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A North County Winery Lets Patrons Sip and Share in these Trying Times

A rainbow cascades the vineyards at Highland Valley Vineyards

Novelist George R.R. Martin said, “Wine makes all things possible.” Understanding the possibilities in sharing, Ray Schnorr and Jeannine O’Brien, owners and operators of Highland Valley Vineyards, found a way to give to those in need during the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. The boutique winery, located in Highland Valley, is donating 20% of its gross wine revenues to the San Diego Food Bank until at least May 15. 

Highland Valley Vineyards owners and wine makers Ray Schnorr and Jannine O’Brien

From the beginning, Schnorr and O’Brien wanted to do something to help. “We saw other businesses offering discounts or free shipping as a means to help their customers and maintain their business. We gave it some thought and decided to take a different approach to helping others,” Schnorr said. 

“The idea of supporting the Food Bank came about because of the connection between wine and food. With the stay-at-home order, our patrons are home, cooking healthy meals paired with great wines. It’s one of the positive side effects of the current crisis.”

Schnorr realizes that this kind of giving will give his customers a feeling that they are doing their part as well. “We hope this is an even more rewarding experience knowing a portion of their purchase is going to help the less fortunate in our community enjoy their own meal that evening.”

Wine has always been part of the couple’s life. They have been wine connoisseurs and enthusiasts for as long as they can remember. In 2004, they created their first batch of wine in their garage. As amateur enthusiasts, they planted vines in their Rancho Bernardo backyard to share with friends. Three years later, their red wine was winning top awards at the San Diego County Fair

“People kept asking if they could buy our wine,” Schnorr said. And so, the inspiration to start a small commercial operation began. Thanks in part to a 2006 county ordinance that allowed boutique wineries to open tasting rooms, in 2007, they purchased three acres in Highland Valley and built a commercial operation. 

“We were inspired by the success as amateurs,” said Schnorr. “We were able to scale that from the amateur status to professional status and win even more awards as professionals.”

Since the start of their operations, Schnorr and O’Brien have been doing it all together. “We are co-owners and co-winemakers,” O’Brien said. 

O’Brien, who runs daily operations, writes the tasting notes, and manages quality assurance, has advanced her knowledge in wine-making by becoming a Level One Sommelier. She will also soon complete her Wine Business Certification from San Diego State University and is studying to advance to a Level Two Sommelier.  

Like the craft brewery scene in North County, boutique wineries are fast becoming a growing market. “With the advent of the ordinance, the number of small boutique wineries has exploded. When we were first making amateur wines, there were eight wineries in the whole county. Today, there are over 140 that are active,” said Schnorr. 

Specifically in Highland Valley, there are eight wineries and a total of about 25 in Escondido. O’Brien thinks this gives Escondido residents a closer avenue to great wines than driving to other select wine areas in California and it gives wine enthusiasts something new to try. “Because of the boutique nature, the Temecula scene is very different from San Diego.” The closer location also means, “people can spend an afternoon bouncing between these wineries right here in Escondido.” 

The tasting room at Highland Valley Vineyards will be open on Saturdays and Sundays. This is when most customers come in to taste wines and make purchases. Wines are also available for purchase online and through the Vineyard’s wine club.  

The outdoor tasting patio at Highland Valley Vineyards

“At least half of the customers that walk in our door are from Escondido,” said O’Brien, adding that many of them are also part of the wine club. That is another reason, he said, why giving to the San Diego Food Bank made sense. 

“Jannine did some research on what we could do for giving back,” said Schnorr. “The San Diego Food Bank came up and they have a branch in Escondido.”

They have let all customers know that every purchase is going to help feed their neighbors. “We’ve sent out a newsletter announcing that and we had really good traffic last week,” Schnorr said.

“We are also seeing an uptick in the orders online,” O’Brien added. “We had another person who ordered wine for her family. She’s sending it out to all her kids. There’s nothing better than getting a little something in the mail. It’s just another pay-it-forward kind of thing.”

Giving isn’t new to the wine-making duo. They often donate to charity events and galas throughout San Diego. “We literally could give away all our wine at these events,” Schnorr said. The charities that they support on a regular basis include STEP (Support the Enlisted Project) - an organization that helps families of enlisted military who are facing financial difficulties and the Palomar Family YMCA.

Schnorr and O’Brien also like to celebrate their successes with their wine club. Three times a year, they have an event they call the “Pick Up Party.” At this party, members receive three bottles of the winery's newest releases and the event includes wine tasting, food and music. Past parties have included themes such as a Greek party dedicated to the god of wine and fertility, Dionysus, with guests coming dressed in togas; and a Western themed party complete with a chuck wagon and barbeque chef. 

The couple is tentatively planning a summer party with a baseball theme and guests will be asked to don clothes that represent their favorite team.

A friendly dog lays ready to greet customers

While the winery is still open, the couple too has felt the effects of the country’s shutdown. Business is slower, but as Schnorr said, “it’s still enough to cover our fixed costs and help us basically get through. That is our goal right now.”

Even while they are trying to maintain their business, Schnorr and O’Brien feel the need to make helping others a priority.  As Schnorr said, “The virus crisis is affecting everyone, but in particular, the thousands who have recently lost employment. The San Diego Food Bank provides a nutritional safety net and we are proud to support their efforts in this time of particular need.” 

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