San Diego: Site Of California’s First Wine
More than 90% of the wine made in the US comes from California. One might be tempted to think that the climb to the pinnacle began in Napa Valley – but that would be wrong.
San Diego was the first area in California where vineyards were planted and wine produced. Franciscan missionaries tilled the San Diego Mission lands and grapes flourished thanks to the favorable climate and soil conditions. California’s first mission, Mission San Diego de Alcalá, was known for producing high quality wines.
Bolstered by Italian, German and French immigrants, the wine industry in the San Diego region flourished after the Civil War. In time the promise was squelched by a devastating flood in 1916, Prohibition and then World War II.
After the war, the rebirth of California wine was centered in northern California and areas like Napa and Sonoma. It wasn’t until the 1990s that San Diego’s wine industry began to reemerge.
Acreage and volume of wine produced steadily increased until wildfires destroyed hundreds of acres of agriculture in 2003 and 2007. Farmers used the misfortune as a chance to pivot from water thirsty crops to grapevines, which use only 3% of the water required by a mature avocado tree.
The regrowth is still underway, but San Diego vintners are focused on putting San Diego back on the map as an award winning California wine region. During a recent Wine Studio education program, we had an opportunity to explore the wines of San Diego County.
A Diversity Of Wines and Vines
We certainly don’t have anything against Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Heavens no. Often, though, winemakers bend over backwards to produce what they think is most popular, rather than digging into the dirt and discovering what grape varieties thrive best in their locale.
Our survey of San Diego County wines included Grenache Blanc, a Grenache rosé, Viognier, a sparkling red wine, Barbera, Sangiovese, Carignan, Syrah and a GSM blend. That’s grape diversity, for sure and the grape varieties reflect what’s best suited for the area rich in microclimates.
We sampled a quartet of San Diego bottles during our “Naughty Nine” wine tasting. We had a lot of wine to review and the best way was to throw an impromptu party. A very intriguing winery is Domaine Artefact, which specializes in Rhone grapes. We sampled their 2017 Les Printemps Grenache Rosé (SRP $30), made in the Provence style with tart strawberry and good acidity. Their Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre blend is called Rincon del Diablo (SPR $45) and is a stellar red, with complex cranberry and earthy notes.
Italian grapes are also well-represented in San Diego County, as wines from Altipiano Vineyard and Winery show. We tasted two high-end reds, the NV Estate Barbera ($58 SRP) and the 2016 Estate Sangiovese Reserve ($65 SRP). The Barbera is light and elegant with a nip of spice. The Sangiovese was our final wine of our tasting party and we enjoyed the bottle out on the patio. The juicy flavors continued to open up as we savored and swirled. Outstanding!
White grapes were also amply represented, with an impressive 2015 Grenache Blanc from Stehleon Vineyards ($23 SRP) and a 2017 Viognier ($23 SRP) from Charlie & Echo, a small independent urban winery. Charlie & Echo had the most unique wine we sampled, a sparkling red blend of Zinfandel and Syrah called Darkstar ($25 SRP). This had notes of blackberries and plum with light, frizzante bubbles.
From Vesper Vineyards we sampled the 2013 Carignan McCormick Ranch (SRP $25). Vesper focuses on single vineyard wines and we enjoyed this at the house of friends with a grilled chicken dinner. It has medium body, great acidity and an explosion of raspberry flavor.
Our final wine was the Koi Zen Cellars 2016 Paso Syrah ($33 SRP). Koi Zen is a small lot producer and sources grapes from top vineyards. The Syrah grapes come from Paso Robles and it offers nice structure, bold tannins and brambly fruit.
We were impressed with the quality of San Diego wines. The wines are mostly small production using interesting grape varieties crafted by passionate winemakers. There’s a lot to like about San Diego wine country and now’s the perfect time for a wine tasting trip, before the masses discover it. Sip San Diego, you’ll enjoy.