Best San Diego Wine Tasting Tours You Need To Try

Best wine tasting rooms in San Diego County



The wild fires that swept through San Diego County in 2007 were devastating for many; property and homes were lost, thousands were displaced. But for one emerging field it was the start of what is now a full-blown renaissance that continues to grow as fast as any industry in the county: the making of wine. 

Many of our local communities now feature tasting rooms and urban wineries and there are a breathtaking 100 wineries spread across the county. San Diego’s year–round warm, dry weather and multiple micro–climates across elevations provide a grower’s paradise. 

Hundreds of acres of new grapevines are planted every year—but not without risk.

It takes five to seven years for a vine to reach the strength and maturity to produce usable grapes for wine, plus another year or two in aging before it’s bottled. The upfront cost and time commitment is staggering compared to most new businesses. Beyond the initial commitment, there is immense risk involved. From the fires we saw a few years ago, to animals scavenging your harvest, to disease infecting your crop, to extreme weather, the risks are endless. And if you make it through all that, the wine still might turn to vinegar in the barrel if it’s not handled correctly. 

If natural risks weren’t intimidating enough, wineries also have to navigate the harsh world of government. Our wineries operate under what are known as American Viticultural Areas or AVA; according to The Wine Institute, “American Viticultural Areas are to appellations of origin as grapes are to fruit. AVAs are delimited grapegrowing areas distinguishable by geographic, climatic and historic features, and the boundaries have been delineated in a petition filed and accepted by the federal government. In size, AVAs range from extremely small to extremely large. AVAs are one kind of appellation, but not all appellations are AVAs. An appellation can also be a political designation, such as the name of a country, a state or states, or a county or counties within a state.” As if that’s not enough, for the wineries operating in unincorporated areas of the county, the Boutique Winery Ordinance (which was founded with good intentions) is a confusing set of regulations and restrictions by which they must abide. 

In San Diego County, there are three AVA’s: The South Coast AVA, the San Pasqual Valley and the Ramona Valley, all of which operate differently depending on where the winery is located. As if that’s not enough, for the wineries operating in unincorporated areas of the county, the Boutique Winery Ordinance (which was founded with good intentions) is a confusing set of regulations and restrictions by which they must abide.

Let’s not forget the Tobacco Taxation Bureau (TTB), which used to be part of the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, has to approve every label, there are zoning and square foot space restrictions if you hope to have an onsite tasting room, size requirements of the space you can have and restrictions on the size of tour bus that can stop at your tasting room. Wineries can’t consider offering food unless they can afford a Major Use Permit, which most can’t because they come with a hefty price tag— around $250,000. Along the way, there are more permits, codes and taxes. Talking with one of my urban winery friends about all of this, they said to me “I wake up every day and thank God we’re an urban winery and not a grower.”

Sourcing is one of the most important issues to face for both growers and urban wineries. Urban wineries source all of their grapes; they are allowed to acquire as many tons as they as can afford, and don’t forget they, too, need to have the equipment for crushing, bottling and the space to store the casks for up to three years throughout the winemaking process.

Growers, on the other hand, have additional restrictions. While they also have the same three year cycles, they are only allowed to source a percentage of what they can grow, and under the Boutique Wine Ordinance, 50% of sourced grapes must come from San Diego County. 

Say one of our wine makers has planted grapes for red wines, which do particularly well in their soil. But as guests drop by the tasting room, someone wants a white wine; since they have no white wine grapes, they have to source those to make a white so the guest is happy. 

It’s not just about making a white or red to keep people happy, it’s about making enough wine during the early years for the winery to keep their doors open and have enough wine to make it through the year. It’s not unheard of for a winery to have to close their doors because they run out of wine and have to wait until the next vintage is ready to be bottled. And remember, wine, unlike beer, is not something you can knock out in 30 days. 

As I traveled around our county over the last three months, much of this article was compiled during the many hours I spent with our wine makers while talking over a glass or two of wine; I came to realize many of them, as well as myself, share the same opinion: if the government would stop trying to help and simply allow the free marketplace to develop naturally, our wine makers would be far better off as a whole and the industry would expand as the demand for their wines does. The only thing that should be demanded of our wineries is truth in labeling: if you grow at your winery—great; if you source the grapes, just say so and where the grapes are from and again, enjoy it. 

As we celebrate California Wine Month throughout the month of September, consider our wine makers across the county; as they continue to grow and mature, making bolder wines with each passing year (and earning accolades and awards), please think about the risk and efforts they undertook to fulfill their personal passion to place that glass of wine before you.

On the following pages, you can meet some of the people that bring you that wine. Some have been at it for a while, and others have just opened their doors. The one thing they all have in common is that they love what they do and it shows in their work, a feat not many of us can claim in our own lives. 

I present you, 5 best wine tasting rooms in San Diego.

Bernardo Winery

13330 Paseo del Verano, San Diego Ca 92128 | 858-487-1866 | Online 

Being lucky enough to live in San Diego is one thing... But being able to pick wine–grapes and make great wine is something completely euphoric. The 2015 harvest looks to be another great year for the region. At the Bernardo Winery, we strive to make wine from grapes best grown in this beautiful San Diego/Mediterranean climate, which is allowing us to play with some really fun varietals. This year we expect to harvest some amazing white grapes including Albariño, Viognier, Muscat of Alexandria and Chardonnay. The reds include the very popular Petite Sirah, Syrah, and Zinfandel as usual, along with some new vineyards of Malbec and Barbera. 

Once the first time visitor gets acquainted with the fact that our oasis of winemaking and San Diego history is tucked away in the foothills of North County, their senses are then taken over. The 125–year–old San Diego winery is a hidden jewel in our city. Come for a wine tasting in our tasting room and find there’s reason to stay for the whole day. Walk the grounds with your glass in hand with your date or family, take in the beauty of the vineyards and gardens and see the winemaking and farm equipment of the old ways all around you.

If you’re hungry, pair a cheese platter or melty delicious Italian Sandwich from V’s Coffee Shoppe with your wine on the patio or enjoy a longer lunch at Café Merlot. The winery is also home to a variety of shops and Artist studios, many in our original buildings, as well as the RB Historical Society, Mojalet dance troupe theater, a salon and an on-site coffee roaster.

Many a romance has started at the winery, weddings taken place, parties held and new things explored. Our wine blending and wine education events are gaining in popularity as San Diegans and out of towners alike seek to learn more about the whole process from grape to glass and how they can grow in their hands–on knowledge. It’s an exciting time in San Diego wine country and we are passionate about what we do. Cheers to another great year and another vintage of the finest San Diego winemaking tradition at Bernardo Winery.

Falkner Winery

40620 Calle Contento, Temecula, CA

Wines tastings every day from 10am–5pm and the Pinnacle Restaurant is open 11:30 am to 3:30 pm. For reservations or additional information visit www.falknerwinery.com or call 951-676-8231

Falkner Winery is one of the premier wineries in the beautiful Temecula Valley. Purchased in June of 2000 by Ray and Loretta Falkner, who have made painstaking efforts to create an environment where you can enjoy great wines while taking in the spectacular mountain top vistas. Falkner Winery is also home to the award–winning Pinnacle Restaurant and serves fresh BBQ. There are free concerts and dancing on Sundays that create a fun atmosphere. The winery also specializes in elegantly catered parties and romantic wedding receptions. 

Falkner Winery has gained the reputation for high quality, awardwinning wines with over 80% of their wines winning Gold or Silver Medals in wine competitions. Some of their most popular wines include their Super Tuscan Style Amante, their Bordeaux Style Meritage, their aromatic and tasty Viognier, and their Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc. 

Adding to their already fun environment, Falkner Winery created a Crush Club segment to their list of wine clubs. This club offers easy drinking wines with a touch of sweetness such as their Red Luscious Lips®, White Luscious Lips®, Irresistible Rosato and Risqué Riesling. Falkner also offers entertaining and educational tours through their Wine Appreciation Classes and private VIP winery tours and tastings. 

Also Read: Top 2 Wineries in San Diego, ca

Brooking Vineyards

375 Skyline Dr., Vista, CA | 760-689-0160 | Online or eric@brookingvineyards.com

Brooking Vineyards is the first licensed estate winery in Vista since 1920. It was as much a passion for history as it was a love of fine wine that drove us to build a renaissance estate winery in the traditional style of this area and become a UC Davis Certified Winemaker. We want people to know what it was like to be here at the end of the 19th century enjoying the world famous wines that were being grown and produced in Vista. 

Much has been forgotten of San Diego Countys rich history of winemaking. Franciscan friars planted the first wine grapes in California in 1778 at Mission San Diego de Alcala. The friars made wine using a process developed by the British in the late 1600s, adding grape brandy to stop fermentation, thus retaining some of the natural sugars. This style of wine made at the missions became quite famous and was even a favorite of the King of Spain. Many old world wines are made using this style: Port in Portugal, Sherry in Spain, Madeira from the Madeira Islands, and the Vins doux naturels of France, to name a few. In California, this style of wine became known as Angelica.

Only a half mile from the Brooking Vineyards estate was the most successful winery in San Diego County, producing 200,000 gallons of wine a year, before Prohibition relegated them to the pages of history. The reason for this success was the unique climate that Vista possesses; Climate Capital of the Worldwas the motto. Vista has a Mediterranean climate with warm days and cool nights. At an elevation of 600 feet and with a view of the Pacific Ocean, Brooking Vineyards is just enough out of the coastal fog to help protect the grapes while still receiving cool onshore breezes. Historic varietals proved to make the most of this unique climate and winemaking method. 

Six years, seven gold medals, two best of shows, Winemaker of the Year at the 2014 San Diego County Fair and time in the barrel have made us ready to share this historic wine with you. Please make an appointment to visit us and look for our Red Ribbon cutting coming this Fall. Sit back and sip the history. 

Highland Hills Winery 

18545 Rangeland Rd, Ramona, CA | 760-239-6515 | Online

Highland Hills Winery features exclusively Ramona AVA wines produced in the McClellan family artisan winery. Most of the wines are estate grown; a few are vineyarddesignated wines from selected neighboring vineyards. Every drop of wine is from premium Ramona AVA grapes and produced by Highland Hills Winery.

Rich and Zoe McClellan moved to Ramona from the heart of the Sonoma Wine Country in 2005. They purchased a former race horse facility (with a Southern Mansion-style house) specifically because the property was wellsuited to agriculture. Rich and Zoe joined the Ramona Valley Vineyard Association and rapidly became convinced that Ramona had the potential to be a worldclass wine region.

Located on the West End of Ramona at an elevation of 1,400 feet, the vineyard near San Diego features primarily Rhone varietals with an eclectic mix of interesting experiments,some even with pronounceable names. The main part of the vineyard was planted in 2007 by family and friends; the vineyard has expanded to seven acressome as recently as spring 2015. 

The tasting room overlooks a wildlife preserve with a small lake. You may see a variety of raptors, including the nesting pair of bald eagles. In good weather, you can enjoy your wine and a picnic lunch on the patiowhich is graced by historic Mission vines. The tasting room is airconditioned for those warm summer days.

Rich and son Matt do the winemaking, daughter Maggie and Matts wife Theresa run the tasting room. Grandchildren work in the vineyard and winery. The people who will pour your wine planted the vines, farm the vineyard, harvest the grapes, make the wine and operate the winery.

Rich has been an amateur wine and beer maker since his teens. His winemaking career got started in earnest with a move to Sonoma County in 1980, where he found that he could purchase premium wine grapes. He followed up the learning by doingapproach by completing the UC Davis Certificate in Winemaking in 2013. Highland Hills wines have won a variety of medals in local and national competitions. 

Wine Tasting Hours: Open 12:00 to 5:00 PM Saturdays and Sundays and major holidays (call for holiday hours)

Koi Zen Cellars 

12225 World Trade Drive Suite P, San Diego CA | 858-381-CORK (2675) | Online 

Life is constant change and when one door closes, another one opens; you just have to look. That is exactly what husband and wife team Darius and Lisa K. Miller did. After eighteen years in a high-stress tech industry, one door closed for Darius, then it slammed shut as a health scare shook them into reality. “We realized that you never know if you have another day. You have to do what you love and make a positive difference in the world.” 

That is how the dream of Koi Zen Cellars became reality: “We are opposites but complement and balance each other.” Darius the Scientist and Lisa the Artist combined their love of wine, photography, education and community to create Koi Zen Cellars Located in Carmel Mountain Ranch, Koi Zen Cellars creates small batch Artisan wines from the highest quality grapes sourced from vineyards in Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, Sonoma, Napa, and Lodi. “We are bringing the experience of making wine right to the neighborhood,” says Darius.

Their motto, “Uncork, sip back and relax” matches their philosophy and decor. “Life goes at warp speed. We created a place where you can catch your breath, enjoy a glass of wine or share a bottle with some friends.” 

The wine tasting room is filled with artwork from local artists and local bands play there often. “We want to teach people that wine doesn’t come from the grocery store and we are bringing craft wine production to your doorstep.” They even offer custom blends and private labeled wines for corporate gifts or special occasions such as a wedding or anniversary. Local businesses can even rent the “real barrel room” for meetings or social get–togethers.

Darius and Lisa have twin daughters that just turned 21 and are very family oriented. They even created a special wine blend for them for that special birthday!