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Alumni Owners of La Finquita Winery & Vineyard Work Hard to Taste Success

Alumni Owners of La Finquita Winery & Vineyard Work Hard to Taste Success

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 in the life that the Koehlers lead together in Ramona. They’ve been a couple for 11 years, married for eight, are both University of San Diego alumni and both were USD Information Technology Services employees. 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.

LaFinquita Winery Photos

A Relationship With Fine Wine

Charlie, a 2006 USD alumnus with a chemistry degree and a former bassist for the Founders Chapel Choir, 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 winetasting, a winery tour and a private barrel tasting. The date not only drew the couple closer, but it gave them a peek into their future.

A year later, the couple got 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 winetasting rooms at wineries run by friends and learned plenty about the winery business.

Their passion ultimately led them to the big step — so big that Jess admits, "it came 15-20 years before we truly expected it to happen” — to purchase La Finquita in December 2013. They were, and still are, the youngest winery owners in Ramona. Six years later they are 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 vineyard creates the winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Syrah. La Finquita's second vineyard, Old Coach Vineyards, is behind Poway’s Maderas Golf Course. Aglianico, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Mourvedre, Petite Syrah, Syrah and Tempranillo are created there.

Business has steadily grown, Charlie said, going from selling 500 cases of wine their 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.”

Newly purchased equipment is expected to reduce workload time, enabling La Finquita to do “custom crush work” for other 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 burn out in about six months from what we've seen. We have Wine Club members who'll ask us about it. 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 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, 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, tables on the patio, shady trees with tables underneath to enjoy wine, conversation and to relax. There is a wine cave, a space that hosted USD alumni who visited the winery during the recent Torero Takeover event. 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 and the Koehlers have special wines demonstrating their community mindset and desire to give back. There are Rosé bottles that support breast cancer research; a special Rosé, Kisses from Heaven, made in memory of a late friend; and, later this summer, a white wine, Puppy Kisses, to support the local Frosted Faces Foundation, which is an elderly dog rescue organization.

Wine Classic This Weekend

There’s one annual event the Koehlers do to give back to their college alma mater.

The 11th annual USD Wine Classic is this Sunday, July 14, from 2-5 p.m. Attendees 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, silent auction, wine pull and a raffle are all part of the fun. 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.

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. “To us, being back on campus is like being home. It’s a very positive event for us.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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

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