Couple turns weekend retreat into award-winning winery

Karen and Kit Sickels, owners of Milagro Farm Vineyard and Winery, enjoy time in their tasting room. Sentinel photo/Karen Brainard
Karen and Kit Sickels, owners of Milagro Farm Vineyard and Winery, enjoy time in their tasting room. Sentinel photo/Karen Brainard

By Karen Brainard

Milagro Farm Vineyard and Winery’s off-the-beaten-path location is spot-on in delivering a peaceful and picturesque setting for tasting award-winning estate grown wines.

The scenic drive to Milagro is just part of the adventure. From State Route 78 east, one turns north onto Old Julian Highway and then onto Littlepage Road, which winds back to the hilly, tree-shaded, boulder-studded property owned by Christopher “Kit” and Karen Sickels. Flowering plants, wine barrels, and an orange awning with the company logo accent the building that houses the tasting room.

As Milagro’s list of awards continues to grow, so does the recognition for the Ramona winery.

“It’s been so well received,” Kit said of their wine, noting that many are not aware of their tasting room location because it is off the main road.

All of Milagro’s wines are estate grown. The winery’s most awarded varietal is the Sauvignon Blanc. The 2012 release won Best Sauvignon Blanc in the Winemaker Challenge, and Platinum in the San Diego International Wine Competition.

Milagro’s 2012 Rose of Sangiovese won Best of Show Rose in the Winemaker Challenge.

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Milagro Farm Vineyard and Winery’s sign welcomes visitors to its tasting room. Sentinel photo/Karen Brainard

Among the red wines, the 2010 Barbera earned a gold medal and the 2010 Meritage received silver at the Winemaker Challenge. Other wines that have received awards are the Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Aleatico, and Sangiovese.

“What we do is try to enter them in the most important contests as we grow, because that’s the higher bar and we’ve done well against Napa and Sonoma in some cases,” said Kit.

The Sickels, of La Jolla, bought the 110-acre property on April 1, 2001, as a retreat. It took about seven men two years to clear the overgrown property, Kit said.

“At that time we weren’t thinking about planting grapes,” said Kit.

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A wine barrel marks the original chardonnay grapes. Sentinel photo/Karen Brainard

They planted avocado and olive trees, and then planted 500 chardonnay grapes and 500 cabernet sauvignon grapes.

“For our own consumption,” Karen said with a laugh.

“And then it got out of hand,” chuckled Kit.

Since they knew nothing about winemaking, they hired a winemaker, but the first batch did not go well.

That all changed when they found Jim Hart.

“We just ran an ad for a winemaker, and this is about seven years ago, and we just lucked in to Jim Hart,” Kit said.

Hart’s father owns Hart Winery in Temecula.

“So he was born into the vineyard business,” noted Kit.

Hart splits his time between Milagro and Hart Winery, in addition to teaching at community colleges, said Kit.

“He’s a purist. He doesn’t want us to buy other grapes and we have enough, we don’t need to,” said Kit.

Milagro now has 10,000 vines. Hart handles all aspects of the winemaking, from planting to bottling, all done on site.

In addition to the grapevines, the farm has peacocks and apple trees and produces olive oil from its olive trees. It also used to have a 1,200-square-foot treehouse.

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Kit Sickels checks some of his grapevines. In the background are picnic tables for those who want to bring a lunch when wine tasting. Sentinel photo/Karen Brainard

Built in massive oak trees, the treehouse had  one bedroom, one bathroom, a fireplace, and air conditioning.

“It was great fun. It was so cozy,” said Karen.

The treehouse was lost when the October 2007 Witch Creek wildfire came through three areas of the property, also destroying  a couple of outbuildings, 3,000 avocado trees, 2,000 grapevines, 1,500 olive trees, and melting the drip irrigation. They have since rebuilt their weekend retreat, but this time it is a house on the ground that overlooks a pond.

The Sickels, who like to joke about their foray into the winery business, are proud of their products. Although they find joy in their work and in the beauty of the property, they  said it is a never-ending job.

“You really have no idea what it takes to produce a bottle of wine between all of the pests and the weather,” said Karen.

Kit said he has three people working full-time repairing drip irrigation lines that coyotes chewed to get water. Another pest has been the wild turkeys that like to eat their grapes. The couple has learned to protect the grapes with black netting when they are ripe.

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Milagro has 10,000 grapevines planted on its property. Sentinel photo/Karen Brainard

The Sickels employ about 13 people on the farm and said they are like family. That includes Hart’s wife, Christine, who is the wine-tasting room manager, and Tony Ramos, farm manager, and his wife, Olga, assistant farm manager. The Ramoses have worked for the Sickels since day one on the farm.

“And talk about lucking out — he’s built everything here,” Kit said of Tony Ramos.

In addition to the wine-tasting room that offers comfortable indoor seating and contains a gift shop, Milagro offers venues for special events in the original crush house and wine cave. Milagro also has a wine club with about 282 members and hosts events for its members.

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The original crush house is rented out for private parties. Sentinel photo/Karen Brainard

“It’s so much fun with the wine club people, and actually the people who come in to taste because we come over and everyone’s out here and they have such a good time,” said Karen.

Sitting on the tasting room patio with a glass of wine, just steps away from grapevines, serenaded by chirping birds, and music piped outdoors, it’s easy to see why. For more information on Milagro, see milagrofarmwinery.com.

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Karen Sickels arranges a wine bottle on a recessed shelf in the wine cave, which is available for private parties. Sentinel photo/Karen Brainard
   
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