As a flourish of viticultural activity excites grape growers and wine consumers throughout San Diego County, 2024 marks the 150th anniversary of wine production in our often-overlooked corner of the wine world. California wine and viticulture began with the establishment of the Mission San Diego de Alcalá in 1769 and reflects a complex history. It quickly spread north to Carmel, Sonoma, and beyond, but also locally to the picturesque valleys of inland San Diego County. Like many microclimates in the Golden State, San Diego’s diverse valleys and hills offer superlative conditions for growing high-quality wine grapes. San Diego’s viticultural development has not had the type of parabolic rise seen in other more famous California grape-growing regions. From disease to Prohibition to war to wildfires, at best it can be characterized in starts and stops. It appears we stand at the doorstep of significant change, however.

Today, over 150 local vintners are organizing to put local terroir on the global map. As of August 2023, four American Viticultural Areas (AVAs)are proposed to join the San Pasqual Valley AVA and Ramona Valley AVA as San Diego County’s established viticulture regions. The San Luis Rey River Valley, Highland Valley, Rancho Santa Fe, and Rancho Guejito growing regions are all currently in the arduous process of becoming certified AVAs. This exciting turn of events may be surprising to some, but one could argue it has been headed this way for generations. After all, the San Pasqual Valley AVA was only the third California appellation at the time it was established in 1981.

But why so many and why now?

To answer why so many, let’s first take a closer look at what it means to be an AVA. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), “an AVA is a delimited grape-growing region with specific geographic or climatic features that distinguish it from the surrounding regions and affect how grapes are grown.” AVAs are also known as appellations, which are specific grape-growing areas. Key to explaining why so many new San Diego AVAs are on the horizon is how the TTB establishes the requirement that “specific geographic or climatic features” are distinguishable from surrounding regions. While many on the outside of our home region categorize San Diego as a homogenous climate, we locals know the diverse multitude of microclimates that permeate the region’s landscape.

At just over 4,200 square miles, San Diego County is a massive land space with innumerable undulations. The coastal ridgelines and inland valleys that comprise the proposed AVAs are all influenced by the Pacific Ocean and surrounding mountains but each in its own way. The marine layer breezes across coastal ridges to blanket valley floors, and the steeply sloped walls of inland valleys augment wind velocity. Cool night air sinks to lower elevations where it is preserved by long shadows of surrounding high elevations. Creeks and rivers snake lazily across sandy soils. Rocky subsoils commingle with ancient seabed. Each of the four proposed AVAs retains an exclusive combination of these elements.

Water resources, changing consumer habits, and the quality of existing San Diego wine production are driving forces behind why this is all happening now. In the past three decades, drought and shrinking water resources forced farmers to rethink the return on investment of previously profitable crops. Vineyards consume a fraction of the water of citrus and avocado crops, and where these orchards once stood, vineyards are now increasingly common. In the past two decades, wine consumption in the US has gone up 33%, and premium wine consumption is up even more. San Diego vineyards are naturally limited to small, often artisanal production. Our local landscape simply does not have the type of vast valleys needed for high-volume wine production, therefore the majority of San Diego wine falls into the premium category. Most importantly, existing wineries in San Diego County continue to find praise well outside the local marketplace, leading to increased interest from skilled grape growers and winemakers near and far.

Yet it still may be years before these San Diego AVAs are official. Like many bureaucratic filings, hoops must be jumped through, hundreds of hours of paperwork must be filed, and ultimately, snails may be faster paced than the final approval. The Rancho Guejito application was first filed in 2021. It remains in the works.

Quality grapes have already been growing for decades, though, so why is it important to achieve this AVA status? Official AVAs for San Diego County and elsewhere offer benefits to consumers, producers, and the regions themselves. Consumers can learn about the diversity and characteristics of the appellations, and producers will have the added benefit of telling their winery’s individual story through the unique aspects clearly defined by an AVA. Furthermore, producers gain market value through consumer confidence in the quality designation created by an AVA. Finally, establishing an AVA fosters increased vineyard and winemaking development within the appellation by increasing the aforementioned market value. The new AVAs are likely to attract new grape growers and wine producers because they offer certification that is valuable in the marketplace.

*San Diego County’s existing and proposed AVAs are sub-appellations in the South Coast AVA, which spans five Southern California counties.

The proposed San Diego AVAs are all deserving of distinction. Rancho Guejito is likely to be the first approved. Part of one of the last remaining intact Spanish land grants, its vineyards are primarily located along and above San Pasqual Valley, but it ranges many thousands of acres into high-elevation backcountry. Widely regarded as one of the best wineries in San Diego, it also provides fruit for many other high-quality wineries in the area and grows a wide range of grapes including sauvignon blanc, syrah, and lesser-known ones such as grenache blanc and picardan.

Rancho Santa Fe may be one of the most surprising regions on this list, but it is no less deserving. Originating from Kumeyaay lands occupied by Spanish, Mexican, and American settlers, its name was derived from the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, which purchased all the lands of the former Mexican land grant. Established as a eucalyptus orchard before the realization that eucalyptus is a terrible wood for use in construction, Rancho Santa Fe’s very modest potential acreage is defined by its proximity to the Pacific Ocean (just five miles) and a distinct menthol note common among many places similarly populated by eucalyptus (think Marin County). Bordeaux varieties are mostly commonly planted, but its cooler zone also accommodates exceptional pinot noir and syrah.

Highland Valley sits above and to the west of the Ramona Valley AVA, and it enjoys the cooler temperatures of its elevation and being closer to the coast. This area also boasts a nearly century-old tradition of growing grapes, a factor known to influence the approval of new AVAs. Its growers continue to debate the best grapes for the region, but Rhône and Iberian varieties seem to have a high ceiling for quality.

With a long history stemming from when Spanish missionaries at the Mission San Luis Rey de Francia cultivated olives and wine grapes, the San Luis Rey River growing region currently includes 24 wineries and is the most expansive. Its delimited borders encompass almost 100,000 acres and follows the watershed of the lower San Luis Rey River, which flows into the Pacific Ocean just north of Oceanside. Cool coastal air flows upstream and covers the vineyard land surrounding the river’s edges. Many existing producers lean into Bordeaux varieties, but it seems likely that diversification will happen based on the location and preferences of future growers.

San Diego wine production is certainly at a crossroads. By highlighting its history, topography, and microclimates, and connecting with aficionados interested in authentic, climate-conscious beverages, San Diego’s wine culture seems poised to achieve new heights. With the approval of these four AVAs within San Diego County just around the corner, we all stand to benefit from this next chapter and future vintages of San Diego wine.

Originally published on issue 73.

Cover image by Haley Hazell for Edible San Diego.
About the Contributor
Patrick Ballow
Patrick Ballow is a San Diego native that has worked in the San Diego wine industry since 2005. He opened Vino Carta in 2016 and continues to manage the Little Italy location. He is one of the co-organizers of Nat Diego, San Diego’s yearly natural wine fair. In his free time, he enjoys hanging out with his two sons, cooking for friends and family, snow skiing, and playing tennis.‍