When I told a friend that I was going wine tasting in San Diego, she replied, "Have fun — the wineries in Temecula are great!"
Close, but no cigar: Temecula is in Riverside County. It's a common mistake that gives San Diego County's thriving wine scene short shrift when compared with its northern neighbor.
The county's collection of wineries takes many by surprise, but it was way ahead of the curve, with winemaking dating from the 1820s. The northeast corner of the county, in particular, is full of vineyards, most of them mom-and-pop operations. There are a few large ones as well, drawing visitors to the dry, hilly terrain.
Unlike that younger upstart Napa, you won't encounter busloads of tourists; instead, you'll find mostly intimate, friendly boutique wineries. There's an emphasis on experimentation by passionate winemakers growing a wide selection of varietals.
To get you started, here's a sampling:
1. Orfila Vineyards & Winery looks the most corporate, but it is a beautiful setting for weddings and other events, which are big business here. Its 70 acres feature Rhône-style varietals, and much of the estate is heavy with Syrah, Sangiovese, Merlot and Viognier grapes. It's easily accessible from Interstate 15 in Escondido and is a good start for a San Diego wine trip.
The tip: There's often live music on weekend evenings, with food from local food trucks. 13455 San Pasqual Road, Escondido; (760) 738-6500, www.orfila.com. Six tastes and a free glass for $12.
2. Bernardo Winery, with roots in the 1800s and architecture to match, is much more than a winery and can easily take up half a day. It's a sprawling property with a village of specialty shops selling everything from handbags and jewelry to olive oil and flowers. Café Merlot serves breakfast and lunch, and V's Coffee is a good place for a caffeine pick-me-up.
The tip: The tasting punch card gets you a free chocolate pairing at the Sweet Shoppe to go with each pour. 13330 Paseo Del Verano Norte, San Diego; (858) 487-1866, www.bernardowinery.com. Five tastes for $12.
3. Cordiano Winery, on the side of a hill not far from Orfila, is worlds apart: Grab a table under an umbrella and drink in the sweeping views of the valley below this busy venue. The owners, longtime restaurateurs, serve gourmet pizza. Cordiano focuses on reds but it does have a couple of whites.
The tip: Because many wineries don't offer food, save this onefor last: Pizza, wine tasting and beautiful sunsets are a great combination. 15732 Highland Valley Road, Escondido; (760) 469-9463, www.cordianowinery.com. Seven tastes for $12.
4. Espinosa Vineyards, near Cordiano, is not listed on most wine country handouts. The owners, Roberto and Noelle Espinosa, harvested their first crop a year ago. The cool, pleasant tasting room feels like a cave. Their offerings are mostly estate wines and wines made from grapes harvested by their neighbors; the reds are the best, and everybody seems to buy the Tempranillo.
The tip: When the small cave gets too crowded, step outside to the pleasant patio to enjoy the view. 15360 Bandy Canyon Road, Escondido; (619) 772-0156, www.espwines.com. Five tastes for $10.
5. Two small outfits — Vesper Vineyards and Stehleon — have taken a different approach: They opened a shared winemaking facility in an industrial park. Ignore the setting: Inside, the venue is comfortable and the vibe is relaxed. They've also taken "mom and pop" to another level: Stehleon is owned by Al and Lisa Stehly, and Vesper by their daughter Alysha and son-in-law Chris Broomell, all of whom grow their grapes in the area. Al did the pouring; he's a cheery, garrulous host and was delighted to show us the nitty-gritty of the operation in the warehouse.
6. Rich McClellan of Highland Hills Vineyard & Winery walked us through the business of winemaking as he poured our tasting. The pleasant tasting room is air-conditioned (and heated in winter), not the norm for many small operations and a refreshing plus for Ramona, which is frequently hot. They have mostly red estate wines; for me, the 2012 Mourvèdre was a standout.
The tip: Don't be put off by the intimidating gate; just ring the winery to get buzzed in. 18545 Rangeland Road, Ramona; (760) 239-6515, www.highlandhillswinery.com. Six tastes for $10.
7. It was good to sit in the shade and look over the grounds surrounding the Salerno Winery, which bursts with artwork and is more reminiscent of a museum sculpture garden than a vineyard. Pizza, salads, bread and olive oil are served along with the tasting, which is heavy on reds.
The tip: The winery hosts cultural offerings every so often; check the website or call ahead for info. 17948 Highway 67, Ramona; (760) 788-7160, www.salernowinery.com. Four tastes for $10.
8. "Little, it's because we're little!" said Jeannine Embly of Hungry Hawk Vineyards & Winery in Escondido when I commented that the tasting room in the small winery nearby was closed on a busy weekend. Hungry Hawk, on a hilltop in an area that's a mix of residential and semi-rural, manages to squeeze in a big assortment of tastes, growing 15 types of varietals. Four out of five tastes were red the day we were there.
The tip: Bring a picnic lunch to enjoy on the patio overlooking the San Pasqual Valley (keep an eye out for hungry hawks). 3255 Summit Drive, Escondido; (760) 489-1758, www.hungryhawkvineyards.com. Five tastes for $10.
9. Hacienda de las Rosas celebrates its owners' passions: wine and horses. You'll be greeted by a horse looking for a handout in the corral next to the parking lot. Belly up to the tasting bar for serious reds, which dominate its offerings. The Mission-style winery makes for a very California experience.
The tip: Bring some stogies and enjoy your wine in the Cigar Corner outside under a shade tree. 18011 Bluegrass Road, Ramona; (619) 840-5557, www.sdwinery.com. Four tastes for $10. Call ahead to make sure it is open.
Last, but certainly not least, there are a number of self-described "urban wineries" in San Diego County that produce wines made from locally sourced grapes as well as grapes from all over California and Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico. Most are not as connected to the land, and it's not the same as driving the backcountry, but they are still fun to visit to sample the wares. These venues are spread around the county, and there may well be one near your hotel or close to your day-trip destination. Google "San Diego urban wineries" for information.