The Wines of Rancho Santa Fe, part 2


(Home made temperature controlled barrelling and wine case storage room)

It turns out that Rancho is dotted with small backyard vineyards. These plucky hobbyists have learned that our climate, soils and geography are well suited to growing a variety of wine making grapes. 


Todd Parnell

Todd Parnell has been making his backyard wines for over ten years. The San Diego County Fair hosts a county-wide competition each year of non-commercial wines, and he won gold medals for his Rhone blend in 2010 and 2012, the last year he competed. 

I visited his beautiful Rancho home and toured his vineyard, barrel storage room, laid back tasting area, and outdoor bar. Truly a great place to sit and taste various varietals!

Todd is more hands on than many other gentleman winemakers. He has his own grape crushing set up, and ferments, barrel ages, and bottles his wine on his own premises. He does hire Duncan Williams as a technical consultant for the all important vineyard management who consults on how and when to do the myriad horticultural things you must do to grow excellent wine grapes. Click here to see Todd’s small scale crushing machine in action. 

Todd makes up to about 1,000 bottles a year (around 80 cases) from his 600 vines. He buys new French barrels and uses them for about three seasons before replacing them. He uses organic fungicides and has found that squirrels are his only real problem. Unlike many other vineyards, he does not net his vines to keep birds at bay, instead relying on the Bird Guard Pro Plus which plays high quality recordings of various raptors.

Todd does other unusual things like only irrigating four times a year with a deep watering technique to induce his wines to sink deep roots into the soil. Certainly there is no arguing with the results. Todd and I had a grand old time drinking a couple of Merlot vintages in the early evening surrounded by his vineyard and aged barrels. Hard to think of a better activity.

Many Others

I visited many other Rancho Santa Fe vineyards while researching this story. By my count, this area has over a dozen active vineyards, with more being planted yearly. Everyone approaches this hobby a different way. Some people enjoy the horticulture. Some enjoy blending techniques and doing all the crushing, barrelling and bottling themselves. All enjoy their wine. 

The Staunton vineyard with 230 vines.

Jon Williams of The Cov organized a couple of meetings where local vineyard owners got together to swap tips and taste each other’s wine just before Covid hit and put that activity on ice. There was talk about banding together in various ways. Building a co-op was discussed where harvested grapes from several vineyards would be blended to make regional wines. These local vineyards are too small to break even should the owners go the extra step of acquiring government approval to sell, but a co-op might be able to break even.

There was even talk of creating a “Rancho Santa Fe” appellation such that wines from this area could have a local marketing boost.

But Are The Wines Any Good?

The author moonlighting as a bartender during the blind wine tasting.

Since my palette isn’t exactly sophisticated, I decided the only way to answer this question was to invite ten friends and do a blind taste testing. We had thirteen red wines, eleven local ones, and two ringers, a 1990 Latour and a 1999 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet. The Latour took top honors (which made me feel like we weren’t total wine idiots), but five local wines scored higher or equal than the excellent Mondavi and all but one local wine was almost equal to the Mondavi.

So, yes, I would say the local wines are good. 

I Have A Dream

What if instead of seeing citrus orchards, we start to see vineyards? Instead of importing ridiculously expensive wine from France or Napa, we start to see high quality local wines? Could we have enough local commercial wines to have a local wine tasting room or two? Could we be a high quality tourist attraction?

OK, maybe I’ve drunk one too many local wines. But maybe in ten or fifteen years? Who knows.