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Vintage Vineyards

Celebrate or Relax at This Historic, Family-Owned Winery

Written By: Kim Conlan

Photographed By: Josie Gonzales

Drive through an inconspicuous retirement neighborhood in Rancho Bernardo, not far from Poway in San Diego, past the golf course, and if you aren’t paying attention, you might just pass the entrance of Bernardo Winery. From the road, you might hardly recognize that there are multiple parking lots, vineyards, a village with artisan shops, a tasting room, restaurants, and, of course, equipment rooms full of barrels of wine and the tools to cultivate and process the liquid of the Gods! In every nook and corner of the village courtyard are different styles of succulents, ferns, olive trees, tropical plants and roses gushing out of stone planters, all maintained by the matriarch of the winery herself, Veronica Hall-Rizzo. Her son, Ross Rizzo Jr., is the third-generation master vintner, and his two sisters, Samantha and Selena, help market and manage the business. With the winery in its 126th year, its owners still continue the traditions started long ago by their Sicilian grandfather.

Bernardo Winery
All around the property, their family history is visible in many forms. Old wooden wine barrels, wagon wheels and thousands of pieces of obsolete farm equipment turned ornaments adorn planters, wooden gazebos and the walls of many of the structures. At V’s Coffee Shoppe, you can grab a cup of coffee, and then wander next door into the barn where the massive original vintage wine vats reside, a room now only available for private events. The rest of the buildings in the village have transformed through the years and are only recognizable as quaint retail locations, yet still remain steeped in history. Their aged architecture hints to decades past, when they were used to house field workers during harvest, as well as the property blacksmith who would fix equipment and tools, and the men keeping the vines and olive trees alive.

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Today, the romantic table for two is set up inside the protected Rosario’s Pavilion, overlooking a grassy area that has been hosting public weddings and events for over 25 years. The scene includes aged olive trees and a white gazebo, which are all bucolic in taste, with an eternal spirit of celebration that lingers in the air. The rustic theme continues with the table, with its legs being two large vintage wine barrels with a dark stained wooden door-like plank serving as our eating surface. To sit, we have two chairs repurposed from wine barrels, transformed into barstools with a deep stain finish. Glimmering wine glasses with the Bernardo Winery logo embossed on them first catch your eye until the worldly bottles of deep reds holding wines like Petite Sirah and Sangiovese draw your attention. Aged balsamic and olive oil have been poured onto individual white plates, with olives, sliced baguette, and tapenades held in delicate Mediterranean bowls nearby. A candelabra, arabesque individual wine racks, vintage lanterns, golden napkins, and a decadent cheese board have all been provided by Bernardo Winery’s very own shop, Olive & Cork. On the charcuterie board is a collection of fine cheeses, aged meats, fresh and local table grapes, strawberries, and dried California figs and apricots supplied by V’s Coffee Shoppe. Altogether, the small bites perfectly complement the wine and bring the table to life. To top off all these components is a lush garland of greens trimmed straight from the property, with additional privet berries, succulents, wild yellow spray roses and bloomed eucalyptus, arranged by Inn Florals from the nearby Rancho Bernardo Inn.

Bernardo Winery is a destination where couples and groups of friends wander the grounds, sipping on wine, spending the day separate from the outside world, in a place more simple and friendly, eventually finding it difficult to leave and return to the real world. Not to worry, just remember you can always take a little piece of the winery home inside of a bottle to remedy your longing for more.

Ross Rizzo Jr. sees the grapes from the moment they’re born on the vine, through fermenting, bottling and placement into your hands. He sat down in the Rosario’s Pavilion to talk history, family, food, wine and why you are sure to leave Bernardo Winery with a bit more passion for life than you arrived with.

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Q: Where is the wonderful food supplied for our table today from?

Ross Rizzo Jr.: It’s from our coffee shop and deli. It’s really cute; we just remodeled it. It’s called V’s, and V’s is named after my mother, Veronica. She said that if it wasn’t very good, we would change it to “R’s” for me (laughs).

Q: What are your favorite bites from V’s Coffee Shoppe, and what kind of selection of food can you get there?

RR: Our major thing in there is our charcuterie. One is more like Italian classic antipasto style, but we kind of go with the more Sicilian, where there’s a lot of acidic and some spicy with really good aged meats. All those intense flavors go really well with hanging out in the hot air with a nice cool white, or maybe some sort of boisterous red. And then of course we have some more simple California classic cheese platters with pretty simple and sort of mild cheeses. Some of our acidic cheeses are great, and so is our goat cheese—we do a local honey drizzle with some California dried figs that are ridiculously good. We try to keep it really fresh and local.

Q: Tell me a little about the history of this winery.

RR: We’re in the top 10 for the oldest wineries. We’re also one of the very few this old that’s family owned still. There were 36 wineries in San Diego County before Prohibition, and there were like three or four after. But this winery was founded in 1889, and we have been making wine every year ever since, so we have some of the longest standing vintages.

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Q: Can you tell me about the wine production you are working on currently?

RR: We do about 4, 000 cases a year right now. We’re not the biggest winery in San Diego, by far, but we also don’t distribute. We keep production always a little behind the curve. We sell out of wine, which is a good problem to have. We source all of our grapes from San Diego County, and we have a great network of people who grow—anywhere from two acres in their backyard in Ramona, to a 68-acre piece in Warner Springs, from small vineyards to big vineyards.

Q: With the village shops, weddings and wine tastings, you have a lot of events going on here all over the property. Can you tell me more about that?

RR: Obviously the wine tasting and buying bottles of wine and spending time with your friends is our thing—our passion. At 4 o’clock around here, the bottles open and everybody gets a glass of wine, and we all relax and enjoy the wine a bit—even though I’m still working. You can do both, right?

Q: Can you tell me about the Sweet Shoppe and other food available?

RR: We do chocolate pairings, so you can grab your glass of wine and go down to our Sweet Shoppe. Our chocolate steward will pair a certain percentage cocoa chocolate with your wine. We have our savory shop, Olive & Cork, where we have absolutely beautiful product, all handpicked by our merchandising manager, and it’s addicting in there! You can go in and get oil and vinegar pairings. We’ll pair balsamic with chocolate and stuff like that. It’s a lot of fun.

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Q: And you have the restaurant, Café Merlot, onsite as well?

RR: Yes. The restaurant, which is independently owned, is like the coup de grâce. You do a tasting and enjoy the winery village, then you go to Café Merlot, and you get a beautiful lunch. They have some of the most amazing selections in there.

Q: You host a farmers market here as well?

RR: Yes. We have a farmers market every week on Fridays from 9am to 1pm. It obviously has amazing local produce and products. We get all of our fruit for our coffee shop there, so all of our strawberries and everything are all fresh.

Q: Can you tell me about the family dynamic of yours here at the winery?

RR: My father, before he passed away, really loved the family thing. It was all about family, and we would have Thursday night family dinners with like 40 people showing up. I’m the winemaker and the president, and I kind of have a vision, and it’s amazing that my sisters can take that vision and turn it into something so great. My sister Sam does our marketing and advertising, and she’s phenomenal at it. My sister Selena, our general manager, has a lot of corporate background, and she doesn’t really drink wine—which is great because it doesn’t cut the profits (laughs).

Q: How does this place exemplify your family name and its meaning?

RR: I was just rewriting the new back label of our wine that’s coming out. I was trying to convey the passion that we have; it’s almost unfair how incredibly lucky we are to be here. I think that’s the connection and what our name speaks—just that incredible amount of passion for the place and the desire to show how interesting and cool and fun and romantic it is. That’s what we’re all about.

Bernardo Winery
13330 Paseo Del Verano Norte
San Diego, CA 92128
858.487.1866
www.bernardowinery.com