I had heard that the Barrio Logan Winery had opened in a former mechanic’s shop.
I pulled up Thursday afternoon to what I was quite certain was the wrong place. There was no sign. The building was across the street from the 32nd Street Naval Station and tucked between William’s Auto Repair Shop and a little house that looked out of place surrounded by so much industry. I walked up a driveway whose roll-away gate was open and poked my head into what looked like a company office.
“This isn’t the Barrio Logan Winery, is it?” I said, pretty sure of myself. A woman behind a reception window looked up.
“Yes it is,” she said without hesitation. “We also do construction inspection testing.”
She walked me further up the driveway where I met Juan Diaz, who for three decades has run his inspection business. He tests the quality of materials like concrete and piping intended for use in construction projects.
In the mid-90s, a girlfriend introduced him to wine, and he loved it. In 1999, following in the footsteps of friends who had done the same, he began making his own. He started by fermenting a single disastrous barrel and since has been small-scale winemaking in a back room of his Barrio Logan business, mostly for friends and family. Today he gives most of the wine, at a loss, to nonprofits who serve it at fundraisers in his driveway.
I sat down in front of eight fermenting barrels to talk with Diaz about his winery. Nearby, three men were bottling. Employees of his construction business — which is like a small family — are now helping him with wine.
They used a forklift to hoist a blue wine-filled barrel into the air, and used a plastic hose to siphon it into a filtering device on the ground. A second hose moved the filtered wine into a clear glass jug, where one employee opened a spigot to fill each bottle by hand.
I heard this used to be a mechanic’s shop.
It used to be. In 1990, I bought it out and started cleaning it out. My business has been here since then and this was all warehouse. In 1999 I started the winery with one barrel.
Only last year we started to put the wine out. Most of the time it was for family and friends, but we started getting better at it. I think people like it. It’s here in the Barrio and it’s mainly word of mouth.
And then I said OK, what’s the next step? What we decided last year was to support nonprofit organizations. The Urban Corps came to me about two years ago and said they needed a mural at their new facility. I said well shoot, the economy is bad. I don’t have any money. How can I help these guys? The wine! So that’s how it all started.
Nonprofits have fundraisers here and we set up and serve wine. We keep the cost of the wine and the rest goes to the organization. It gives us an opportunity to display our wine and for people to drink it.
It’s something for the community to enjoy. They don’t have to go to Napa. We’re right here.
What kind of wine?
We have a few types — varietals, as they call them. We have Nebbiolo, which is a dark red and very smooth. That’s what they’re bottling out there. Then you have Tempranillo, and that’s a lighter red. Sangiovese is lighter than Tempranillo.
Of course we’re limited on the types. So, in essence as homegrown wine people, we’re not big producers. When we stand in line to get our grapes, whatever comes out, that’s what we get. So people say, “Is that good?” I say yes. They say, “Well what is this good with?” And I tell them, “Oh it’s good with chile colorado con frijoles!” We don’t do that filet mignon. You have a glass with some buenitos tamales, put some of that white cheese with your beans and una tortilla, it’s good man! Menudo!
Where do you get your grapes?
We got a good source in the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California. Other wineries get grapes from that same area. We like it because it’s a similar latitude as Italy. So these are all Italian grapes. Mexican-Italian. I ask people, “Do they have papers? Or are they alien grapes?”
Are you well-versed in the technicalities and vocabulary of wine?
Nope. I haven’t read a single book. Mostly I learned from the old winemakers who are in their 80s. They say, “This is what you do, Juan. Make sure your barrel is clean, that kind of thing.”
I do have a couple of people who like to come by — connoisseurs, you call them. And you know, they’ve read. All I do is I taste it, and if it’s good, it’s good. Once you taste my wine you probably won’t drink another.
Some of the ladies come by here and they ask how they can help. I say, why don’t you kiss the barrels and give them good luck? They pull out their lipsticks and give a big kiss. You see the barrels with all the kisses on them?
What’s the process?
Once we get the grapes and classify them. Take all the dead grapes and the leaves off. We take a little bit better care. We de-stem them. Then we’re left with a batch of grape juice. We sterilize with a common sterilizer then we do the first fermentation. Twenty days after that we do the pressing. It goes into the barrels and I leave them about a year.
There are some concerns in Barrio Logan over how the community might change with places like coffee shops and hip restaurants coming in. You might say a winery is exactly that sort of place. But you’re a guy who’s been in the community for so long. Do you see this as way for members of the community to get the types of places you would find in other communities without worrying their community is changing too much?
I think so. Whenever organizations here have fundraisers, they get together in Mission Valley. Now they don’t have to. They can get together in Barrio Logan. Let’s get together in Barrio Logan. They come here and raise funds and other people will come.
What’s your philosophy on wine?
If it tastes good, it’s good. Everybody has their own taste buds. Wine that’s good for you is not good for me. People ask me, “What’s the best wine?” It’s the one you like.
Do you do white wine?
You need more equipment for white wine and we don’t have that equipment. Reds are a lot simpler and we just want to perfect those first. We once tried some Chardonnay. See the second bottle on the right? See the color? (It was murky deep yellow). We don’t even want to open it because it didn’t work out.
We didn’t know the process. We used to use old bottles and all that. Now, through discovery and education, we discovered new bottles, sterilized bottles, sterilized corks.
You weren’t doing that before?
Nah. We thought we’d save a lot of money by getting the used bottles from restaurants. But sterilizing them was a lot of work, and a lot of water. We started calculating and we could get brand new sterilized bottles and new corks. It’s one of those things that you learn by doing better wine. You’ve gone through the process of fermenting it and getting a good color and then all of a sudden you’re going to put them in old stinky bottles that you don’t know where they’ve been?
What’s your favorite wine?
Hahaha! Oh, I like red. All of mine are my favorites. Everybody does good wine as long as they take good care.
It’s all fun stuff. It pays for the community and makes them aware about wines. It’s a great atmosphere. You go to different wineries and you can’t really ask too many questions. Most of us stick to the back. It’s intimidating. Here people can ask lo que quieran — whatever they want. Nice and easy.
Correction: This post incorrectly identified the Navy base near Diaz’s home. It has since been updated. We regret the error.
— Interview conducted and edited by ADRIAN FLORIDO