Wine lovers know about Napa. They know Sonoma, Santa Ynez, Paso Robles, even Temecula.
David Stone Jr., 49, hopes one day they’ll add Big Bear Lake to the list. No kidding.
Stone has planted what he says is the highest-altitude commercial vineyard in the northern hemisphere, surpassing the Terror Creek Winery in Colorado, east of Grand Junction, which sits at 6,417 feet. The Stone Summit Winery in Big Bear Lake is at 6,750 feet.
Behind the cottages of Wolf Creek Resort on Big Bear Boulevard, not far from the Snow Summit ski resort, Stone last year planted two acres of vineyards with about a half-dozen varietals ranging from Riesling to cabernet sauvignon.
Last fall, “we actually had some grapes,” Stone said. “Not enough to harvest, but enough to show the viability of the vines. We won’t use this year’s growth, either. We’ll probably start with year four.”
He hopes to have a mountain-grown Riesling and chardonnay ready by 2016, or before. But he’s not waiting until then to activate his winery.
“In the interim, we have a vintner’s license,” he said. With grapes from other regions, the winery has produced a moscato and a chardonnay. He plans to uncork the first bottle of moscato July 4 in the resort’s wine room. The chardonnay should be ready by Labor Day, he said.
Even if Stone plants the entire 15 acres of land he has available, he doesn’t expect to ever be a big producer.
“We’re never going to be Sutter Home,” he said. “It’s a project of passion, absolutely.”
The passion comes from Stone’s own love of wine, his lifelong connection with Big Bear Lake — four generations of his family have owned property there, he said — and a desire to amplify the profile of the resort town.
Stone has been a commercial contractor for most of his life, and his other local projects seem logical extensions. He owns two other resorts in the Big Bear Lake. He recently converted the downtown movie theater into a live concert venue. And he plans to open a brewery in a few months.
The wine-making operation is the only project that seems likely to raise eyebrows. So far, he said, he’s heard of no one else planning to follow his lead.
“I don’t think anybody else is crazy enough,” he said.
High-altitude wine growing is not unheard of. There is little in the United States, outside of Colorado’s Terror Creek, but winemakers in the Mendoza region of Argentina have been planting vineyards at elevations of 5,000 feet and higher. Recently, Donald Hess, of Napa Valley’s Hess Collection, planted vines there at nearly 10,000 feet.
George Walker, 54, of Rancho Cucamonga, is Stone’s winemaker. He has been making wine for families in the Rancho Cucamonga region for years, he said. He sees no reason why grapes can’t thrive at Big Bear Lake.
“The challenge obviously is how cold it gets,” Walker said. “The hope is that it doesn’t get below zero, or not for very long anyway.”
Such temperatures are rare in the resort town.
Walker said that with the exception of two rows of vines that weren’t irrigated properly, all of the grapes planted last year are thriving. Clusters of tiny fruit already are appearing on the vines.
He expects the Riesling and gewürztraminer varietals he has planted to do the best in the cold weather, and he’s hoping the altitude will impart a unique character to the grapes’ flavor, though he doesn’t know what it will be.
His wine-making colleagues are intrigued, he said.
“A few have kind of snickered or smirked or laughed,” Walker said. “Most people think it’s really, really cool.”
Reach Mark Muckenfuss at 951-368-9595 or email@example.com