In February, guests mingled by the fireplace in the Presidio Clubhouse as more than a dozen wineries poured their wares. Such wine charity events are routine, though with $17,000 raised, this was modest by Napa Valley standards.
The big difference? Nearly every participant either lived or made wine in San Francisco. Proceeds from the inaugural gathering of Wordup! (Winemakers of the Richmond District and Upper Panhandle) were destined for libraries west of Divisadero.
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"I think we'll do it again," says Outer Richmond resident Mel Knox, who first made wine in 1980 and helped organize the event. "Maybe we'll let people from the Sunset in, or Pacific Heights, or trailer-trash winemakers from the Marina."
Indeed, San Francisco is now home to dozens of winemakers and winery owners - straight on up to Mayor Gavin Newsom, he of PlumpJack fame. Rather than decamp for the hills, they have embraced city living. So ditch this notion of rural gentry. We have found the new Wine Country, and it is San Francisco.
Tucked between auto glass shops and warehouses, at least six wineries are making wine inside the city limits, three of them arriving in the past two years. Three winery-created tasting rooms are open in the city, each pouring several labels.
Other cities host wineries. But something more is afoot here - a cultural shift among winemakers, who increasingly acknowledge the sacrifices and spiraling costs of living amid the vines in Napa or Sonoma. If the wine lifestyle once meant leaving the city limits, not anymore.
"My home is San Francisco. I had no intention of moving out of San Francisco, so I did everything I could to bring the winery to myself," says Andrew Vingiello, whose A.P. Vin winery is based in a former Mission District plumbing company.
The commute almost did Vingiello in. He spent three years driving to Santa Barbara County to make Pinot Noir at Loring Wine Co. But he couldn't maintain his work as a financial trader while vanishing for two months each harvest. So he ditched both the day job and the trek, opening his winery in 2006.
Others tolerate the drive to Wine Country in return for the benefits of urban life, from Thai food at midnight to a more diverse social network. Jamie Kutch, who runs Kutch Wines out of his 700-square-foot Pacific Heights apartment, still routinely hauls to Kenwood to produce his Pinot Noirs. (His secret? "A lot of Red Bull.") When he moved from New York in 2005, he quickly rejected the prospect of living up north.
"The biggest factor was that I'm a city boy," he says.
It pencils out
Logistically, making wine in San Francisco pencils out quite well. Grapes are the toughest part. Those must come by truck - although, as winemakers have discovered, it is barely more difficult than hauling them elsewhere.
"I'm dead center in the middle of where I get my grapes from," says Bryan Harrington of Harrington Wine, who makes Pinot Noir from vineyards as far north as Anderson Valley and south to Monterey's Chalone appellation. On a good day, it's three minutes from Harrington's Bernal Heights home to his winery, located behind a pewter foundry near the Islais Creek off Third Street.
San Francisco land may be at a premium, but industrial space is affordable near the waterfront and in parts of the Mission. The surroundings might seem like a set for Karl Malden in "The Streets of San Francisco," but the price is certainly right. Most wineries lease space for well under $1 per square foot, comparable to costs up north.
Permits are relatively easy to acquire. Winery footprints are light compared to the abundance of heavy industry in an otherwise green city. In April 2007, winemaker and Haight resident Ed Kurtzman and Gary Franscioni, who operates the Garys' and Rosella's vineyards in Monterey County's Santa Lucia Highlands, found a spot off Industrial Street for their August West and Roar labels. Licensing took just four months.
"In Monterey, you might take a couple, three years," Franscioni says.
One other trait leaves Healdsburg and St. Helena in the dust.
"I don't think there's any question that San Francisco has the best winemaking weather in the world," says Fritz Maytag, who owns York Creek in Potrero Hill as well as Anchor Brewing Co.
"I can tell you what temperature it is right now on the Golden Gate Bridge within a degree. It's either 55 or 56. That's magic."
If that narrow temperature band foils Dolores Park sun-seekers, it's winemaking nirvana. As Napans huddle in caves to escape the August heat, San Francisco winemakers zip up their fleece.
To be sure, San Francisco's wine history is hardly new. In the late 19th century, the city was filled with winemakers, brokers and wine warehouses; the 1893 city directory included more than 120 entries under "native wines."
Gundlach-Bundschu's block-long winery was destroyed in the 1906 quake. Geyser Peak had a Montgomery St. facility. Legendary vintner Louis Petri got a start moving barrels in his family's San Francisco warehouse.
But by the time Napa and Sonoma came of age in the 1970s, wineries - and the wine lifestyle - had shifted away from the city. Many properties were run by urban escapees who saw winemaking as a new rural way of life.
What paved the way for a reversal, curiously, was the very success of this model. As real estate prices rose in wine regions, so did construction and permit costs in what were increasingly designated as agricultural areas.
The alternative for cash-poor winemakers? Abandon the vineyards for less glamorous, less expensive space. Some rented warehouses; others turned to custom-crush facilities, where many labels are made under a single roof. These methods upended the concept of the estate winery, but by the early 1990s, no one much cared.
Wineries crept closer to the city. Businesses like Alameda's Rosenblum Cellars appeared across the bay. Then Maytag, whose wines were made in Napa Valley, took the next leap in 2000 and set up a winery across from his brewery.
A similar idea took hold in 2004, when entrepreneur Michael Brill unveiled Crushpad. Its 5,000-square-foot facility attracted clients around the country who chose grapes and directed winemaking using an online system.
Now Crushpad boasts 25 commercial labels owned by San Francisco residents, and hosts the San Francisco Wine Association, composed of Crushpad clients.
The logistics of Crushpad's new 34,000-square-foot Dogpatch facility on Third Street are as complicated as managing a traffic grid. With 45,000 cases of wine being made, hundreds of plastic bins and thousands of barrels are juggled with bar codes and intricate sanitation procedures.
Choosing to be involved
Brill sees no disadvantage to his services versus those offered near the vineyards. Custom-crush winemaking typically is handled by work order. But his clients can get their hands dirty.
"You can be as involved or as uninvolved as you like," says Jennifer Waits, who makes Pinot Noir there with her husband, Brian Mast, under the Waits-Mast label. They chose involved. During their first grape sorting, Waits was pregnant with their daughter, Beatrice.
Of course, city winemaking brings its own unique hurdles. Expensive equipment can't be stored outside at night. Vie Winery, located at a former Treasure Island slaughterhouse, has a short-term arrangement while the city decides its plans for the former Navy base. "Out here, as long as you're not doing anything really radical, they're happy with you," says co-owner Bryan Kane.
Then there are the grapes. San Francisco's elusive sunshine makes viticulture improbable - though Harrington briefly grew Pinot Noir on Potrero Hill, and even proposed to the city a vineyard equivalent of community gardens. (No dice.)
So good vineyard managers are doubly important. Optimally, cool fruit must be harvested before dawn and hustled to the city, though refrigerated trucks lessen the rush.
This Wine Country scenario still has a few kinks. Scenery lacks a certain verdant charm. Wine tasting is more no-nonsense. But most wineries provide tastings by appointment (see box), which are often a first stop out of SFO for East Coast fans. "I'm 10 minutes from the airport," says Harrington.
The inevitable red tape
Even the wine-tourist fray can be replicated. Cellar360, which pours labels from Foster's Group, is in Ghirardelli Square. A trip to the Winery Collective near Fisherman's Wharf could evoke a Napa jaunt on a summer Saturday. At Press Club on Yerba Buena Lane, visitors mingle in the shadow of Daniel Libeskind's Contemporary Jewish Museum.
And there is, inevitably, red tape. Foggy Bridge, perhaps the city's most ambitious wine project, quietly withdrew from its intended Presidio location after officials voiced concerns about the impact of the 20,000-square-foot winery and restaurant.
Still, a sense of community is flourishing. For wineries, labor is abundant; interns can take Muni to work. The wine tent at last year's Outside Lands music festival in Golden Gate Park focused on native vintners.
And as for selling wine, it's easier to make your pitch - especially to restaurants - as a regular customer. Sommeliers enjoy pointing out winemakers at the next table, and a winery field trip is but a cab ride away. Kurtzman has hosted staff from One Market and Gary Danko.
At Nopa, the unofficial industry hangout, you're likely to encounter a winery owner on the next stool - perhaps Josh Jensen of Calera, a regular and a nearby homeowner.
Retailers, too, appreciate the sales hook of a wine made by a neighbor. "People want to drink locally, and even though these wines aren't grown locally, it fits into that ideal," says Ian Becker, manager of Arlequin Wine Merchant in Hayes Valley.
So San Francisco's winery owners have few regrets. Let the residents of Wine Country - the legacy version - enjoy their villas and vines. History and common sense presage the obvious: Wine Country has come to the streets of San Francisco. Perhaps Karl Malden should have packed a corkscrew.
Here's a sampling of wines made in San Francisco by city residents. Although in limited supply, all should be available at retail stores or from the winery.
2007 A.P. Vin Rosella's Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir ($48) A hard-hitting example of the fruit from Rosella's (one of Gary Franscioni's vineyards). Lots of lifted red cherry and bayberry to offset a more overt oak presence and gobs of dark fruit. Nuanced earth tones round it out.
2007 Harrington Wiley Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir ($40) Subtle mossy accents atop bright strawberry and darker, soft roasted fruit. A bit shy on first taste but has impressive nuance as it opens.
2007 Roar Garys' Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir ($50) If Gary Franscioni and Ed Kurtzman's Rosella's bottling is a powerhouse, this is fine-boned and subtle. Raspberry, charred orange and loamy aromas amid a warm bundle of red fruit flavors. Graceful and taut.
2006 Vie Les Amours Santa Barbara County Syrah ($42) Sourced from several Santa Barbara sites. Unabashedly big, with roasted nutmeg and allspice leading to deeply extracted blackberry and plum fruit.
2007 Waits-Mast Wentzel Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir ($42) Jennifer Waits and Brian Mast make this at Crushpad, just 10 minutes from their Sunnyside home. Tastes like old-fashioned Anderson Valley Pinot, bright and full of woodsy conifer aromas, with a lighter touch and rhubarb-like highlights. Deft and eminently drinkable.
NV York Creek Cuvee One VI Spring Mountain District Red Wine ($16) Mostly Cabernet, in a table-wine guise made from extra lots. Robust and plummy, with black olive and tea notes. Serve with hearty food.
Because San Francisco wineries are small operations, tastings are limited. Most offer appointments for regular customers. City vintners have tastings planned July 25 at Arlequin Wine Merchant and Aug. 9 at Del Monte Square (see www.sfsummerwinetasting.com), and hope to hold open houses later this year.
A.P. Vin. Open by appointment. 622 Treat Ave.; (415) 285-2773 or apvin.com.
August West/ROAR: Ed Kurtzman also makes the Roar and Sandler labels here. Open by appointment. 81 Dorman Ave.; (415) 225-2891 or augustwestwine.com.
Crushpad. Open for tours (but not tasting) to current and prospective clients. Hosts regular open houses. 2573 Third St.; (877) 946-3404 or crushpadwine.com.
Harrington Wines. Open by appointment. 1559 Custer Ave.; (415) 824-1824 or harringtonwine.com.
Vie Winery. Also houses Treasure Island Wines and Blue Cellars. Open by appointment. 995 Ninth St.; (415) 251-7804 or viewinery.com.
York Creek. Not open to the public. Wines are available at (415) 522-1928 or yorkcreek.com.
Cellar360. 900 Northpoint, Suite F301; (415) 440-0772 or cellar360.com. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Monday-Saturday, until 7 p.m. Sunday.
Winery Collective. 485 Jefferson St.; (415) 929-9463 or winerycollective.com. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.
Press Club. 20 Yerba Buena Lane; (415) 744-5000 or pressclubsf.com. Call for hours.