San Francisco’s urban wine renewal

More about wine than vine, city wineries are bringing country and community together as passionate vitners resuscitate the Californian city’s storied love affair with the grape.

Mention wine tasting to a San Francisco visitor and bucolic scenes of rolling vine-covered Napa Valley hills swirl like a ruby red in a crystal glass.

No doubt the 50-mile journey north of the Golden Gate to the stately chateaux is worth a trip, but thanks to a crop of passionate urban winemakers resuscitating San Francisco’s storied love affair with the grape, oenophiles and wine curious no longer need to decamp to the countryside to sip quality wine.

“There’s no real difference between wines made in Napa Valley and wines made in San Francisco,” said Matt Reidy, founding partner at Bluxome Street Winery, which opened in January 2012 in San Francisco’s South of Market (SoMA) neighbourhood. “It is entirely possible to have great wine experience right here in the city.”

Do not turn up your nose just yet. City winemakers pride themselves on their relationships with expert growers, from the Napa and Russian River Valley, to the Mendocino Coast, all the way down to the wine growing regions around the towns of Paso Robles and Santa Barbara. Growers and winemakers monitor the fruit closely and when the grapes are ready, they are harvested – often at night to mitigate heat – and trucked to San Francisco where the wine making process begins.

There are several small producers within the San Francisco city limits – some with industrial-chic tasting rooms like Bluxome Street, best known for their pinot noirs from the Russian River Valley, and others hidden behind rolling metal doors, quietly doing what they love while racking up accolades and landing on some of the city’s best restaurant menus. Bryan Harrington’s Harrington Wine can be found at Plouf, a lively French seafood bistro, while Andrew Vingiello’s AP Vin pinot noir is found at Coqueta, chef Michael Chiarello’s first San Francisco eatery, which opened 13 April. Brian Mast and Jennifer Waits’ Waits-Mast Family Cellars produces only pinot noir, with their 2009 Amber Ridge featuring on the menu at Michael Mina, named 2011 Restaurant of the Year by Esquire Magazine. All are hoping to change the way the public thinks about wine “built” in San Francisco.

“Once harvested, the grapes don’t care where they go – they’re just happy to meet up with some yeast,” said Harrington, laughing.  “The idea that you need a posh pad out in the country in order to produce good wine is an image I’m trying to fight.”

Unknown to most, the buzzy SoMA neighbourhood where most of these winemakers work was once called South of the Slot (referring to the cable car line that ran down the centre of Market Street) and was home to more than 100 wineries in the late 1800s, including J Gundlach and Co, California's oldest continuously family-owned winery (now based in Sonoma). The infamous earthquake of 1906 and subsequent fire destroyed most of them, and those that remained were snuffed out by prohibition in 1920.

Though the urban winery trend blossomed in East Bay cities such as Oakland, Alameda and Emeryville, in the mid 1990s, the emergence of San Francisco wineries has happened mostly over the last decade, explained Bryan Kane, co-founder and winemaker at Winery SF on Treasure Island, which is connected to downtown San Francisco via the Bay Bridge. Winery SF is one of several that have opened here, including Fat Grape, which specialises in zinfandel, syrah and sangiovese with no added sulphites, and Vie, which makes high quality, limited-production Rhone varietals like mourvedre and syrah. The latest is Sol Rouge, which Kane opened at the end of April with a focus on producing wines from the grape varietals of southern France's Rhone and Bordeaux regions, sourcing the fruit from his 70-acre vineyard in the Red Hills north of Napa.

“We can’t replace the vines but we can give a better wine experience,” Kane said. “During the fall (harvest time) people can see and smell the grapes and watch the winemaking process. It gives a total sensory experience. I guess you can say we are more about wine than vine.”

Located in a 20,000sqft former airline hanger, complete with swaying Edison lights dreamily swooped over the barrels and crush floor (where the grapes are brought in), the rustic chic setting of Winery SF has made it an “it” destination for weddings and corporations looking for a unique venue. (Luxury label Louis Vuitton, clothing brand The Gap and online wedding resource The Knot recently held events here.)  Bringing people together is one of the things Winery SF does best, reflected in its most popular drop, appropriately named The People’s Blend, which merges zinfandel, syrah and mourvedre along with cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah and a touch of malbec.

“It’s a distinctive and diverse blend of grape varietals that reflects the unique diversity of the people of San Francisco – making it truly a local San Francisco wine,” Kane said.

Given the popularity of the farm-to-table movement across the country and San Francisco’s dense population of environmentally friendly food and wine consumers, it is no surprise that San Francisco’s wineries are feeling the love and reciprocating with neighbourly flair.

According to Kane, Winery SF gives $75,000 a year to local charities like Project Open-Hand, which provides home-delivered meals, groceries and nutrition counselling to people living with HIV/AIDS, and has teamed up with SF Experiences, a San Francisco tour operator, to create an Urban Wine and Historical Tour that brings visitors to Treasure Island and shares a little of the city’s wine history. Bluxome Street hosts a farmers’ market, The Meet Market, on the last Saturday of the month, inviting the wine curious to sample Bluxome Street wines while browsing the stalls of local farmers and purveyors.

One of the newest arrivals to SoMA, opened in January, is Tank 18, a hybrid between a tasting room and a winery that uses juice from the macerated grapes brought in from the wine country but blended, bottled and labelled on site. The gorgeous facility, with its farmhouse-style beamed ceilings and bottle-lined walls, has lured locals and travellers alike with its approachable attitude (no wine snobs allowed), affordable wine and monthly parties where people bring their own used bottles and fill them for $7.99 each, something founding partner Patrick MacCartee explained is designed both to offset wine production’s large carbon footprint and create a good time for customers.

“We want to make wine approachable, easy to get to and fun,” MacCartee said.  “Wine-Accessibility-Fun. It’s what drives everything we do."