From classroom to vineyard: former CHS teacher reinvents herself as winemaker

by Andrew Alonzo | aalonzo@claremont-courier.com

After years of mulling the idea of opening a wine making business with her husband, Jordan, Glendora native Cleo de la Torre finally took the leap of faith.

After retiring from Claremont High, in spring 2020 the former English teacher and her husband opened Mas Alla Wines in San Diego.

“We were talking about it one day and he goes, ‘You know what? You’re not guaranteed one day, so just quit your job and let’s make this work,’” de la Torre said of the company’s origins. “And so, I did. We just looked at the opportunity and we figured now or never.”

Formulating their business plan was fairly straightforward given the owners’ backgrounds. Before teaching, de la Torre was a food journalist and interviewed brewery owners across Los Angeles and Orange counties. Her husband was a beer brewer.

Mas Alla Wines co-founder Cleo de la Torre at a vineyard in Buellton, California. Photo/courtesy of Nick Gingold.

It was easy to devise a floor plan and set up the business, but getting everything started was altogether different. The couple were starting from scratch with no vineyard and no place to store wine. Their obstacles compounded when they decided to get things going during Covid shutdowns, and while at a tasting at Angelina Winery, experts warned of the challenges breaking into the market.

“The first thing they’ll say is, ‘This is super hard and you probably shouldn’t do it,’” de la Torre said. “But we saw what the behind-the-scenes action looked like and we were really into it.”

During that tasting, the couple learned of the custom crush method which convinced them to pull the trigger on their business. Since they did not own a vineyard, they would purchases grapes from someone who did, and bottle the fermented juices under their own label.

The couple found Ryan Roark of Roark Wine Company in 2020, and Mas Alla Wines began using his French Loire Valley-inspired grapes grown along California’s Central Coast, chenin blanc for white and cabernet franc for red.

“Once we had those two things, the grapes and Ryan, we were like, ‘Okay, this is a go,’” de la Torre said. “Once we met him and explained a little bit about what we wanted to do, what our wine philosophy was, and learning that he could provide the services we need and that his wine philosophy aligned with ours … that’s how we got going.”

The couple work closely with Roark, whose facilities ensure the wine is made and stored properly.

Mas Alla Wines differentiates itself from other California wines in that than its grape-to-bottle process in 100% environmentally friendly. The wine is also vegan as it contains no additives or animal products.

“A big reason why we wanted to get into this world was to get closer to the natural world and the farming of wine,” de la Torre said. “We’re not quite there just yet, but since we’re in this phase where we’re purchasing grapes from vineyards that we get to hand select, we aim for vineyards that are either organic or just practice very smart farming practices. We also don’t add anything to our wines. We don’t filter our wine, we don’t add any extra dyes, we don’t add any chemicals, we don’t add any commercial yeasts. Everything is 100% natural.”

Their first bottle was produced in 2021. De la Torre remembers it was sometime in November as she got the news just weeks after giving birth to the couple’s first child, Xenia.

“We finally got our wine bottled, our 2020 wine, got our hands on it and came down to San Diego,” she said. “Both of these little babies that I’ve been working on were finally born.”

Over the span of a year, she said she’s not only been able to see her daughter grow, but Mas Alla Wines as well. According to de la Torre, 2022 has been a solid year for the business and life overall. The co-founder is obviously proud of the product. Among the elements she credits for its success is its versatility.

“You could take it to a party; you could take it to for drink it for a celebratory dinner,” she said. “It’s Wednesday night and you’re getting meatballs and you want a nice wine to go with it. It’s great for all of those occasions.”

Mas Alla Wines offers a wine club with two deliveries per year. Prices range from $105 to $405.

Although still in its infancy, de la Torre and her husband have big plans for the operation going forward.

“I hope that one day we do get to manage our own vineyard,” she said. “I know that might be many years down the line [but] that is our long-term goal. In the short term, I really hope to get to share my wine with as many people as I can.

“It’s been really cool to see the reaction because it’s always been pretty positive when I share our wine with people. I just hope I get to continue to do that.”

When she’s older, de la Torre said she hopes to educate Xenia in the family business, in hopes that she one day might take it over.

More information about the winery, the wine club, and of course Mas Alla Wines are available at masallawines.com.

Mas Alla Wines ships nationwide with the exceptions of Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and Utah.

If you’d like to try Mas Alla Wines, de la Torre and her husband invite the public to Y2K Jeweler’s annual business party from 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday, December 3, at 917 W. Arrow Hwy., San Dimas.

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