A Pleasant Surprise in the O.C.’s South County

By Bob Johnson

I have to be honest: When I dropped by Rancho Capistrano Winery, located just steps from the historic mission founded by Father Junipero Serra in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., in 1776, I wasn’t expecting much.

A winery in the O.C.?

Well, it turns out there are at least 10 wineries in Orange County, and they’ve pooled their marketing resources to found “The Orange County Wine Trail.” Two of the 10 are in San Juan Capistrano, but only Rancho Capistrano was open on the day of our visit.

Rancho Capistrano is one of two wineries in San Juan Capistrano, and the only one open seven days a week.

Rancho Capistrano is one of two wineries in San Juan Capistrano, and the only one open seven days a week.

Yes, there was a time when quite a few vineyards could be found in Orange County. These days, however, wine grapes are as rare as the fruit for which the county was named. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that owner Kyle Franson and winemaker Collin Mitzenmacher were sourcing grapes from other areas.

Modern technology makes possible the transport of grape skins and juice (must), which can then be fermented and transformed into wine at a far-off site. That’s exactly what Franson, who had spent nearly three decades in finance and management before founding the winery, and the 25-year-old Mitzenmacher are doing.

Twenty-five? Isn’t that a little young for a winemaker?

“I’ve had people tell me exactly that,” says Mitzenmacher before beaming a Tom Cruise-like smile. “Really? Do I have to be a certain age in order to listen to our customers and learn what they like?”

Franson echoes that sentiment, and has said that the goal is to provide customers “with as many wines as possible.” By constantly rolling out new products, he believes, area residents will stay engaged and come back often.

Collin Mitzenmacher makes a wide array of bottlings, from bone dry to ultra sweet.

Collin Mitzenmacher makes a wide array of bottlings, from bone dry to ultra sweet.

“Fanciful” names are used for the various bottlings, and because of the winemaking process involved, vintages are not included on the labels. Mitzenmacher crafts a wide range of wines, from totally dry to ultra sweet. Although he has no control over the grape-growing process, he still can put his personal stamp on the wines through the sugar level selected, the make-up of the blends, and the types of oak staves used (if any). He also infuses some wines, such as the “Little Green Apples” Riesling, with flavor concentrates.

Some would label such bottlings as “gimmick wines,” just a step above Bartles & Jaymes. Mitzenmacher doesn’t care. He says his job is to sell wine, and that means making wine that can be sold.

So, for every perfectly balanced, off-dry Riesling from Washington’s Columbia Valley, there’s a “Sweet Caroline,” a White Shiraz infused with raspberry and dragon fruit flavors.

And that’s why the Merlot from Napa Valley’s Stags Leap District is named “Prancer,” and a sublime G-S-M (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre) blend from Australia is dubbed “Waltzing Matilda.”

Australia? Yes, Rancho Capistrano procures “raw materials” from that country, as well as from France, Italy, Portugal, South Africa, Chile and New Zealand, in addition to up and down America’s Pacific Coast.

“So many winemakers are focused on just a single region and just a few varietals,” Mitzenmacher notes. “We can make wine, literally, from anywhere in the world. It’s so much fun.”

This is the sign that greets travelers arriving in San Juan Capistrano by train. Walk across the street, and you'll find the entrance to Rancho Capistrano Winery.

This is the sign that greets travelers arriving in San Juan Capistrano by train. Walk across the street, and you’ll find the entrance to Rancho Capistrano Winery.

Just getting to Rancho Capistrano Winery also can be fun. Situated in a nearly 100-year-old building, it’s just a few strides from San Juan Capistrano’s train station, which is served by Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner and California Coastal lines, as well as Metrolink’s Orange County and Inland Empire-Orange County lines.

Just across the street, adjacent to the train station, is a garage that offers three hours of free parking — plenty of time to sample Rancho Capistrano’s wines (most available by the glass) and sample the winery’s café menu. There are appetizers (a cheese plate, triple hummus, guacamole, calamari), salads (summer mixed, chopped Italian, Caprese), and entrees (muffaletta sandwich, Hawaiian sliders, pasta Bolognese, and three types of pizza).

If you ask nicely, Mitzenmacher might even concoct a glass of his special sangria for you. It consists mainly of “Little Green Apples” Riesling, along with dashes of “Sweet Caroline,” the peach and apricot-flavored Chardonnay known as “Savannah,” Sprite and sparkling wine.

And if you seek something unique, try Rancho Capistrano’s “Mexican Coffee” wine, made from Sangiovese grapes, decaffeinated Mexican coffee beans and cinnamon stick. If you’re a wine drinker who starts each day at Starbucks, prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

Just as you’re likely to be after tasting most of Rancho Capistrano Winery’s bottlings.

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Rancho Capistrano Winery is located at 26755 Verdugo Street in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. It opens daily at 11 a.m., closing at 9 p.m. on Sundays, 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, and 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. There’s plenty of indoor and outdoor seating. For more information, call 949-307-7736, or visit www.ranchocapistranowinery.com.

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