A wave of tax-incentivized turf reduction projects swept over Southern California golf courses in 2015 in response to the drought.
Steele Canyon in Jamul was among the last to complete its work, but course management is banking it will be worth the wait.
“We looked at four other courses that did turf removal,” General Manager Colin Radchenko said. “They were all different, and we realized we had to make it fit what we wanted to do.”
What they did was use the opportunity to revamp and upgrade the course while adding a vineyard to a nine-hole stretch they were looking to rebrand. The concept works because grapes qualify as drought-resistant plants, one of the qualifications for receiving turf-reduction funding.
That’s why there are now grape vine shoots sprouting adjacent to tee boxes and greens on a nine Steele Canyon rebranded Vineyard from Meadow, the last of three nines to be built and the one always deemed to be the lesser of the course’s 27 holes by players, according to Steele Canyon CEO Larry Taylor.
“Nobody really wanted to play it,” Taylor said. “It wound through the homes, and it didn’t have the character of the other two nines.
“We wanted to make it on par with the two others.”
The vineyards are situated on the reduced turf area around holes 2, 3 and 4. A stone bridge was added to No. 4, a par 4 that involves a creek carry on the second shot, to enhance the hole’s character.
The renovated nine that will eventually yield grapes is currently yielding compliments.
“People love it,” Radchenko said, with Taylor adding, “We accomplished our goal.”
The vineyards currently consist mostly of wire and shoots watered by a drip system. There are 1,200 vines that need nurturing that will eventually annually produce enough grapes to generate 2,400 to 3,600 bottles of syrah and sangiovese.
Greg Maness, owner of Maness Vineyards in Jamul, is advising on the product, including educating the Steele Canyon maintenance staff on cultivating the grapes. His first task was to help the ownership determine that the land was suitable for growing grapes and then, along with vineyard design partner John Kelly, to assist in determining the angles of the vineyard plots to maximize sun exposure. Maness said the property is ideal for growing grapes largely because of favorable wind conditions.
“It has two real good airflow patterns that are just perfect,” he said. “One is the cool breeze off the Pacific and then the warm breezes from the desert. It’s a double whammy, versus all hot or cold.”
The soil composition was also ideal given 30 years of fertilization as a golf property.
Maness said he’s been approached by course owners over the years about growing grapes but hadn’t had any takers until the drought worsened.
“It’s a novel concept … one that the drought finally put into play,” he said. “It’s innovative thinking, and it increases the property value and gives you usable product at the end.”
The novelty factor and eventual aesthetics are ideal benefits too.
“It’s an elegant low-water plant and the beauty of looking at the vines is captivating to people,” he said.
All that can be seen of the vines at present are a few green leaves peeking out the top of a plastic sleeve that protects them from pests (rabbits, gophers, etc.) and acts as a greenhouse to nurture the vine as well as gives the plant guidance to grow vertically.
“Those plants have to grow in; they’re just getting started,” Radchenko said. “We will for sure have grapes next year, but the real bounty is years three and four.”
The question now turns to what can the club become.
The course renovation came after ownership purchased Bear Creek Golf Club in Murrieta, a private course. The two courses are now being cross promoted under a combined premier membership.
Taylor said the Bear Creek purchase also played into the decision to upgrade Steele Canyon.
“We’re trying to create a dual branding where the members here can play there and vice versa. And we wanted to elevate this course to be comparable to Bear Creek.”
The two courses are very different playing experiences. Bear Creek is wooded and tight, while Steele Canyon is much more open and offers dramatic elevation change.
One cool aspect of the pairing is that Bear Creek is a signature Jack Nicklaus course and Steele Canyon is a signature Gary Player design.
“Both courses cater to better players,” Taylor said, “and we consider ourselves very lucky to have two premier golf courses.”
Steele Canyon aspired to be a private club in 1991 when it opened, but it never quite achieve that status. But the renovated and rebranded club has renewed local interest, Taylor said, and memberships are again on the rise.
Radchenko said the club depends on local play, but also benefits from being just 20 minutes east of downtown San Diego.
“We have a strong relationship with the local business community downtown,” he said. “We do a lot of tournament rounds that are from convention business.”
The course’s most popular nine is the Canyon nine, which, as the name suggests, winds between two canyons. It features three stunning and challenging par 3s all involving elevation – up and down.
The Ranch nine also begins with elevation change and plays its way around a working ranch.
Taylor said holes on both nines were renovated to elevate the playing experience even more. All 94 bunkers on the course were also refilled with Caltega white sand to enhance the visual impact.
The work began last May and was completed in Dec. Taylor said the money spent already has been worth it long before the first cork will pop from the new vineyard.
“On Canyon and Ranch, we took some of the tee boxes up another level. The tees we added really enhanced the visual experience,” he said. “We’re really pleased with what (the construction company) did.”
Steele Canyon By The Numbers
1991 – The year it opened as an 18-hole Gary Player signature course
1994 – The year the third nine (Meadow) was added
35 – Acres of turf removed in 2015
1,200 – Wine vines planted in the reduced area
2,400-3,600 – Expected eventual annual yield in bottles of wine
2 – Types of grapes being grown
9 – Number of new tees added during the renovation
3 – Number of par 3s on the Canyon nine