A History of San Diego Wineries

San Diego Vineyards

The County of San Diego has a rich and long history of wine production. It dates back to when Father Junipero Serra, founder of the Mission San Diego de Alcala, who planted the first vineyards circa 1778. Father Serra was believed to have planted as many as eight more vineyards northward along the Mission Trail before his death in 1784. Today, Serra is commonly referred to as the “Father of California Wine”. Those vineyards died out around 1835 from neglect.

In 1852, A.E. Maxcy established a winery on a 360-acre ranch in what is now Valley Center. Following the end of the Civil War, San Diego saw a renewed interest from winemakers arriving from the east, that with them brought grapes of European origin. Production between 1880 and 1890 was notable as vineyards and wineries spread across the county.

By the turn of the century, there were a couple dozen wineries in locations that stretched from Rancho Santa Margarita—now part of Camp Pendleton—on east through Vista, Escondido, and Ramona. In the south there were wineries in El Cajon, Otay Valley, and parts of what is now National City. This was a time of renaissance in San Diego’s thriving agriculture scene and growing wine production.

Bernardo Winery

In 1908, Escondido began hosting the Grape Day Festival as a way to celebrate the seasonal harvest of grapes and to promote the small township. The Grape Day Festival continued through 1950 when the festival lost momentum as a result of dwindling vineyards in the area. Today, the revival of wineries throughout the area has given the festival new life—gaining recognition by the Escondido Historical Center in 1996. The Grape Day Festival is held in the month of Sept.

In the early 1900’s, the Temperance Movement swept across the nation, which led to the 18th Amendment or Prohibition. All but four of San Diego’s thriving winery’s met their demise during this time. Two of these remaining wineries have maintained notable histories here in San Diego.

In 1889, a group of five Sicilians acquired land through a Spanish land grant. They ran the winery under the ‘Lanza’ label until 1927, when they sold it to Vincent Rizzo. Today, the winery is known as the Bernardo Winery, and survived Prohibition by selling sacramental wine to the Catholic Church and selling grape juice that was guaranteed to ferment by the time customers reached the main road. The Bernardo Winery also had extensive olive trees on the property and became an exclusive supplier of olive oil to San Diego’s tuna industry. Today, Bernardo Winery celebrates its 125th year of continual operation, still run by the Rizzo family, headed by Mr. Ross Rizzo Jr., along with his sisters Selena and Samantha.

Ferrara is another winery that endured during this time. In 1919, records show that George Ferrara acquired a vineyard that may have been planted as early as 1890. Under the terms of Prohibition, families could only produce 200 gallons of wine a year for personal consumption. Ferrara survived by selling his grapes to families for personal use, and selling wine to the Catholic Church. When the restrictions ended, the Ferrara Winery produced as many as 29 varieties of wine. The winery was sold in 2013 and was producing some of the better known wine in the region.

Prohibition led to many wild tales that today can only be referred to as urban legend. It has been said the movie mogul Samuel B. Meyer—of M.G.M Studios—had a vineyard on the northern hills of what is now the Highland Valley. The story goes that Meyer produced a private label Champaign for film star Douglas Fairbanks. More impressive, it is believed that secret stills up in those same hills produced a high proof brandy. Moonshine runners would bring the brandy to speakeasies, to what is now known as the The Gaslamp Quarter.

With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, there was hope of revival in the wine industry. With the four surviving wineries once again producing popular varietals, 16 more wineries emerged to compete. However, at this time, several vineyards had been torn out and replanted with citrus trees. San Diego growers believed they were turning a corner until the world caught fire at the beginning of World War II. The rationing and restrictions placed on the wineries raised the prices unreasonably. Serious labor shortages coupled with raw material deficits resulted in many changes inside the industry. As troops returned home from overseas, consumer taste had shifted to hard distilled liquor. From 1945 to 1964, San Diego wine makers fell away until only two remained open—Bernardo and Ferrara.

It was not until the early 1990’s that San Diego’s wine scene began to flourish once again. Steady growth was assumed until fires broke out in 2003 and 2007, which destroyed hundreds of acres of agriculture.

Despite the crop devastation of the wildfires, many growers took the opportunity to plant grapes instead of citrus. Growers across the county have been replanting water-thirsty crops with grape vines that require only about 3% of the water a mature avocado tree needs—providing economic relief in the shadow of California’s current drought.

Moreover, San Diego’s weather and diverse microclimate make the area particularly attractive to aspiring winemakers. Even within our microclimates exist more microclimates. These areas mimic conditions across the globe at comparable longitudes including many parts of the Mediterranean. Most varieties can be grown here successfully as well—a grape farmer’s wonderland.

It takes a grape vine three to five years to mature and produce a grape that’s useable for consumption. From planting, to opening a completed bottle, growers wait approximately 6 to 7 years. For many of the growers that replanted after the 2007 fires, they are just now seeing their first full harvest. Many of the newly planted vines will reach maturity within the next 2 to 3 years, which may lead to another renaissance for the wine industry here in San Diego.

Today, most of our wineries are small and family owned—many owners keep day jobs. For them, winemaking was a hobby that grew into a passion, and something they could share with friends. Today several of these family-owned wineries have enjoyed the fruits of their labor, and have established small businesses and boutiques.

About 80% of the local wineries only produce 300 to 1,000 cases of wine each year. Some are growing award winning wines that wine lovers simply can’t find anywhere else. To honor the contribution made to our culture and the harvesting of the grapes, the State of California has decreed that September is California Wine Month.

So the next time you open a bottle of wine from one of San Diego’s Wineries, sip slowly, and appreciate the incredible patience it takes to produce flavors so uniquely our own.