A group of friends gathered in Roman Weiser's Newhall garage one September day in 2005.
They had with them crushed grapes from Paso Robles, compressed in an oak barrel. They added yeast. And then they waited, periodically monitoring the barrel's contents, straining it of pulp and sediment.
A year later, the friends — most of them amateur vintners — had produced a barrel of wine.
"Our hopes were not really to create outstanding wine," said Weiser, 51, a graphic designer in the advertising industry. "We were just hoping to produce something that was drinkable."
But the Syrah they produced was a hit with their friends and families, and that wine — called Mantis after a praying mantis that flew into the garage where the barrel was stored — launched a trend that is turning this suburban outpost into wine country.
So far, wine production in Santa Clarita is largely noncommercial, carried out by hobbyists who host winemaking parties and showcase their wines at regional viniculture events, sometimes winning awards for their creations. As amateur winemakers, they cannot sell their product, and, unlike the Sierra Pelona Valley just to the north, the Santa Clarita Valley cannot boast a special federal designation as a wine grape growing region.
But about a dozen vineyards have been started in backyards in the area, with such names as Whistling Vineyard, Compa, Bobcat and One Vine Four Branches. Santa Clarita now boasts some 30 winemakers, most of whom belong to the Santa Clarita Vintners and Growers Assn., an informal group launched in 2007. Backyard vintners here produce an average of 30 to 60 gallons of wine each, association members say. For the last five years, a local fundraising event, Sunset in the Vineyard, enables growers to showcase their beverages while helping a cause.
The rising profile of Santa Clarita wine is evident in scattered commercial efforts, including a new wine-crushing facility that opened in part to serve the local market. And despite the subdivisions that dominate the valley, dry hot days and cool evenings make it conducive to growing grapes, local wine enthusiasts say.
"Mantis unleashed the winemaking movement in our part of Santa Clarita," said Weiser, who established Whistling Vineyard on a slope at the back of his property. The 150 plants he cultivates are enough to produce 30 to 35 gallons of wine. His all-natural Syrah and Grenache are made the old-fashioned way. The grapes are stomped by foot and the wine is named for whoever is doing the stomping, Weiser said. Among them are "Jon's Crush" and "Ben's Crush," named for his sons.
"Right now, I'm focusing on producing the best wine possible," said Weiser, who shares the final product with family and friends and donates some to fundraising events.
Fellow vintner Chris Carpenter got his taste for making wine from a kit he bought in 2005. By 2007 he had planted his vineyard, Compa, with about 250 plants on the slope of the Newhall property he co-owns with his brother Tim. The Carpenters, who also work with Weiser, produce about 125 gallons of wine a year, including Merlot red and Roussanne white.
"Nobody is using the kit anymore, that's for sure," Carpenter said.
Steve Lemley and his business partner Nate Hasper, who own the local Pulchella Winery and its tasting room in Old Town Newhall, noticed the jump in interest in local viniculture and decided to capitalize on it. In September they opened the Santa Clarita Valley's first certified wine crush facility to serve commercial vineyard owners, winemakers, distributors and restaurateurs. The company specializes in what it calls "limited-production, ultra premium" red winemaking and offers full-service grape crushing, bin fermentation, barrel storage, bottling and on-site laboratory analysis.
"The Santa Clarita Valley is the gateway to wine country," said Lemley, who was among the friends who gathered in Weiser's garage that day in September 2005. Just north of Santa Clarita are the commercial wineries Agua Dulce, founded in 1999, and Reyes Winery, established in 2004, which is scheduled to host the first Sierra Pelona Valley Wine Festival on Jan. 26.
Eve Bushman, a local writer who has a blog called Eve's Wine 101, said that many Santa Clarita residents are wine enthusiasts and that the area's upscale demographics make it fertile ground for a growing local wine culture. The city already is home to at least five wine bars.
Lemley said his business, called SCV Custom Crush Services, fills a void because local winegrowers otherwise must travel to Ventura or Santa Barbara counties. He hopes his new business will spur more of Santa Clarita's small-scale wine growers to go commercial.
"People are intimidated by commercial winemaking," Lemley said. "We're hoping that we'll be able to help some people … to mentor them through the process in a no-stress home environment and take some of the intimidation factor out of it."
Carpenter said the new wine crush would be "invaluable to guys like me as we start making more wine and our inventory and our capacity to make wine expands."
At SCV Custom Crush's small temperature-controlled warehouse, tucked in a business park just off the Golden State Freeway at Magic Mountain Parkway, grapes are loaded into 1,000-pound bins. A minimum of one ton of fruit, equal to two barrels of wine, is required to start. Grapes are crushed by hand, allowed to ferment for up to four weeks, transferred into a press to extract juice and stored in barrels to undergo the full aging process.
Lemley, 37, a film industry worker whose interest in winemaking was sparked 13 years ago when he wife bought him a $100 kit, said his goal is to produce small lots of high-quality limited-production boutique wines, much like the so-called garagistes, or specialty garage winemakers, of France's Bordeaux region.
"There is a garagiste movement in Santa Clarita right now," Lemley said.