Coleman Cooney, Los Pilares

Los Pilares started with humble backyard vineyards, making wine out of a garage in San Diego. The Pilares team have taken a very terrior driven and and experimental approach to their winemaking which has resulted in national recognition.  They were annointed by San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonné as part of the "New California Wine" movement.

"This label from Michael Christian and his partners hails from none other than San Diego— proof, along with Vesper Vineyards, of an unlikely spot providing a potentially brilliant approximation of arid Mediterranean-style terrain." Jon Bonné, The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste

We talk to co-founder Coleman Cooney about the origins of Los Pilares and what it means to make wine in San Diego County.

Christopher Barnes: Coleman, tell us a little bit about Los Pilares.

Coleman Cooney: We started the winery, first vintage in 2010. All of our fruit comes from San Diego County which makes us unusual even here in San Diego. We're committed to San Diego County. Myself and the main partner, Michael Christian, we were born here. We went away for a long time then came back like a lot of people do.


And I guess I was like a lot of people, I was getting bored with wine. Do you ever have that feeling? Yeah, I was getting bored with wine. I was living in Spain for a long time and there were good wines but a lot of international style wines were taking over. I was eager to live in California again because I thought correctly in that I'd have the whole world's wines available. But I found that I was getting bored and it was getting difficult. It's hard to find the wines. And that kind of led to a wine making project, I think. That seemed like the logical answer. If the wines aren't at hand, then perhaps they could be made. And I was lucky enough to have enough property for a small vineyard and Michael and I began making wine in his garage and like a lot of wine makers, we were astounded at how good we were. Right? So we thought, "Well, gee, we need to share this genius with the world." But we found out that it's complicated. It's especially complicated here in San Diego County because there isn't very much vineyard land in San Diego County. That made us look into the history of it and we discovered that once upon a time there were tons of grapes here. Loads of vineyards. And just drawing the realization that most of it was dry farmed. And that was because when people started vineyards then they didn't say, "Oh I have to use this land here. This is the land that I have." They were in a wide open wild west and they sited vineyards in the old fashioned way. They put them in the right place. So there were vineyards all over San Diego County. Lots of them in Alpine where I live, where my vineyard is. And they were providing wine to the gold miners who were coming up here to mine gold. They were selling a lot of wine to Indians and people were having a good time.

Tell us a little bit about the ethos of Los Pilares. What are you trying to do with the wines you make?

Well, we're trying to make a wine in a, kind of a scientific way as an experiment. Like, what does it taste like here? So we try to remove anything that would get in the way that would shield or disguise the taste of the wine. We're not particularly enamored of natural wines but our wines are probably considered radically pre-industrial. We really take some risks that some of our colleagues are surprised to hear about. Like we make the sparkling wine I have for you today and it has absolutely zero sulfites. Our wines are naturally produced and that's just because we haven't got caught yet. Nothing bad has happened. So why not continue to make the wine that way. It worked in the garage, it's continuing to work in the winery and so is that a philosophy? I'm not sure.


(Photo: Los Pilares co-owner Michael Christian)

What types of wines are you making? 

In 2010 we made a Grenache Carignan 50/50 blend from a relatively old vineyard for San Diego County, about 40 years old, and it received a lot of praise and got people to pay attention to us. We continued to make that up until last year. Last year we didn't make it. Last year we made about 250 cases of sparkling muscat in the pet nat style. We made a red sparkling wine, a black pet nat, we call it. Again in that style, bottle condition, no sulfides. We made a rose last year, too, for the first time just for fun. We're going to make a red wine again this year. I want to make red wine still. I want to make a lighter, penetrating style of red wine, with lots of aromatics, lots of nose power. That kind of thing.

I've had your Grenache Carignan blend.

Yeah, you might've had the 2013. Which is a real chameleon of a wine. I mean, that was rejected by one of our distributors who said, "This is too crazy. This is too much." But it's gotten really nice attention from people like Jon Rimmerman, Garagiste loved it, and Alice Feiring loved it. So yeah, some of those wines are a little nutty, yeah it's true. But it's nice to open a wine and over a couple of days it's putting on various disguises and it's really changing a lot.

And tell us about San Diego County as a wine growing region. I mean, if somebody is asked to name five wine regions in California, San Diego is not part of that conversation. What are your thoughts on San Diego County?

I think it's a great place to make wine and I think you could make world class wine here. You have to choose to do that and this is a funny market right now, an exciting market, an exciting time for California. I think the particular niche that San Diego can occupy is ... This is the real Mediterranean of the United States and it's the Mediterranean only in a narrow belt, and we're in it right now. It has to be altitude, it has to get that bit of rain if you want to dry farm. I mean you can make a lot of good wines down there but for truly special wine it has to be, I think, up here. And that's what San Diego can do. This is like a mountain 30 miles from the sea with a really strange little climate. The altitude, the sun, and peculiar soil. So there's something very special, again, a niche.

grapesAnd tell us a little bit about what type of grapes you think will perform well here. That reflect well the terroir of San Diego County.

Well I'm a big fan of Grenache because I grow Grenache. But we'll plant Mission. We'll plant one of the variants of Prietos because that is just philosophically appealing to us. I mean, the Franciscans, and to a lesser extent, the Jesuits, they grabbed what was handy. And they also grabbed what was hardy and drought resistant and ripe for the place. They knew what was ripe for the place. They didn't pick up any Bordeaux varietals and they didn't even pick up Grenache. They picked up that Mission grape. And they picked it up where it was convenient in the Canaries. And they brought it here and contrary to received wisdom, it's not necessarily drab, uninteresting. They're doing fabulous things with them in Chile. I think it will fit in here but you know, the soil type here, Gamay, definitely. I want to grow some gamay here up high. Graciano I think is going to do well here. Most Mediterranean varietals I think will do well here.

Maybe talk a little bit about the mission grape and the legacy of San Diego wine making.

Well, I think because this is the beginning of California 1769, it started here. The first grapes were planted here. Maybe because I'm Roman Catholic, maybe because I'm a history buff, but I don't know. I think the main thing is the suitability. I like the idea of agrarian countrypeople.

When I think of them (missionaries) coming up ... You came up through Baja, right? You were in Baja yesterday. You were in The Valley, I mean, The Valley is lush. They planted fruit up and down the peninsula. In the most unlikely sites. You go to San Ignacio right in the middle of one of the most ferocious deserts in the world is an oasis, of course, but there's a beautiful mission vineyard there right by the church. It's impossibly beautiful. That historical connection is really appealing to me and to Michael too, I know.

Let me ask you about the viticulture. Tell me a little bit about how you're structured in Los Pilares. You have five partners and your role is viticulture and Michael is the wine making. Is that correct? 

grapes 2

Yeah, it kind of works that way. We make wine in a custom crush arrangement. Michael is an attorney, or a semi-retired attorney, and very averse to licences and paperwork and all that kind of thing. So he spends an enormous amount of energy figuring out how to avoid all that. So really he was one of the early custom crush schemers in California. He was really thinking about it a lot. So we have a technical director, and I would call Michael an artistic director. Michael comes up with some pretty crazy ideas that I like a lot. I mean, we're gleaning now, we're making sparkling wine in a way that I don't think anyone ever has before where you go into the vineyard and you get fruit at a particular ripeness that appeals to you for making a sparkling wine and you ferment that. You ferment that must dry. Then you go back to the vineyard and find more fruit and it's further on down the road but it doesn't matter. You need X amount of sugar and you then add that. And that gleaning idea is straight biblical. Really appealing. And I don't think anyone is making wine that way and that's all Michael. That's Michael's crazy schemes that he comes up with. And he comes up with a lot of them like that. I mean, the general philosophy of wine making comes from Michael and me, and Eric Van Drunen is a super capable winemaker, he puts up with us. It's like a record label, you know? There are a couple people coming in with song ideas and then there's the producer who makes it all happen. But it's complicated because the winery is really small and we're having these incredible ... Not arguments, but trying to work it all out. Because if you're trying to make wine in that sequential manner, you're not going into the winery and riddling and doing dosage and stuff like that. You're bringing in grapes at different times, it's complicated.

And right now we're in this area, east of San Diego...And you're looking for vineyard sites ...

We're close. We're awfully close. And it's a long term project. I mean, it's for the kids, right? Living in Europe and you meet wine makers and I say, "How'd you do this? How'd you get all this?" And they say, "Well, my grandfather started." And a lot of people ... That's daunting to them. It's like, "Gee these vines are going to get really mature and nice when I'm dead." But that's just the way it is. It's a legacy project, really. I mean, economically it doesn't pencil out very well because land here is expensive and there are lots of issues. But it'll be honest to god farming, like with dry farming. It's farming. You know, in July and August you're going, "What are we going to do? What's going to happen?"

Great. And what are the characteristics of the sites that you're looking at that are interesting to you?

Well, the critical thing is it's not just shopping for a site like, "Oh, that's pretty." It's like, "God, can we survive here?" So the critical things are like this ground you're on right now has cot, runoff, and soils, and organic matter, and there's been cattle here and lots of deer. There's enough organic matter in the ground to hold the water. So if this is planted and gets the 25 to 30 inches of rain that are possible here, that are likely here on average over 100 years, then this soil can hold it. But only if you do the right farming. You're going to have to disk it, you may have to press it. So for those critical months: July, August, September, there's enough fluid in the soil that the roots are going down to, that they can get to, that they can keep the grapes from raisining. And it's no guarantee. With this kind of farming, there are going to be years where we're still buying fruits in other parts of the county. But this would be our loadstone. Our touchstone. The real gem of the whole thing. And there could be a year, there could be a vintage where, sorry, there's not much fruit. But that's farming.

More on San Diego wine:

Read our interview with Vesper Vineyards winemaker Chris Broomell.

We talk to Le Metro Wine's Aaron Epstein about the wine scene in San Diego.

Read Alice Feiring's interview with Michael Christian.