Talk of a “South County Wine Trail” signage program on the freeways, which would direct vino lovers and out-of-towners to the treasure trove of wineries nestled in the Gilroy, San Martin and Morgan Hill backcountry has been going on for more than a year, but has yet come to fruition.
More wayfinding signs could be coming, however – and soon.
Officials from the county, winery owners and resident wine enthusiasts are working to increase the visibility of Santa Clara County vineyards. A big part of moving forward with that goal, according to District 1 Supervisor Mike Wasserman, is getting special permission from the state.
In California, only three types of signs are allowed on the freeways, including regulatory, directional and guide signs, according to Policy Analyst Kevin Maitski with Wasserman's office. There is no exemption for unique wine trail signs, he explained.
“(The state) only allows signs that meet their requirements,” he said. “We are working to find a compromise.”
Until that middle ground is reached, Maitski says there is no funding for winery wayfinding signs – but assures the effort will be a county-run program when the project is realized.
“There will be a variety of different signs in a variety of different jurisdictions, so we will cross that bridge when we get to it,” he explained. “Right now, we are focusing on getting the signage approved.”
On the homefront, a grassroots movement is underway to get the ball rolling even sooner.
Jon Hatakeyama, a wine enthusiast and Morgan Hill resident of 40 years, is leading that charge. He has dozens of community leaders who have put their name on his signage-bolstering proposals, including former mayors Sig Sanchez and Dennis Kennedy, of Gilroy and Morgan Hill.
Hatakeyama, a Morgan Hill dentist who was named “Man of the Year” by the Chamber of Commerce in 2009, said he just wants to see the wine industry thrive in the area.
He also serves as a staff writer for the Society of Wine Educators, one of the largest wine associations in America. He thinks that the wineries in this area “are certainly every bit as good as the top tier.”
Hatakeyama has meandered along other wine trails in various areas, and believes there is no reason to leave his own town.
“Why drive up to Napa and stay overnight?” he reasoned. “I dropped all of [the other wineries] and joined the (wine clubs) local ones.”
Hatakeyama is also teaming up with local vintners, including Michael Sampognaro of Morgan Hill Cellars, to rent advertising space on a freeway-adjacent property about two miles north of Morgan Hill on the southbound side.
A sign that reads, “South Valley Wine Trail – Next Exit” and directs motorists to the Cochrane exit, would be superb addition, Hatakeyama believes.
He hopes to hear from the landowner of the location of the hoped-for highway sign within the month, but stated there still is no definite timeline.
Sampognaro added that a fund for the proposed sign is still “one of the items we are working on.”
Hatakeyama, however, says that “the wineries of Santa Clara Valley will probably do some fundraising to augment their budget for these signs.”
The vision of establishing a well-marked wine trail isn't limited to South County.
Sheldon Haynie, winemaker and co-owner of Lightheart Cellars in San Martin, noted that a goal of the Wineries of Santa Clara Valley is “to span the region and help everybody.”
Haynie said he would like to see Santa Clara Valley vintners have a united approach, and provided one scenario of how winemakers could benefit from such cohesion.
In Napa Valley, for example, there is uniform signage within each town that helps the entire area stand out to tourists.
Problems could arise for South County grape growers “if Morgan Hill does one thing and Gilroy does one [other] thing,” Haynie speculated.
Executive Director Jennifer Scheer with the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau agreed that currently Santa Clara is missing what more renowned wine areas have: uniform signage.
When Scheer visits other winery-rich areas such as Napa, Sonoma or El Dorado counties, “on every intersection, they have a sign telling me where to go. There is uniform signage telling me I'm in a wine area.”
Like South County, however, those areas do not have winery signage on the highway, she notes.
Director of Marketing Greg Richtarek with Guglielmo Winery mentioned that city-posted, winery wayfinding signs – such as the one on East Dunne Avenue and Condit Road in Morgan Hill – do exist.
He pointed out that with GPS devices, tourists can find their way to wineries if they know about them already, but tourists need to know those wineries exist, first.
Where the big difference could be made, he said, is the U.S. 101 corridor, with official signs to bring awareness and legitimacy to South County as a wine county.
Sampognaro said there are Morgan Hill residents who still don't know about his winery at 1645 San Pedro Ave., even though it has operated in Morgan Hill for more than a century.
“I am still amazed when people visit my winery and say, 'We never knew this place was here and I have lived in Morgan Hill my whole life,'” he said.
Vic Vanni, co-owner/winemaker of Solis Winery in Gilroy, had not heard about the signage plans. Neither had Bill Holt, owner of Sycamore Creek Vineyards of Morgan Hill, but both agree: it is necessary.
Roni Jo Castillo, owner of Castillo's Hillside Shire Winery in Morgan Hill echoed that sentiment.
“Freeway signage would be great, as South County is an unknown wine destination,” he said. “Wineries are an asset to our townships and the community at large, but we need to draw people in so that we can thrive, not merely survive.”