The devastating damage gave the vines breath — Altipiano Vineyards, positioned in the hills of Escondido, California just outside of San Diego, is breathing just fine. The land is breath-taking, and the story of how the vineyard came to be, takes your breath away.
A few months ago I spent some time chatting with Altipiano Vineyards co-owner and winemaker Denise Clarke. The drive up to this small production winery is picturesque, and to put it mildly; adventurous — if driving up steep rounding hills is not your usual.
The Tuscan themed tasting room is cozy with a tasting bar, backed by a sizable wooden wine rack filled with bottles ready to pour. The winery’s theme extends to the outside patios with opulent gardens. Sprinkled throughout are orange and lemon trees in colorful planters. Plenty of comfortable seating spaces provide perfect views for enjoying the wines. The backdrop to the landscape just off the tasting room is beautiful — the vineyards surrounded by an impressive panorama of rolling hills as far as the eye can see.
From Debris to Opportunity
Clarke and her husband Peter acquired the property in 1997 when it was an avocado grove with more than 1000 trees. It had been that for over 20 years. However, in 2007, devastating wildfires swept through San Diego, destroying the trees, and leaving debris everywhere. Although, the devastation also exhaled a clear view to something Clarke had previously only dreamt of — a vineyard.
Clarke had no background in the wine industry or winemaking. However, her desire, indeed, was more significant than her lack of knowledge — especially, after she and her husband took inspiration during a vacation in Italy.
Denise Clarke was very familiar with farming; she wasn’t afraid of hard work. Although, she discovered very quickly that it would take much more to become a successful winemaker. Not-to-mention being a women winemaker. Moreover, an African American women winemaker. Also, above all, to top it off, in a burgeoning wine region of California.
Clarke attended seminars and classes to jumpstart her passion. She took guidance from trusted winemakers who, above all, would encourage her. Initially, the vineyard had a hired winemaker, but after a few years, Clarke began playing solo as her wine serenaded. Her motto, “The Music of Wine,” which is fitting. Her spirit sings! And you need only to be around her for a short period to feel her rhythm in wine.
By mid-2008 the grapevines were taking a big breath in the form of Brunello, Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petite Syrah varietals. Release of the first Altipiano Vineyards wines didn’t occurred until 2012.
Denise Clarke exudes her love for her craft. Her vibrant and thoughtful words, when talking about wine — “it’s like a symphony” — conveys her respect and admiration for the grape. “I take direction from what I am given” meaning from the land, mother nature and the vines.
Our conversation took us from the beginning to the present, and everywhere in between. After all, there were several glasses of wine to consume; that takes time.
Clarke is a talented winemaker that is not afraid to take on challenges, and there are still many. She looks forward to experiencing equality as a successful winemaker. Saying, “it’s difficult sometimes, but, that never stops me.” Proud of her accomplishments; she continues to be excited to hear “the music of wine.”
Clarke fancies bold wines, and her portfolio reflects her palate preference nicely. Altipiano wines have received numerous accolades since its inception. Including three recent — two silver and a bronze for its 2016 Sangiovese, 2016 Petit Sirah and 2016 Syrah — at the 2019 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
I had the privilege of sampling many of the wines during my visit. Without a doubt, each one was a lovely expression of it’s traditional style. I enjoyed the time I spent at the winery and the engaging conversation with the winemaker. It was clear, at least to me, that in this case, there is a song in every breath of the vines, and definitely, ever bottle of Altipiano wine.
For more information on Altipiano Vineyard and Winery and it’s wines visit www.altipianovineyard.com