Winemaking scene is taking San Francisco by storm

In the early 1900s, San Francisco was the epicentre of California's thriving wine industry. 

The wine, though, was not produced on rolling vineyards in countryside estates but in the warehouses and gritty industrial spaces of the city limits. 

Back then, farmers would bring grapes to markets in urban centres and production would take place as close to customers as possible. But then came the devastating earthquake of 1906. 

As the city was rebuilt, production moved further north. Other factors such as Prohibition, the Great  Depression and  World War II all contributed to the decentralisation of the wine industry and gradually, winemaking moved away from urban areas to the countryside.

But the times, it seems, are a-changin'. In recent years, San Francisco's wine production has come full circle, with a handful of enterprising winemakers turning back to the urban environment. By renting comparatively cheap warehouse spaces in industrial areas, they are attracting a new type of client base; the curious, yet time-poor city dweller. 

And although it hasn't happened overnight, it seems the attraction of these ventures is now definitely catching on. Here, four of the city's top urban wine producers explain why.

TREASURE ISLAND WINES

Just five minutes from downtown on an island once serving as the US naval base in San Francisco Bay, Treasure Island Wines was established in 2007 by Jim Mirowski. Accessed via the Bay Bridge connecting Oakland with the city, the 1114-square-metre  facility is an impressive space. 

"The notion that one needs an estate vineyard to be a winery is simply false,"  Mirowski says. "In fact, almost all wineries, even with estate vineyards, will work with local or regional growers to bring in fruit from vineyards that they don't own to make specific varietals. We simply do the same. We can bring in fruit from all the major northern California wine regions from one to three hours."

Mirowski's winemaking philosophy is simple: don't mess with a good product. Known as "minimal intervention" winemaking, it involves taking fruit from primarily small organic and biodynamic vineyards to make 200-400 case lot wines, keeping the price point moderate with an emphasis primarily on "pinots, zins, cabs and Rhone whites". 

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Arguably Treasure Island's most unique feature is  its "open kitchen" approach, similar to those often seen in restaurants offering diners a front-row seat of their rock-star chefs, only the kitchen is traded for a cellar.

"We like to dispel much of the mystique of the winemaking process and educate the customers to the 'how and the why' wine becomes what it is," says Mirowski. 

"Many customers want to connect with who made the wine and understand the philosophy behind our approach. They're supporting the 'buy locally, think globally' philosophy and like the fact that they can get a very personal and authentic winery experience without driving one or two hours to Napa or Sonoma." 

See tiwines.net

DOGPATCH WINEWORKS

Established in 2011 in the former industrial-turned-achingly-hip Dogpatch neighbourhood, Dogpatch WineWorks is a 1394-square-metre, aesthetically pleasing melange of leather Chesterfield couches, low lighting and lofty, pillared ceilings. 

Like many of its contemporaries, Dogpatch is a "custom crush" facility, which essentially means it provides equipment, expertise and the space for a specific client base to achieve their winemaking goals. Each year, the team releases a list of vineyards from where they will source grapes, then the clients get to reserve their fruit.

"Our clients include commercial producers, amateur and aspiring winemakers, groups of friends and even corporate clients," says Joel Creager, who joined the Dogpatch team earlier this year. 

"They can be as involved as they want.  For some we will do all of the winemaking, while for others we simply provide the facility and equipment." 

With fruit coming from some of the best vineyards in Sonoma, Napa, Monterey, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara and Amador, the Dogpatch team endeavours to capture the unique characteristics of each region and varietal.  

As the pioneers before him believed, Creager reckons the increasing success of urban wineries is largely down to  proximity.

"There are many who appreciate wine who can't or won't make the two-hour drive to premier destinations like Napa or Sonoma," he says. "It's a huge investment of time and visiting these areas isn't getting any cheaper.  Enter the urban winery.  The convenience of having widely sourced grapes and production in a population centre makes exploring interests in wine much easier. Particularly for those most interested in the process of winemaking.  It's not what it was, but wineries are back in the city."  

See dogpatchwineworks.com

BROC CELLARS

The East Bay area has the highest concentration of urban wineries in the US and many are located in Berkeley. Among the lumber yards and freight-train depots, Broc Cellars is a stylish oasis of calm with ivy creeping up its charming brick facade. 

Owner and winemaker Chris Brockway's philosophy is all about producing site-specific wines, allowing the character of grapes picked from more marginal areas to shine through. 

"Our intent is to show you the fresher, more drinkable wines in California," he says.  

"This begins with us picking a little earlier than most and using only natural yeast for our fermentations. We also use a lot less  new oak or additives, which has been so prevalent in California wines in the last 20 years."

Brockway also believes urban wineries will see more of a shift towards being more "hands-on"  – with city outfits buying or leasing their own blocks in wine country – rather than simply focusing on production. But above all, he believes consistency is key.

"Usually once you find a vineyard you like, you want to work with that vineyard year after year," he says. "It doesn't do a winery much good in most cases to be bouncing around from vineyard and grape every year, though there are always exceptions to the rule."

And while Brockway believes urban winemaking is here for the long haul, he concedes there are more challenges than ever. 

"The cost of living and working in the Bay area has gone up dramatically in the last couple of years. It's much more difficult to find affordable warehouse space. One of the reasons urban winemaking was attractive to people was that it required less investment. You find a warehouse space, with or without drains, get some hot water installed, and go to work. Now it's a little tougher."

See broc-cellars.myshopify.com 

DONKEY & GOAT

Situated nearby Broc Cellars inside a former ink factory, Donkey & Goat winery is the brainchild of Jared and Tracey Brandt, who set up shop in 2004. Initially, the decision to be city based was purely an economic one.

"I continued to work in technology full time while we started," Jared says.  "Now it's a choice. For us and many others, the urban environment allows us to make the wine we want to while living where we want to. I think many other winemakers choose urban areas for this reason." 

From the outset Jared and Tracey strove to make wine as naturally as possible and they even use the old foot-stomping technique for grape crushing. "We've done so since day one," Tracey says. "Of late, natural is fashionable, which we do of course appreciate, but the reality is we've done this from the start because we feel it makes a superior wine while aligning with our environmental objectives."

Jared says his business model is not so different from a traditional winery: they sell wine at a tasting room to consumers around the US and to distributors around the world. But the proximity to the city allows a different relationship to be fostered with customers, one not so easily cultivated by their rural counterparts. 

"We have regulars who stop by once a week for a chat and to purchase some wine," he says.  "Consumers are becoming more interested in knowing more about where their food comes. Farmers markets allow this connection to occur on a human level. Urban wineries can facilitate the same relationship allowing the consumer to both know the winemaker and the product methods.  As a result, I expect this trend to continue."  

See donkeyandgoat.com 

Guy Wilkinson travelled at his own expense.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

sanfrancisco.travel

visitcalifornia.com/au

GETTING THERE

Qantas flies direct from Sydney to San Francisco, up to six times a week. See qantas.com.

FIVE MORE GREAT CALIFORNIA WINE REGIONS

NAPA VALLEY + SONOMA COUNTY

Napa is the land of grand estates and rolling hills, with more than 500 wineries in an area just eight kilometres wide and 50 kilometres long. Sonoma County has a cosier feel, with scenic Highway 1 offering the ultimate coastal drive. See visitnapavalley.com or sonomacounty.com 

MENDOCINO

A less crowded alternative known for family-owned boutique vineyards and progressive winemaking techniques. The ocean-cooled climate makes this ideal territory for growing anything from cabernet francs and pinot noirs to more unusual varietals such as gewurztraminer and chenin blancs. See mendowine.com 

SANTA CRUZ

Rolling foggy hills, mountain soil and microclimates facilitate a wide range of varietals across 70 wineries. Famed mainly for pinot noirs, this is a scenic region framed by ocean views and  towering redwoods. See santacruz.org 

CENTRAL COAST WINE COUNTRY

Divided into four distinct regions (Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey Bay), the Central Coast region makes for the ultimate road trip, taking in harbour towns, surf breaks, seafood restaurants and some of the best wine in the state. See visitcalifornia.com/attraction/central-coast-wine-country

LODI WINE COUNTRY

The Lodi region – 160 kilometres east of San Francisco – is famed for new world varietals: bold reds such as old-vine zinfandels are produced in earnest here while many of the tasting rooms are just a 15-minute drive from downtown. Don't miss Zinfest each May for the chance to sample 250 wines from some of the state's best producers. See visitlodi.com/wineries/

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