Two months after unusually low temperatures chilled farmers' spirits, one sector of the local agriculture industry has some warm comments on this year's frost.

Grape growers embrace the cold because it helps vines "sleep" longer.

"Vines in the wintertime need to go to sleep, they need to 'hibernate,' " said Leon Santoro, general manager and winemaker at Orfila Vineyards and Winery.

Although it has an Escondido address, the 70-acre estate is mostly located within San Diego's San Pasqual Valley. Forty acres have been planted.

Santoro said warmer winter weather could cause vines to "wake up" earlier in the season, sprouting leaves and fruit that would not have as great an acidity level at harvesting. The wine will taste better if grapes take longer to mature and develop high acidity, which imparts flavor to the grape.

"When I heard frost, I was in heaven because that helps keeps the vines in dormancy," said Santoro, who has been in the winemaking business for 26 years. He relocated from Napa Valley in 1991 when the operation was known as the Thomas Jaeger Winery.

The property was renamed Orfila in 1994, and today employs 33 people and serves as an event venue as well as winery. Orfila generates $3 million in sales annually.

Big Loss

Experts estimate the frost's impact on the county's $1.5 billion-a-year agriculture industry to run from $50 million to $100 million. This figure represents lost crops that will not be sold at market, said Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau.

Larson said he will likely never know the exact loss because there are so many smaller farmers throughout the county and only the individual farmers can say with certainty what they lost.

County records show there are more than 5,000 local farmers, making agriculture the region's fifth largest industry.

"But the industry overall is fine," Larson said.

Only 3 percent to 5 percent of the county's agriculture community was hit hard by the frost, Larson said. But those who were hit were hit hard.

Larson said he knows of one nursery grower who individually lost in excess of $5 million.

A Waiting Game

While the frost that first hit San Diego County on Jan. 11 spared Orfila's crops, Santoro knows the business is not out of the woods yet.

He said now is his nail-biting time as vines begin to sprout leaves.

"God forbid, if we got a frost in March, (it) would have been bad for us," Santoro said.

Heavy rains, in particular those accompanied by hailstorms, and excessive winds could also spell disaster. Santoro said extreme hail and wind conditions can rob vines of sprouting leaves and budding grapes, literally knocking them off to fall by the wayside.

"I'm probably the only one in San Diego who's really happy, or at least one of the very few," Santoro said.

Calls to other winemakers in the county were not returned, but Larson confirmed that most would likely have stories similar to Orfila's.

"Farming is a risk, I don't care what you grow," Larson said. "Grape growers may be immune to the frost, but certainly the hail or the wind can get them, too. It's the nature of the business."