Urban winemaking is just what it sounds like: making wine in a city instead of a country vineyard. Yet for some reason, the idea that wine can be made in the same space as an office building confounds people. But around the country, urban wineries are on the up.
San Francisco, lately known for its artisan toast, is at the top of the pack. The East Bay, which some have taken to calling "urban wine country," has the highest density of urban wineries in America. They occupy warehouses, former tanneries, and even an old naval hangar.
There's Donkey & Goat, for example, a Berkeley winery that's inside a former ink factory. Founders Tracey and Jared Brandt make the most out of their 1,700 square feet. Racks of barrels line the walls and a small bar for tastings sits near the entrance. Outside in front of graffiti-inked walls are even more barrels, and when the weather is good, the Brandts set up a bocce ball court. Their neighbors include a hardwood floor maker, a tent manufacturer, a juice company, a chocolatier, and another urban winery, Broc Cellars.
For the couple, starting a winery in the city made sense from the get-go. "Because we're ex-tech folks, maintaining a day job in the Bay Area was more lucrative than, say, going up to Anderson Valley and trying to work in a tasting room."
To start and run a winery in a low-rent part of the city is much cheaper than the traditional route of buying land in the country and building a winery. Getting a proper vineyard off the ground can easily run someone over $1 million. For less than $100,000, urban winemakers can produce wine that's just as good as anything made in the country.
In many ways, it's less troublesome running a winery among asphalt. "It's much easier from a permitting or regulatory process to be in the city than to be in wine country," says Tracey.
It's a matter of scale. In Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco, there are only a few dozen wineries. Up north in Sonoma and Napa, there are hundreds. "Regulatory bodies grow as there's more things to regulate," says Tracey, alluding to the terrors of a swollen bureaucracy. "From that perspective, it's easier."
It's also about being where the buyers are. "San Francisco is clearly where most of the places I'd sell my wine to are," she says. "Because I'm here I can do lots of cool events." In the über-competitive wine industry, it pays to network.
Tracey and her husband often hold food and wine parties with wine makers, buyers, and chefs. "If I was in Napa, I could do that but it'd be a much bigger trek for them and I probably wouldn't get the attendance that I get," says Tracey.
Urban winemaking is nothing new in San Francisco. With grapes just a few miles north, a major shipping port and a wealthy, fun-loving, populace, San Francisco has long been a natural wine destination. In the early 20th century, there were over 100 wineries within city limits, which is more than in Napa, but a devastating earthquake in 1906 followed by Prohibition wiped out the city's once-thriving industry.
Bluxome Street Winery recognizes and respects that history. Just a couple blocks from the Giants ballpark, the modest, chic winery is pulling San Francisco's winemaking past into the 21st century with style and a music playlist any Pitchfork.com reviewer would approve of. The music plays from empty wine barrels converted into speakers.
"There is something totally cool about being a part of the fabric of the city. And really novel in the wine world," says Webster Marquez, winemaker at Bluxome Street. On a wall behind him is a flat-screen TV with grainy footage from early 20th century San Francisco playing on repeat. "I think that was shot just a couple days before the earthquake too," adds Marquez.
A New York native, Marquez worked on traditional country vineyards before joining Bluxome Street. He prefers working in the city.
What's so great about urban winemaking, he says, is how often he gets to see people enjoy his creation. The winery, located in the heart of downtown, is regularly packed.
"As someone who's spent most of their career working out in what is essentially the middle of nowhere, that there is always people here enjoying my wine is a totally different experience." And it's wonderful just to walk outside and grab a sandwich too, he adds.
But it's not all peaches and cream. City life comes with its own frustrations.
"There's no space. There's no parking. And then there's that," he says, referring to a screaming ambulance speeding past the front door.
"Most of our grapes come from Sonoma and they'll come across the Bay Bridge on trucks. If there's a Giants game, there's like a million people out there tailgating and we have to clear people out and push them away just to unload the trucks with a forklift," laughs Marquez before tossing a tennis ball for Toby, his frisky dog who joins him at work.
"One of the things that I think is so cool about San Francisco is that there really is this huge commitment to things being made here, near where people are," he says.
Among casual wine drinkers, there's an assumption that wine is always made where the grapes are grown. But one of the "dirty secrets" of the California wine industry, according to Marquez, is that vineyards often haul in grapes from other places—just like urban wineries do. Really, urban wineries are not so different from traditional ones.
Yet still they are a novelty. People don't expect to find a winery in the urban jungle–guests at Bluxome Street often ask what time they start serving food. For some reason, people have erroneously equated the winery with the vineyard.
"The winery is just the place where the wine is made," says Marquez in between sips of chardonnay while a Beach House song drones in the background. "Why not have it be somewhere you would enjoy being also?"