FALLBROOK — John Culbertson admits that he likes risky businesses.
As a Navy officer, he specialized in bomb disposal. Later he worked as a commercial diver, and now he is president of Martech International, an underwater contracting firm that does work for the oil industry in places such as Alaska, at depths reaching 1,000 feet.
But a few years ago Culbertson decided to start one of the riskiest businesses of all--a winery. As if that wasn't difficult enough (there are 670 other wineries in California alone), he located it in Fallbrook, a place known for avocados, not grapes. And he was determined to make only top-quality champagne.
It was enough to make a wine aficionado weep with laughter. This guy Culbertson went bankrupt, right?
Wrong. Culbertson Winery turned a profit for the first time last year. Wine buyers and restaurateurs praise Culbertson's sparkling blends; panels of experts have awarded his wines more than 30 medals in competitions throughout California. Culbertson champagne has even been served at the White House.
The odds against success for any winery are phenomenal, particularly in Southern California, which is not considered one of the great wine-producing regions of the world. Location is part of a winery's image, and image is of utmost importance in the wine business.
In addition, grapes have been over-planted in California, leading to a glut of wines on the market, fierce competition and low prices. The San Pasqual Winery in Escondido, which was gaining statewide recognition for its premium wines, filed for protection under federal bankruptcy laws in January; among the problems cited by the winery's owners were competition from foreign wines and a slowdown in the state's wine industry. In addition, the small but well-received Point Loma Winery ceased operating this year when its two partners decided they were too busy with other projects to continue.
But at a time when the wine industry is slumping, Culbertson and another local wine maker, Mike Menghini of Menghini Winery in Julian, have not only entered the business but are both having some success--for far different reasons. And in a business increasingly dominated by highly trained scientists, Menghini and Culbertson learned wine making primarily through personal experience, not classroom studies.
Culbertson, a stocky, well-tanned man of 51, first became interested in wine while he was living in Australia 19 years ago.
"I fell in love with the wines there, but then we moved to Singapore, and I couldn't get the Australian wines I was used to," he recalled. "So we switched to French wines" and gradually learned more and more about the complex process of making wine.
In 1972, Culbertson and his wife, Martha, moved to Houston, a city that became the headquarters for Martech International, Culbertson's underwater contracting business. Martech's divers "work all over the Gulf Coast, California and Alaska, and sometimes dive through ice," he said. They install, repair and inspect oil pipelines, offshore platforms and other industry equipment. "It's an interesting business," he said, "but wine making is more interesting."
While in Houston, Culbertson made his first wine at home--a sweet berry wine that was less than perfect. "I threw it out," he said, "and it wasn't the last one I threw out, either. I've made some real junk wines." But he continued to read books on wine making and attended several weekend seminars on the subject at UC Davis.
In 1976, Culbertson and his wife, both graduates of San Diego State University, bought and moved to a 78-acre avocado ranch in Fallbrook. While Martha Culbertson expanded her knowledge of gourmet cooking--she has studied under Julia Child and Jaques Pepin--her husband commuted to Houston during the week.
On the weekends, though, Culbertson began experimenting with making champagne, probably the most difficult wine of all to make. It ferments twice, the second time after it has already been bottled, and the yeasty sediment trapped inside the bottles must be removed without losing the pressurized carbon dioxide that gives champagne its bubbles.
"Its an extremely time-consuming, precision job," said Dan Berger, a former San Diego journalist who writes a semimonthly wine column syndicated by the New York Times.
Berger still recalls tasting the champagne that Culbertson entered in a homemade wine competition at the Del Mar Fair in 1979.
"The stuff was unbelievable--it had the stamp of care all over it," Berger said. "He's very dedicated to absolute quality, and it doesn't matter what it costs."
Knew It Would be Risky
Culbertson joked that he decided to make champagne "because it's a challenge, and besides, my wife loves it. I thought maybe I could cut out the middleman." But, he added, once he had made champagne successfully, he began to think of opening a commercial winery.
"I knew it would be risky, but few people in California were making champagne, and no one in Southern California was," he said.