It’s said that the history of California wine begins in San Diego County. Franciscan missionaries from Spain, led by Fr. Junípero Serra, established their first mission in Alta California, Mission San Diego de Alcalá, on July 16, 1769. In 1774, they built a new, replacement mission in a location better suited to agriculture and for interaction with local Native Americans.

Before long, wine grapes were planted. It is commonly accepted that these were the first wine grapes grown in what is now the state of California, though there is no documented proof of this. The first mission vineyard deemed “successful” in California was actually planted at Mission San Juan Capistrano (in today’s Orange County) in 1778.

Mission San Diego de Alcalá, its property, and its number of converted Native American parishioners grew steadily, though not without setbacks due to fires, Native American raids, earthquakes, and more. According to mission records, by 1797 its land holdings encompassed 16,764 ha/41,425 acres. These included living quarters, pastures for 30,000 sheep and cattle, along with plantings of fruits, vegetables, grains, and grapes. 

Despite being the first mission and having all that land, San Diego de Alcala was eclipsed by others in terms of acreage under vine, notably Mission San Gabriel and Mission San Fernando Rey de España. In fact, Mission San Diego de Alcalá never produced a significant quantity of wine grapes and the original vineyard didn’t survive beyond the eighteenth century. That said, Mission San Diego de Alcalá was successful in other ways. It remains active for parishioners and is one of San Diego’s most-visited tourist attractions. The mission’s buildings include the small office and jail where Agoston Haraszthy served as San Diego’s first sheriff.

In the nineteenth century, particularly after California statehood in 1850, wine grapes were planted in other parts of San Diego County. Escondido, northwest of the San Pasqual Valley AVA, and El Cajon, 27 km/17 miles east of San Diego, saw most of the vines. However, as late as the 1890s, there were still well under 305 ha/1,000 acres of vineyard plantings in the county as a whole, and only eight wineries.

That changed after the turn of the century. Plantings eventually rose to 728 ha/1,800 acres. During Prohibition, growers that remained in business did so by selling grapes to home winemakers around the country. After repeal, the number of wineries rose again, but most were very small. Only one survives from those days: Bernardo Winery dates back to 1889.

San Diego County wine growing dropped substantially in the latter half of the twentieth century. Attempts to revitalize the industry were largely unsuccessful until recently. Acreage was roughly 69 ha/ 225 acres in 1980 and only 27 ha/87 acres as of 1997. Today, though, there are 257 ha/627 active vineyard acres.

In 2010, San Diego County passed a “boutique winery” law. This allows wineries with annual production of less than  45,425 L/12,000 gallons (about 5,000 cases) to operate a tasting room, sell wine, and engage in some other consumer-related activities without being required to obtain certain permits and pay particular fees previously required for all open-to-the-public wineries. This law has led to a dramatic increase in the number of county wineries. The law has been amended once to provide further benefits to boutique wineries. Further liberalization of rules is currently under review.