Best Cellars


By Frank Sabatini Jr. / Photos by Brevin Blach

There was a time not long ago when the average drinker couldn’t tell the difference between a buttery Chardonnay and a peachy wine cooler. But in a short decade, San Diegans have become notably more wine savvy in the face of 50 wineries established within the county and dozens operating in nearby Temecula. Add to the landscape a never-ending proliferation of wine bars, and you’ve acquired (or are about to) the confidence for leaning into a spit bucket and the knowledge for removing those stubborn purple stains off your lips (Wine Wipes by Borracha).

Ripe for the picking, these “grape escapes” are great locations for sampling our region’s fermented juices.


Bernardo Winery
13330 Paseo Del Verano Norte, Rancho Bernardo
Grapes have dangled over these soils since 1889, when a well was dug to supply irrigation with mineral-rich water. Syrah is the specialty grape that thrives today on the 15-acre plot, which has blossomed into a cottage village of shops and restaurants. Displays of antique machinery show how our ancestors labored over the craft, and some current releases are still hand-bottled like yesteryear. Located in Rancho Bernardo, the winery features a tasting room that’s open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with hours extended to 8 p.m. from December 13 through 16, when “holiday nights” usher in carriage rides, caroling and a little extra swirling.

Orfila Vineyards
13455 San Pasqual Rd., Escondido
Spread across 70 acres in Escondido’s San Pasqual Valley, Orfila Vineyards is a picturesque stomping ground for savoring wines hailing from 10 different grape varietals. The tasting room greets visitors with Old World charm and offers a couple of new, limited-production releases. The 2010 Full Fathom Five, for example, is an inky blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Montepulciano. For pinot lovers seeking that coveted berry-like finish, Element 119 has you covered. Tours of the property are held at noon daily, and a holiday tasting of dessert wines is scheduled December 13, on the outdoor terrace overlooking the vines.

Salerno Winery
17948 Highway 67, Ramona
Consider a visit to this Italian-owned winery your fast pass to Tuscany. Nestled within the hills of Ramona, Salerno’s award-winning petite Syrah flows abundantly from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays, when proprietor Herman Salerno breaks into occasional operatic karaoke on his Mediterranean-style patio for friends and visitors. The winery’s portfolio also includes mildly fruity Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon and a juicy, sweet Port wine called Temptation.

Deer Park Winery & Automobile Museum
29013 Champagne Blvd., Escondido
Wine tasting strikes a curious match to vintage convertibles and a Barbie Doll museum at this 35-year-old estate, known for its annual productions of Chardonnay, Merlot, champagne (the local equivalent, anyway) and a popular late-harvest Sauvignon Blanc (think apricots with honey). Wine samples are free with the purchase of any bottle. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday through Sunday.

Fallbrook Winery
2554 Via Rancheros, Fallbrook
What started out as acreage for champagne production in the late 1980s has since turned into a full-scale winery boasting two large aging cellars built into the hillside. Tours of the lower-terraced vineyards and cellars are available through appointment only. Visitors lately have come knocking for the winery’s 33 Degree series from 2009, which includes a sturdy backbone of smooth Cabernet Franc, fruit-forward Sangiovese and well-structured Malbec, all born from handpicked grapes.

Carruth Cellars
320 S. Cedros Ave., Ste 400, Solana Beach
Viticulturist Adam Carruth started out as a backyard winemaker and ended up pasting his label on nearly two dozen different wines produced in his Solana Beach facility. The only thing missing is a vineyard, a void that he fills by sourcing most of the grapes from Napa Valley and Sonoma County. The award grabbers include a 2009 lineup of Lake County Malbec, Napa Valley Cabernet and North Coast Barbera. The tasting room, stocked with contemporary art and wine barrels, opens at noon daily.

Mount Palomar Winery
33820 Rancho California Rd., Temecula
Sweeping views of Temecula Valley are complemented by some of the finest Bordeaux and Italian varietals our region has to offer. Dessert wines such as Solera Cream Sherry also take center stage. Aged for a minimum of three years, it’s produced in oak barrels that are tempered under the sun, an old tradition that other California wineries no longer follow. The bucolic setting extends into Shorty’s Bistro, where decorative flora and farm-fresh meals help to restore your equilibrium after extended stays in the tasting room.

Europa Village
33475 La Serena Way, Temecula
Among Temecula’s newcomers is Europa Village, which demands a sojourn at the property’s hyper-romantic Inn at Europa Village. An interim tasting room gives visitors a chance to sample from a trio of introductory brands representing Old World wine styles from France, Italy and Spain. The master plan shows a trinity compound in the works, each with its own dedicated winery, lodge and tasting room.

Wine Bars

The Grape
823 Fifth Ave., Gaslamp
Considered San Diego’s oldest wine bar, The Grape was established 16 years ago in the historic Hubbell Building. It served as a beacon to seasoned wine connoisseurs on the hunt for obscure labels, which back then included everything other than Blue Nun and Gallo. Today’s inventory is formidable, with wines hailing from prime global regions that are poured inside a pub-like atmosphere showing graceful age marks.

The Wine Lover
3968 Fifth Ave., Hillcrest
New owners Serge and Nick Chable have refreshed The Wine Lover’s wine program with choices originating from reliable family winemakers. Finding a swell Napa cab for $20 isn’t so difficult here. The bros also implemented evening happy hour and other price breaks while swapping out plastic greenery for live succulents on the quaint patio. Catch them flipping steaks on Tuesdays.

Mosaic Wine Bar
3422 30th St., North Park
A sizable front patio flows into a roomy interior sporting industrial panache. The wine list exceeds 200 choices, with some starting for as little as $2 a glass during happy hour. With an equally ambitious food menu in place that includes crispy smoked oysters, peruse the shelves for a full bottle of Sauvignon Blanc to strike a seamless pairing.

Wine Steals
2970 Truxtun Road, Point Loma/Liberty Station
After achieving brand recognition in Hillcrest, the owners branched into Liberty Station at the lip of Sail Ho Golf Course, where a garden-like patio is kept at safe distance from low-flying balls. Cardiff marks a third location, which follows the same concept in affording customers discounted wines and snazzy pizzas named after grape varietals. Amateur wine drinkers can take comfort in the anti-snobby vibe inherent to each site.

Splash Wine Lounge
3043 University Ave., North Park
Shiny, metal machineryfrom Italy allows you to self-serve one-ounce pours of 72 different wines using pre-paid plastic cards. Decide on a favorite, then progress to full-glass pours or whole bottles via human interaction with the staff. Scratch-made flatbreads, artisan cheeses and charcuterie provide the chew to this modern-day wine experience.

Vinz Wine Bar & Tasting Room
201 E Grand Ave., Ste. 1A, Escondido
Who ever said that jocks don’t drink wine? Football is broadcast on Mondays and Thursdays during NFL season from TVs and a larger projection screen in the back room. Touchdowns trigger the clanging of stemware containing everything from un-oaked Chardonnay and blended reds to sangria and tawny ports from Portugal. A full dinner menu is available, with lamb Wellington grabbing the trophy.

The 3rd Corner
2265 Bacon St., Ocean Beach
If you were a wine hoarder, this is how your living room might look. Owner Ed Moore has amassed a collection of more than 800 labels from around the world, displaying them within an elegant bistro setting that he replicated in Encinitas (897 S. Coast Hwy.) and Palm Desert. French-inspired dishes lead into endless pairing possibilities, with the first kiss occurring between Oregon Pinot Noir and duck confit served with bean cassoulet.

57 Degrees
1735 Hancock St., Middletown
Ranking as San Diego’s largest wine bar, this former Pier 1 Imports outlet store transformed - at the hands of owner Russ Kindom - into an art-filled retail lounge, where customers imbibe over cheese and paninis, and collectors stash their prized bottles in temperature-controlled wine lockers. The inventory features niche wines of domestic and international origins. And on the third Friday of every month, the parking lot makes way for food truck extravaganzas.

Solana Beach Crush
437 S. Highway 101, Solana Beach
The wine list highlights some of the finest estate productions from California and Italy as well as those special-occasion bottles of Opus One and Insignia from Napa Valley. Chairs made from French oak barrels lend a rustic contrast to the modern appointments, while executive chef Jason Colabove swoons visitors with truffle-roasted chicken and “Mom’s meatballs.”

Toast Enoteca & Cucina
927 J St., East Village
Name a continent or a region of Italy and you’ll likely find a wine from there at this Italian-inspired bar, which uses Enomatic technology to dispense and preserve a dizzying array of varietals. Chef Martin Gonzalez of Acqua Al 2 adds fodder to the experience with an all-Paesano menu. If you’ve never experienced the magic that occurs between Super Tuscan wine and pasta Bolognese, you’ve come to the right place.

Village Vino
4095 Adams Ave., Kensington
After swirling her way through wine regions in dozens of countries and the Wine Executive Program at UC Davis, Rita Pirkl decided to share her zeal for small-production wines that evade the radar of big distributors. Her list flaunts 35 options by the glass or half-glass, plus 100 bottles of humble origins that can be corked inside the small, sleek space or purchased to go.

Wet Stone Wine Bar
1927 Fourth Ave., Bankers Hill
Obscure wines from California and Argentina join forces in Wet Stone’s house-made sangria, which winks at you from two large vats perched on the front counter. There’s tropical white with star anise; and succulent red, stocked with oranges and mint leaves. But don’t totter away without dabbling in some of the South American fare, such as gut-warming seafood stew (moqueca) and the mixed grill plate with chimichurri.

The Wine Pub
2907 Shelter Island Dr., #108, Point Loma
South African Shiraz, Australian chardonnay and Amour De L’Orange bubbly from Temecula are among the pleasurable pickings available at this cozy, dog-friendly hangout. Lighted trees and a fire pit grace the outdoor patio, while homemade soups and crafty paninis sing to what sits in your glass.

Twenty/20 Grill and Wine Bar
(at the Sheraton Carlsbad Resort & Spa)
5480 Grand Pacific Dr., Carlsbad
Shhh. Don’t tell the nearby locals who have staked territory here for the past few years that we’re on to Twenty/20’s urbane wine list, which allows you to globetrot between continents via a glass program offering 30 choices. The bottle selection shows off 100 additional labels, including some rare finds from Austria and the Alsace region. A full menu of contemporary fare and a cushy patio with ocean views keeps you planted firmly in your seat.

100 Wines Hillcrest
1027 University Ave., Hillcrest
The Cohn Restaurant Group splashed into Hillcrest this summer with a restaurant-bar stocked with no less than 100 different wines. Stone accent walls and vintage décor from rural Europe play up to the rustic dishes authored by French-trained chef Katherine Humphus of BO-beau Kitchen + Bar (also owned by the Cohn Group). Bottled wines are categorized without complication: $20 for “friendly,” $30 for “intriguing” and $40 for “adventurous.”

Firefly Grill and Wine Bar
251 N. El Camino Real, Encinitas
An ambitious wine list obliges with flavor categories, sparing you the misfortune of ordering a “dry, light” Riesling when your palate demanded a “full-intensity” Chardonnay. The protein-rich bill of fare is designed expressly for wine drinking, as the staff is quick to point out foolproof pairings to dishes like crispy pork belly and Kobe top sirloin.

Rose Wine Pub
2219 30th St., South Park
Reclaimed wood, stone and metal flow throughout this parlor-like pad, housed in a restored building that began as a grocery store in 1927. Daily happy hour (4:30 to 6 p.m.) nurtures your budget with $5 glasses and a rotating selection of tapas. Or if you’re on the hunt for a reasonably priced bottle of Châteauneuf Du Pape, a French Rhone, you’ll likely be able to score it here for about $70.

Finch’s Bistro and Wine Bar
7644 Girard Ave., La Jolla
Tucked inconspicuously into an alley, this cozy bistro with its pretty courtyard combines fanciful wines, mostly from Europe and California, with dishes such as “stick to your ribs” ribs and lobster carbonara. Musicians rotate through on Fridays and Saturdays, matching their soft harmonies to the gentle tannins in your glass.

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