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Forgotten Barrel Breathes New Life into Historic Escondido Winery

When life gives you lemons, why not trade them for grapes and make some wine? That’s what local entrepreneur and real estate investor Rodger Grove did.


Grove, who has worked in commercial real estate for 35 years, started a small winery as a diversionary investment when the market crashed in 2009. Forgotten Barrel got its start purchasing declassified wines from known producers and selling them to select restaurants and wine clubs under the Forgotten Barrel label.

After some success running a small tasting room in Sorrento Valley and growing wine club membership, Grove searched for new ways to help turn a profit and for a more appropriate, permanent home for the business. When a broker introduced him to a historic three-acre vineyard for sale in Escondido, he had no interest in taking on a project that grand. But after a few trips through the old Ferrara Winery property, Grove was sold on revitalizing Escondido’s oldest grape-growing estate.

“The city was very committed to preserving the site because of its significance in the history of Escondido agriculture,” Grove said. “They did everything possible to get somebody in who would restore the historic winery and make it operational again.”

Forgotten Barrel’s vineyards of Muscat of Alexandria grapes and entrance to the Tasting Room.

Grove closed escrow on the property in 2016 and began a major renovation to modernize the winery and preserve its original character. That effort included maintaining a half-acre vineyard of 25-year old Muscat of Alexandria grapes, which was inherited with the property. Muscat of Alexandria is a white wine grape that grows exceptionally well in the region, and it is the variety that attracted George Ferrara to Escondido in 1920. The Ferrara Winery, which was home to three generations of winemakers, was designated a historical site by the state of California in 1971.

Perfecting the Blend of Old and New

Forgotten Barrel has forged two perfect pairings since settling into its historic property - one with veteran winemaker John Eppler, who will usher Forgotten Barrel into the future, and another with Tony Ferrara, a third generation Ferrara who connects Forgotten Barrel with its winery’s past.

Grove was looking for a master winemaker when he was introduced to Eppler by a mutual friend. Coincidently, Eppler was moving to Oceanside from Napa, where he worked for 32 years in the wine business for Robert Mondavi, Rosenblum Cellars, and his own brand JRE Wines. Under normal circumstances, Eppler’s resume would be hard to entice from Napa Valley and even harder to afford, but he was ready to head south to be with his wife and wasn’t yet ready to retire.

Forgotten Barrel’s Owner Rodger Grove (left), Barrel Bar (middle) and Winemaker John Eppler (right).

“We looked at vineyards, tasted a lot of wines, and talked all about the region’s history. John came to the conclusion that what we had going on here felt a lot like Napa 40 years ago,” Grove said. “I am a wine drinker and a wine collector, but I wouldn’t invest a nickel in my own winemaking talents. But I do trust John’s talents and he’s just been an amazing asset to the business.”

Grove and his team at Forgotten Barrel have been working with local grapes from Valley Center, Pauma Valley, and San Pasqual. It’s been a three-year long search for the best grapes in San Diego County and Grove predicts that Syrah is a variety that San Diego will become well known for. Having just bottled Forgotten Barrel's first handcrafted 2018 San Diego County Syrah, he is confident that it rivals some of the best to come out of Paso Robles.

Forgotten Barrel currently has 15 different wines from Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, Santa Ynez, and San Diego. This year, it also secured some historic old Zinfandel from Rancho Cucamonga, which is hard to source since much of that land has been torn up and developed. Forgotten Barrel is obtaining the vines through a relationship that was partially brokered by Tony Ferrara.

The grandson of George Ferrara, Tony grew up in a house on the winery and still lives close by. When the winery sold in 2016, Tony was prepared to see its heritage disappear under a new owner. But those fears have been put to rest. “I’m very fond of Rodger and what he’s doing at the winery,” he said. “It still feels like home to me.”

Tony Ferrara in the vineyards and Escondido’s oldest original Tokay wine vine.
(photo on right courtesy of Tony Ferrara)

Old Ferrara Winery signs and Ferrara family photos are proudly displayed throughout Forgotten Barrel’s tasting room, and much of the winery’s original farming and winemaking equipment has been restored for modern-day use. Forgotten Barrel has made it a priority to pay homage to the winery’s heritage while pursuing San Diego County’s best grapes and producing the region’s most notable wines under the new Forgotten Barrel brand.

Ferrara is a regular fixture at the winery and enjoys sharing stories about his life on the winery. He has prepared authentic Italian meals for Forgotten Barrel’s staff and is a guest at quarterly wine club pick up parties and the winery’s annual Christmas party. In a way, Forgotten Barrel is carrying out the Ferrara family legacy and it has forged a unique bond between Grove and Ferrara. So much so that Forgotten Barrel received an award for historic preservation from the Escondido City Council at last year's State of the City event.

“It’s really an honor to do it, not only for the Ferrara family but also for the historic component of this real estate,” Grove said.. “It was a big responsibility to fix and bring back the winery, but it’s also been a lot of fun. Tony is an added benefit to all of that, just knowing how appreciative he is and how great it is to have this unique relationship with him.”

Putting Its Grapes in a Variety of Barrels

The wine industry is both steeped in tradition and constantly susceptible to change. Grove wants to be sure that Forgotten Barrel can adapt to these changes and that his winery offers diverse and unique experiences that keep people coming back. 

He likes to buy grapes from farmers because it allows the winery to operate nimbly and use grapes from different regions. “If we own the vineyard then we’ve got what we’ve got,” he said.. “If our business plan or customers’ tastes change, we have the flexibility to adapt with the type of fruit we use and from different areas.”

Forgotten Barrel is ripe with activity and generates revenue through a variety of channels. Grove now operates full-time from the winery, which allows him to easily toggle between his real estate business and his passion project. Local Artist Sergio Gutierrez has also set up a gallery in what was once a bunk house for the property’s Italian and Sicilian immigrant farmworkers. 

Wine Pairing Event with Chef Erin Sealy and Forgotten Barrel’s newly bottled Papa Dude port-style wine.
(photo on left courtesy of Erin Sealy/Wine Pairs Events)

Forgotten Barrel sells its wine direct to consumers through its tasting room and wine club, which is projected to have a waiting list by 2021. In addition to wine sales, Forgotten Barrel has carved a niche in hosting private events and has become a popular spot for weddings as well as family and corporate-sponsored parties. 

The barrel room seats up to 100 people and the winery can accommodate larger groups with a combination of indoor and outdoor spaces. The winery also hosts a series of regularly-occurring events such as live music Saturdays, monthly cigar nights, exhibits showcasing local artists, and the occasional Wine Pairing Dinners with Chef Erin Sealy

Escondido Wineries Blossom

California is the number one wine producing state in the U.S. and the fourth largest winemaker in the world. The wine industry is vital to San Diego’s economy and it continues to grow. In 2016, the economic impact of San Diego’s wine industry was valued at $30.4 million and supported 697 jobs. In 2018, San Diego wine grape crops were farmed across 1,642 acres, compared to 365 acres just 10 years prior.

Grove wants people to know that San Diego County’s wine heritage, which dates back to the 18th century, is equal in importance to that of Northern California. Folks don’t have to go to Paso Robles or Temecula for wine tasting; they can stay in their city or county and experience really great wine tasting and culture, he said.

Grove heads up the recently formed Escondido Wine Region Alliance, a consortium of 21 Escondido wineries seeking to raise awareness for the region’s thriving and diverse wine industry. The group is also working to revitalize Grape Day, a celebration of Escondido’s grape harvest that originated in 1908. It has been managed by The Escondido History Center since 1996, but has struggled to stay afloat in recent years. The Alliance is working with city officials on a plan for a new “Harvest Festival” to celebrate Escondido’s Grape Day in the Spring 2020.

Floats from Borra Winery and P. Mighetto Winery from Escondido’s Grape Day Parade in the 1930’s.
(photos courtesy of Tony Ferrara and the San Diego Historical Society)

“Escondido is a very special wine region where people can find diverse experiences - everything from cool urban wineries and tasting rooms to beautiful hilltop vineyard views with relaxing outdoor patios,” said Katherine Zimmer, Tourism Manager at Visit Escondido“Escondido’s place in California’s wine history is significant and its experiences are authentic and intimate.”

Forgotten Barrel is located at 1120 W. 15th Avenue in Escondido. It’s tasting room is open every Thursday and Friday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 7 p.m. Tours of the winery are available by appointment only.

For more information about all of Escondido’s wineries, go to Visit Escondido

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