Mention that there are vineyards and wineries in San Diego County and you might be met with some blank stares.

For one thing, San Diego is known as the very best craft beer scene in the country. Do they really make wine there? Secondly, don’t all California wines come from Napa Valley and Sonoma in the northern part of the state?

The truth is, there are 115 wineries in San Diego County, with more on the way. You might be surprised to learn that San Diego is actually where winemaking in California began. And it started a long time before the first craft brewery ever opened for business.

WINE COMES TO CALIFORNIA

Way back in 1769 – statehood for California was still more than 80 years away – Father Juni?pero Serra and his fellow wine-loving Franciscan friars planted grapevines next to California’s very first mission, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala?.

The Mediterranean climate — hot days, cool nights and coastal breezes – was ideal for growing grapes. Later, the post-Civil War years saw waves of immigrants come to Southern California from the eastern part of the country, and many brought with them vine clippings that traced their origins back to Europe. For 50 years the wine industry flourished, but a catastrophic flood in 1916, the First World War, and Prohibition combined to deal a virtual deathblow to the industry.

After the war, the wine industry was replanted in Northern California. Finally, in the 1990s, winemaking started coming back to San Diego County. Considering the drought-stricken area, it was a smart decision both ecologically and economically – farmers replaced other crops with grapevines, which require a tiny fraction of the water to grow.

WINE AND SAN DIEGO COUNTY TODAY

San Diego has more distinct microclimates than any other single county in the country. Couple that with amazingly diverse terrain, and it’s not surprising that over 60 different kinds of grapes are grown throughout the county. Grapes grow on the coastline and in canyons, they grow on mesas and mountains, they grow in desert areas and dry washes, they grow from sea level all the way up to 4,200 feet. France’s Rhone varieties, as well as Southern Italian varieties, do especially well there.

The two prime areas for growing grapes in San Diego County are the Ramona Valley and the San Pasqual Valley; they are both found in the inland corridor, and the latter is officially recognized as one of the oldest American Viticultural Areas (wine grape-growing region) in the United States.

The area is especially known for its Merlots and Chardonnays, but wine lovers also appreciate the region’s full- bodied Viogniers, fruity Sauvignon Blancs, rustic Montepulciano and earthy Sangiovese.

SEE THE WINERIES, SAMPLE THE PRODUCT

Would you like to visit some of San Diego County’s wineries and sample some of the local product? Of course, you would. Well, you have many options. Head out to the Ramona Valley and discover the two dozen or so boutique wineries there. The rolling countryside of the San Pasqual Valley and Highland Valley is home to about 20 more. Find a few high-altitude vineyards around Warner Springs and Julian. Many of the wineries were built by the winemakers themselves, and they’ll be happy to give you an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at what makes the wineries of San Diego County one of the best-kept secrets in the nation.

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