History of Wine Making in San Diego County

San Diego County’s Viticulture & Viniculture Legacy reaches back to when the Franciscans first established San Diego's Mission. The lands that surrounded them were of a favorable climate and the local soil provided a great base for the vines to flourish. Early reports say that since 1769 Grapes have been growing on the hillsides of this Southern California region by Monks at Mission San Diego de Alcalá. Father Junipero Serra is commonly referred to as the “Father of California Wine”.

Father Junipero Serra

It also records that Wine has been produced in San Diego County since the year 1774. California’s first mission, Mission San Diego de Alcalá, was well known for the quality of its wine. These vines thrived in San Diego until about the mid 1830s when drought and disease killed them off. In 1852, A.E. Maxcy established a winery on his 350+ acre ranch in Valley Center. After the U.S. Civil War, San Diego once again saw an interest from winemakers arriving from the east, with them came clippings from grape vines of European origin. Production between 1880 and 1890 was notable as vineyards and wineries spread across the county & region.

By the turn of the century, there were a couple dozen wineries in locations that stretched from Rancho Santa Margarita to Ramona and south to wineries in El Cajon, Otay Valley, and parts of what is now the San Diego South Bay. 

Next came Prohibition and World War II devastating the local industry and creating a period of patchy history San Diego wine waking history. Bernardo Winery survived  by producing sacramental wine for the church & grape juice, as well as producing olive oil for the tuna canneries in downtown San Diego from the olive trees on the property. Moonshine runners eventually smuggled in brandy to speakeasies in Downtown, to what is now known as 'The Gaslamp Quarter'.

Prohibition led to wild tales of bootleggers, hillside stills, and pirate wineries that today can only be referred to as urban legend. 

After the Great War and the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the rebirth of California Wine Making was centered in Northern California, in the Bay area of Napa & Sonoma. With 4 surviving wineries in the rgion after the repeal, 16 more wineries emerged to compete in this new market. However competition became steep & prices became unreasonable for the general public to afford. Around this time, several vineyards were replanted with citrus trees as there was a huge surge in the citrus growing of Southern California. From 1945 to 1964, San Diego wine makers fell away until only two remained, Bernardo Winery and Ferrara Winery.

Old WineryIn the early 1990’s San Diego’s wine scene began to flourish again. Steady growth continued until wildfires broke out in 2003 and then again 2007, decimating 1,000s of acres of citrus & other agriculture throughout the region. When rebuilding, many growers took the opportunity to plant grape vines instead of other crops originally located on the hillsides of San Diego County. This shift had the added benefit of providing ecological relief to the region in the shadow of California’s historic drought.

San Diego's weather and similarity to the Mediterranean climate of warm days and cool nights is perfect for grape growing. Even within these microclimates exist more microclimates. In January of 2006, an area of 89,000-acres (139 sq. miles) in the Ramona Valley was designated as a recognized as the 162nd AVA (American Viticulure Area) based on its unique microclimate, terroir, and history for grape production.  

Currently the winery industry is growing and the vineyards are numerous. This hidden gem of the Southern California viticulture is waiting for you to come and explore!


  • A History of San Diego Wineries ~ By Bob Morey  

  • History of the Wineries and Wines of San Diego County. ~ Richard L. Carrico