Gerardo Cordiano arrived in the United States, aged 24, with a fiancée and almost nothing else. He had left the rocky, sunny slopes of Calabria, Italy, for a new life on the cold streets of Syracuse, New York. Now, after 39 years, a chain of pizza restaurants and several Italian restaurants, Cordiano sits back on the terrace at Cordiano Winery, sipping a glass of the California syrah he bottled in 2007.

“He won’t tell you this, but he built this whole place with his own hands,” his son tells me before our interview. “This used to be an avocado orchard. He cut down 2,200 trees!”

Cordiano’s huge brown eyes crease at the corners, forming rivulets of mirth as I ask him about the avocado trees. “Yeah, there were a lot of trees,” he says, taking a sip.

Cordiano Winery opened for business in 2002. There were dreams to be revived here. The feel of grapes in Gerardo’s hands when he was a young boy back in Calabria, tending the “few square feet” of vines his father kept. The dream of rich, full-flavored red wine, the color of rubies and bleeding sunsets.

Wildfires, taxes, permits and San Diego’s hot, dry climate have only driven the plans of the Cordianos. Now, the family — and this is a family business if ever there was one — bottles 1,200 cases of wine a year, the bulk of which it sells to a core group of fans who have discovered the beautiful winery, tucked away in the hills south of Escondido.

We sat down with Gerardo Cordiano to talk about grapes and sunshine, gravel and avocados and why you should never drink his wine when you’re in a bad mood.

San Diego’s obviously not known as a major winemaking region, though we’re pretty close to Santa Barbara, Napa, even the Valle de Guadalupe in Mexico. Why not?

The wine industry’s just started. The average farm in San Diego is between five and 10 acres. You don’t have those big lots where people can come and put 500 acres of grapes and come up with big wineries. The industry out here can grow slowly, but it’s going to be very limited.

That being said, the weather is more temperate in this area than it would be in the Temecula valley, because it gets very hot out there. There is always a gentle breeze going through here.

Also, the terrain out here is typically composite granite. Composite granite has a tendency to drain well because it’s loose and it becomes sandy. It’s not very rich in nutrients for grapes. Therefore, I think you find conditions where the vines are continuously stressed, since there’s not a lot of water and the little bit you apply kind of seeps through the soil.

That is one of the conditions that makes the grape an excellent grape.

Because it’s stressing the grape? That idea that stressing the vine concentrates the flavor?

We apply water through irrigation, rather than dry farming, as they do in other areas. But at one point, late in the season, we stop, because we want the sugar to come up high and have more sweet berries and produce better wines that way.

Water has been a big issue down in the wineries in Mexico, to the point where some recent vintages even taste a little salty, since so much groundwater has been sucked up for wine production. Is water an issue up here?

Well, the Ramona Water District, in which we are, has plenty of water to supply to farmers.

Typically, these were avocado groves, which use a lot of water, so if we plant grapes, the need for so much water is alleviated. Everybody would be better off to plant grapes than to plant avocados.

Did you become a winemaker primarily as a business decision, or was the decision passion-driven?

As a child, my father had a very small piece of land, and we did grow grapes and I was forced to help him, and I acquired a certain knowledge about this process.

I’m thankful for that now. I like San Diego. I like the climate and I found this area that is preserved for agricultural uses. So, I thought that this area would be perfect to fulfill a dream that I had since I left Italy.

So, is this bringing back memories from your childhood?

Yes, yes.

Is that reflected in your wine, or are you making wine that is more suitable for here?

No. I make wine that is suitable for here.

I instructed myself. What I learned in raising grapes and making wine as a child, I supplemented my knowledge with more modern techniques and different ways of approaching this thing.

I guess where you were born and brought up, making wine is just part of life, everybody does it, right?

A lot of people make wine, a lot of people have their own little square-foot of land and they grow almost everything in it.

Whereas here, you don’t have that tradition, so you have to build on your own knowledge, your own tradition?

That’s right.

And what grapes have you found do well here?

Most grapes are very much adaptable here. However, you gotta go with what the market demands.

I know people up in Ramona that went with their ideal grape and they’re stuck with a wine that they can do nothing with, because people don’t know it. Like an aglianico, which is not known for its great tradition. You need to research it and see what you will sell.

If you wanna be in this business, you gotta grow it, then you gotta try and sell it.

We do sangiovese, we do cabernet franc, we do petit syrah, we do merlot. We do the types of grapes that are well-known.

Commercial winemaking was traditionally only done by very wealthy, big, often aristocratic families. Nowadays, do you think this industry is becoming more accessible for boutique winemakers who have a passion but don’t necessarily have pots of money?

Well there is a saying that if you want to make a million dollars in this industry, you gotta start with two.

It’s still very costly to be in this business and only the people that are financially well-off can do it. It’s very rare that a guy like me could start to make a big dent in the industry because of the amount of cash that is required to start up.

Is this a 365-day-a-year job?

Yes.

There’s always something to do. In the off-season, you’ve got to care for the vines. You gotta prune, you gotta plant. Then you gotta spray for potential pests, check the sugar level, then crush and when that is knocked out, you’ve gotta check on the wine. Then, there’s more work out there in the fields.

You started making wine on your own, right? You never worked at a winery or anything?

No. I never worked for anyone else in my life.

Did you do a course?

When I started planting the grapes, I used the information I have had from my family experience and compared that with other winemakers and went from there. Errors and trials.

But we’re making decent wines now that people appreciate.

Did you make some terrible wines to begin with?

When I first started, yeah.

So is this something you feel like you will be learning for the rest of your life?

Yes. Absolutely, absolutely.

I tell people very clearly that the wine is only half of the story.

The other half is the people that drink it. The chemical compounds that you find in these wines have to be in agreement with the mood you’re in, the time of day, the personal problems you’re dealing with.

A lot of people are of the opinion that they like this wine, they tried it someplace and they buy a bottle or two and, all of a sudden, they go home, they’ve got problems with spouses, their children are sick, not enough money to pay their bills and they say “Ah, to heck with this, let me go get a glass of wine.” Well, they find that that wine is horrible. It doesn’t taste the same.

So I always counsel my people to drink my wine only when they’re in a good mood, in good spirits.

Interview conducted and edited by Will Carless. He can be reached at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.550.5670 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/willcarless.

Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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