessert wine and a 'fun and seasonal' menu that includes the popular 'Luscious Slushes,' a refreshing frozen sangria with names such as Red Devil, White Angel and Blushing Angel. There's Sangria Blanco and Sangria Roja and a seasonal offering, Hot Mulled Wine, available on cold and stormy days.

La Finquita's wine tasting room is open Fridays (seasonally, 3-7 p.m.) Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and by appointment on weekdays. There's comfortable seating and tables on the patio, shaded trees with tables underneath to enjoy wine, conversation and relax. There is a wine cave space, too, which hosted USD alumni who visited on a recent Torero Takeover stop. There's merchandise for sale - hand-crafted gifts, wine items, logo souvenirs and custom-etched wine bottles are available - and the Koehlers are creating their first Groupon deal to increase awareness of the winery's many attributes.

The wine list is impressive with its local ingredients, but the Koehlers also offer special wines that demonstrate their community mindset and a desire to give back. There are Rosé bottles that support breast cancer research; a special Rosé, Kisses from Heaven, in which a donation is made to a foundation in memory of a late friend; and, later this summer, a white wine named Puppy Kisses will support Frosted Faces Foundation, which is an elderly dog rescue organization.

Wine Classic This Weekend

There's one annual event the Koehlers do that gives back to their college alma mater.

The 11th annual USD Wine Classic is this Sunday, July 14, from 2-5 p.m. Attendees will walk around the beautiful Garden of the Sea behind the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice to enjoy wine tastings from 25 wineries, each with a USD connection, gourmet food, a silent auction, wine pull and a special raffle. Net proceeds from the Wine Classic support Torero student scholarships. To date, the event has raised more than $550,000 for the Alumni Endowed Scholarship Fund.

'It's important to us because we both went to USD in large part due to scholarships. Being able to use our business in a way that helps future generations of USD students is important to us,' Jess said. 'We like to be able to give back in this way.'

Charlie Koehler and La Finquita's Tasting Room Manager, Jeff Carey, a 2009 USD alumnus, will pour a 2017 Viognier (white), a 2014 Passionate Kiss (Red) and Kisses from Heaven (Rosé) on Sunday. The red and white slushes will also be available.

'Awareness for the winery is what comes from the Wine Classic because people are always interested to learn where we are, what we're doing and USD alumni always love to support other alumni and their businesses,' Jess said. 'Being back on campus is like being at home. It's a very positive event for us.'

- Ryan T. Blystone

Scenery photos by Ryan T. Blystone, all others provided by Jess Koehler