‘Back Country Coalition' Hopes to Draw Visitors to Rural Communities, Including Ramona

The group hopes to show visitors that places like Ramona, Valley Center, Alpine, Borrego Springs and Julian can make for great weekend getaways

Next time you’re looking to go on a little getaway, you may want to set your sights on San Diego’s backcountry.One group believes some local rural communities should be considered travel destinations.

The Ramona Chamber of Commerce is leading an initiative to bring more tourists to rural San Diego – including Ramona, Valley Center, Alpine, Borrego Springs and Julian – through an entity called the “Back Country Coalition.”

“We want to make this a unique experience that you can experience for a weekend or a getaway. There are several things that these communities offer,” Joe Stupar, executive director of the Ramona Chamber of Commerce, told NBC 7.

Instead of competing for visitors and tourism dollars, the five communities would work together to promote the unique features in their own community and also cross-promote events.

The coalition would also be able to apply for additional tourism grants.

So far, Stupar said Borrego Springs and Julian have committed to joining the coalition.

Mary Gordon, executive director of the Valley Center Chamber of Commerce, told NBC 7 the Back Country Coalition is a "wonderful idea," and expects the chamber board to make a decision on joining within 30 days.

“On the [State Route] 67, we're the gateway to the backcountry in the North County," explained Stupar. "Down south is Alpine. They're the gateway to the south, into the backcountry."

Mary Rynearson, executive director of the Alpine Mountain Empire Chamber of Commerce, said they’re committed to joining the coalition, and are waiting for final approval from the board during a meeting set for Aug. 24.

Ramona is spearheading the initiative because of its growing wine industry.

In 2010, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors revised the wine ordinance, making it easier and cheaper for smaller farmers to open a boutique winery.

There are now more than 30 wineries in Ramona. Most of them opened after 2010.

Audrey Cassidy opened Barrel One tasting room in April 2015. All of the wine she sells is produced with organic grapes grown on her property.

Ramona residents Gerry and Hazel Griffiths have lived in the rural community for 16 years and like seeing the growth.

"I think it's really good," said Hazel. "It's giving work to all the locals."

They also enjoy setting out on a day of wine tasting in their own neighborhood, including at Barrel One.

"We're going to up Julian highway here and get as far as we dare," said Gerry. "Fortunately, we have a designated driver."

Last month, county supervisors updated the wine ordinance.

A staffer with Supervisor Dianne Jacob's office said the updates cleared up gray areas, to further encourage the growth of boutique wineries.

Among the changes: requiring a certain amount of locally-grown grapes to be used in wines produced in San Diego, and allowing smaller venues to hold events.

Stupar said most of the people who opened boutique wineries in Ramona aren't making a living from it yet – keeping the small-town vibe.

"It's an intimate setting,” he explained. “Owners are passionate about it. It's not corporate driven.”

Cassidy said she's looking at her winery as a long-term investment. She and her husband, Tom, got started in the business gradually.

Initially, they planted merlot grapes as part of their landscape. A local winery asked to buy their grapes, and eventually the couple decided to produce their own wine.

“He (Tom) loves his farming and really enjoys the whole process of planting the vineyard and watching the grapes grow,” she told NBC 7.

Cassidy said she's not concerned about too many new wineries starting up.

“Our infrastructure here in Ramona is limited,” she said. “So I think based on that, we can only grow at a certain rate. I don't see tour buses coming down the street, yet.”

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