Meet Southern California’s Oldest Family Owned and Operated Winery

When the Rizzo family purchased The Bernardo Winery, it was a working Italian winery and rancho down a long dusty road that stretched out from the main road to the edges of the North county hillsides.

Rancho Bernardo Winery

Photo provided by Rancho Bernardo Winery

Back in the Day, when the Rizzo family purchased The Bernardo Winery, it was a working Italian winery and ranch down a long dusty road that stretched out from the main road to the edges of the North county hillsides. The vines rolled over the hills for miles and the wines filled the brims of huge redwood tanks housed in a big barn. A precursor to the modern growler fill, one could bring barrel, jug or bottle to be filled with what was basically fortified Red wine blend of the time. 

Ross Rizzo Senior, who took over winemaking in the 1970’s when his father Vincent passed, began to focus on planting California style varietals while at the same time scaling back the vineyards due to rising water costs. The huge redwood tanks were put aside for modern barrels and smaller production. 

Enter the gates of Bernardo Winery today, rustic Italian style village still intact, well-preserved, now surrounded by suburbia and you’re instantly transported back in time and place. This 125-year-old hidden Gem, a testament to Old California winemaking, with three generations of Italian heritage still passionately woven throughout by the Rizzo family today. The Redwood has been replaced by steel for production but the old equipment is still intact for the visitor to view while touring the winery.

Ross Rizzo Jr, who took the winemaking reins in 2008, brings a fresh new feel to the process from vine to bottle, searching for varietals that suit the San Diego terroir, moving away from the highly produced and overrated Cabernets, Chardonnay, and Merlot that California wine lovers have always reached for. There are far sexier varietals that love the San Diego microclimates and Rizzo is seeking them out one by one. Rizzo says of his winemaking style “I work to maintain the traditional old world view with the backing of modern education. You need that balance” Rizzo grew up working the land next to his father, Ross who passed away in 2008. The winemaker effects the style, and Ross’s bold young approach is evident in his wines he produces, from the rich curvaceous Syrahs, the bold dark fruit of the Zinfandel to the Sangiovese with soft tannins and Cali sunshine in a glass. 

bernardo winery sign

Though big and bold, they offer a nice soft balance unique to San Diego, with the pacific breezes that provide constant airflow into the inland valleys. Rizzo explains “There was a long time when we made fortified bulk wine and then there was this push for modern wine styles but without new equipment there was a decline in winemaking in general in San Diego. Now there’s this great new rebirth in technology, equipment and knowledge and the wines are showing this”. It’s an exciting time for San Diego Winemaking.

Rizzo is upping wine production in the coming year, as the popularity and growth of San Diego Wine is on the rise. He estimates “Our production capacity will be increased to that of some of the bigger Southern California wineries, estimating production to reach 15000 gallons from the 5000 gallons currently”. Rizzo is also planning on moving into producing Rosé, widening the red presence with local regional reds like Barbara, Grenache, Mouvedre and planting Albariño and Muscat, a grape that Rizzo calls “a great producer back in the day in San Diego” 

Besides being a winemaking facility, the Bernardo Winery is a destination for visitors seeking something entirely different in San Diego. The original antique buildings  of the ranch now house specialty shops, a restaurant, coffee shop and artisan studies, from clothing and accessories to glassblowing, mosaic and clay studios. There is something for everyone to do and see, and families are welcome. The Winery also has several venues for special events. The three venues of the winery, from sprawling gardens to the original winecellar can hold groups from 3 to 300 for weddings, corporate and private events. Memories are made at the winery and the old world hospitality and charm is felt throughout. Come to taste, stay for the day and don’t miss out on the Friday Farmer’s market and Live music on Sundays. 

Rizzo sums up the general feeling you get from a trip to Bernardo by saying “Winemakers often forget to focus on wine consumption on a human level. You can talk about the mid palate and maceration and fermentation all day, but what really matters is when you make memories from a bottle of wine. To my father, it was about enjoying good wine with good people, that’s what it’s all about really. That’s a good day.” 

The Bernardo Winery is located at 13330 Paseo del Verano, San Diego Ca 92128. Phone 858-487-1866.