Our visit to this rustic, picturesque Rancho Bernardo winery was like turning back the hands of time. With its antique wine making equipment and tree-shaded historic buildings, its bucolic ambience is reminiscent of simpler times. But, according to Rossi Rizzo, the boutique winery’s third generation owner, “It’s an exciting time for San Diego winemakers. And keeping the balance between the old and the new for us is crucial”.
Originally founded in 1889 by five Sicilian immigrants, Bernardo Winery is the oldest continuous operating winery in southern California. The winery has been in the Rizzo family since it was purchased by Rossi’s great-grandfather, Vincenzo Rizzo in 1927.
Wine tasting takes place in the Barrel Room; a large barn-like structure where wooden rafters and large redwood wine-storage vats add to its rustic feel. An outdoor covered patio provides shaded seating for patrons purchasing wines by the bottle or glass.
Several white varietals are available for tasting, including one of my favorites, a medium dry, crisp California sparkling wine. However, it is the reds that reign supreme at this winery! The 2013 Burgundy, a medium light red blend of Barbera and Mourvedre is a Rizzo family favorite. A traditional red table wine, the “Burgundy” has been produced at Bernardo Winery since before the prohibition era. The Malbec/Merlot, a new experiment for the winery, supplies rich blueberry and coriander on the nose from the Malbec side. The Merlot lends to the soft front-end and luscious finish. Per Rossi, “this friendly approachable red stands up perfectly to rich foods”. We believe it!
Choosing a glass of wine from the tasting room, we strolled through a picturesque countryside courtyard consisting of thirteen quaint village shops and artisan galleries that complement the tranquil beauty of the surrounding vineyards, gardens, olive trees, and moss-covered Italian fountains. The Sweet Shoppe, located less than a five-minute walk from the tasting room offers delightful wine and chocolate pairing. The idea of pairing wine with chocolate occurred because according to Rizzo, “Our family wanted to encourage people to walk around the grounds for a complete winery experience”.
The Sweet Shoppe features gourmet confectionary treats from 26 local chocolatiers. Culinary delights range from raspberry truffles to chocolate jalapeño peanut brittle and chocolate-covered wine grapes to orange-infused dark chocolate with almonds. Sallyanne, the “chocolate steward” as she is known, asked us what we were drinking, then provided us with perfectly matched chocolate to accompany the wine. Mildly spiced ghost chili chocolate was a perfect with my husband’s Petit Sirah. My dry Riesling, paired with a milk chocolate pecan toffee was exquisite.
An award-winning restaurant on the grounds, Café Merlot’s motto “come for the food, stay for the friendship” is certainly fitting. The café serves a host of delectable lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch entrees. One of my absolute favorites, The Bella, a grilled chicken breast with caramelized sweet red onions on toasted sourdough with horseradish roasted garlic aioli and sprinkle of feta cheese was melt-in-your-mouth superb.
And under the direction of Chef Daniel Reynolds, Café Merlot offers group cooking class demonstrations with hands-on participation in preparing multi-course themed dinners paired with the winery’s finest vinos. Our friends, like us, raved about class themed “Off the Hook” featuring seafood preparations with whites and sparkling wines. “Romantic Roman and Italian Dinners”, also immensely popular and fun feature the winery’s bold reds.
Wine Pairing/Winemaker’s Dinners, a relatively new addition to the winery’s events, held in the historic Barrel Room, gives guests the opportunity to interact with the vintners themselves while enjoying wines paired with tantalizing cuisine.
There is true community spirit evident at Bernardo Winery. Certified Farmers Markets held each Friday from 9 am to 1 pm feature fruits, vegetables, wildflower honey and other organic condiments in addition to food, art & craft vendors. Sunset Artwalks held every Friday night from June through September feature wine tasting, live music, local art, food trucks, and shops open until 9 pm.
On a larger scale, the Arts & Crafts Fair held each spring and autumn features over 125 of southern California’s best artisans and crafters, some showcasing their artistic talents on site. A food court offers tasty multinational fares from Thai to Greek to Mexican.
“Holiday Nights! At Bernardo Winery”, one of our all-time favorite winter events takes place for four nights every December. Magic is in the air with live music, talented craftsmen, twinkling lights, carolers, miniature holiday village, Santa, and snow; yes, manufactured snow suds, but, it’s cold and wet and sure helps the holiday spirit!
In 1624, Francis Bacon wrote “age appears to be best in four things – old wood…, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read.” After visiting the vintage Bernardo winery, we heartily agree. Old is best!