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America's Urban Winery Revival: What Does It Mean?

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The overflow at Crushpad's former San Francisco digs.
The overflow at Crushpad's former San Francisco digs.

Welcome to Vintage America, our column on the history — and future — of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.

Before Prohibition, much of the wine sold in the United States was made in warehouses in and around major cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. It wasn't until the 1960s and 70s when consumers began to show a thirst for the bucolic that the image of the idyllic vineyard expanse or Napa “château” became an ineradicable feature of American wine.

Since then, the American winemaking industry has become increasingly exclusionary, as prices in prime wine growing areas across the country have continued to rise. Now, to own a winery or a piece of vineyard land more or less requires winnings from a dot-com sale or some other postmodern lottery.

But as the economic downturn forces many Americans to cash in their preferences for the grandiose and go back to basics, there seems to be a greater acceptance of wineries that have chosen to do the same.

The new crop of millennial wine drinkers have also helped to open the door a little wider for alternative wineries. In a very general sense, this group seems to favor the idea of artisanal entrepreneurship over big business — with a more specific penchant for urbanizing the pastoral. (Pickles made in an apartment! Rooftop gardens!) Making wine in a warehouse in Brooklyn or Portland speaks directly to this new thirst for homegrown irony.

But the term "urban winery" isn't exactly as easy to define as it was 150 years ago; it doesn't just refer to a commercial winery in an urban space anymore. The revival has bred new concepts built around urban winemaking, with new ideological goals and sets of questions about what the cultural significance of each incarnation really is.

What Exactly Is An Urban Winery?
Today, there are at least three different kinds of urban wineries that make up the roughly 200 that are defined as such.

The first is the commercial winery, which produces a significant amount of wine in a warehouse in someplace like, say, San Francisco's East Bay — which is home to the greatest density of urban wineries at more than 20 total. In places like Berkeley and Oakland, low budget pioneers like Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John — who set up shop in Berkley in 1985 — and new progressive winemakers like Tracy and Jared Brandt of A Donkey and Goat — who moved in down the street from Edmunds a few years ago — embody the traditional definition of the term. Their quest is not unlike that of the wineries that crowded urban areas before Prohibition: They're looking for greater access to consumers and cheaper space to produce and bottle.

The second category is the DIY winemaking facility, or an urban winery, which allows customers with too much cash to make their own wine under the direction of a winemaker. This concept originated with Crushpad in San Francisco in 2005. (The facility has since moved to Napa and, as of more recently, Bordeaux.)

The third, and newest category, is the combination of the first two, which we can call the DIY/commercial winemaking complex: the commercial winery meets DIY winemaking facility, meets wine bar, event space, amusement park, or anything else that can provide multiple avenues with which to capitalize on having a winemaker and a winery at one's disposal.

But What Does It All Mean?
In a blog post back in 2008, Eric Asimov, wine critic for the New York Times, asked his readers exactly why he should care about urban wineries. He questions the utility and significance of the second category of urban winery, the DIY facility. His conclusion is that he'd prefer to "spend my $10,000 on some really good wine rather than on my own plonk." ($10,000 is, more or less, the ceiling for a barrel of DIY wine; the basement generally sits somewhere around $5,500).

He has a point. The DIY concept on its own seems to be rooted in an unappealing sense of pretension and idealism. The idea that allowing consumers to have private sessions with a winemaker for thousands of dollars is somehow bringing wine closer to the people is far-fetched, at best. The DIY winemaking facility's benefit to the greater wine drinking public isn't exactly clear.

But the new DIY/commercial concepts do, however, seem to carry with them some real bankable cultural currency.

Brooklyn Winery and City Winery are two prime examples. Both City Winery — located in Manhattan's Tribeca Neighborhood — and Brooklyn Winery — new to Williamsburg, Brooklyn — are seeking to embed their concepts into the greater cultural fabric of the cities they occupy. Brooklyn Winery is using its events space to promote small, local business owners and up-and-coming bands that live in the area. Once their first vintage is ready in a few months, the wines made on premise will be served on tap straight from the tank or barrel to the bar — an admirably ecological idea. City Winery has similar goals but does so with a bit more glamor. The events space houses big name musical acts — owner Michael Dorf is, after all, a legendary concert promoter — and combines wine with music in a variety of different ways.

In these cases the urban winery is bringing the consumer closer to the winemaking experience and in some way — at the risk of sounding a bit too idealistic — integrating wine into the fabric of the community in a more meaningful way than a simple wine bar or retail space might.

American Garagistes?
The new urban winemakers that fit into the traditional definition of a commercial urban winery are, in some way, America's "garagistes." The original term "garagiste" (in English, "garage owner" or in context of wine, a maker of "garage wine") originates in Bordeaux when, in the 1990s, a group of small-scale winemakers emerged as reactionary to the established style of Bordeaux; they wanted to make wines that were more in line with big name cult California cabs, which were softer and could be drunk earlier.

Unlike the Bordeaux garagistes, however, the growing urban American "garage" movement does not have a collective stylistic ideology. Its reaction is to the exclusionary culture of American winemaking in favor of a greater openness of opportunity — a sort of democratization of winemaking.

On a community level, commercial wineries that exist in urban areas are bringing local wine closer to urbanites in the same way California food visionaries created a new appreciation for local produce among the citified. In other words, they are — in some small way — rounding out the urban locavore experience.

The Future
Perhaps it's going a little bit too far to call cities like New York, San Francisco, and Portland America's newest winemaking regions, but there is new ground being broken and potential cultural payoff in the country's remodel of the urban winery trend. Whether the DIY and commercial winery mash up is just a fad is yet to be seen, but with businesses like City Winery and Brooklyn Winery aiming to fold themselves into the community in a meaningful way, one can only hope that the trend has staying power.

As for the growing crop of winemakers who are heading back to the city to actualize their dreams, perhaps a decade from now we'll be able to thank them for doing their part to open American winemaking up to new winemakers whose ideas might outweigh their pocketbooks.

Notable Urban Wineries Across America

New York:
City Winery
Brooklyn Winery
Red Hook Winery

Dashe Cellars
A Donkey And Goat
Edmunds St. John
San Pasqual Winery (San Diego)
Revolution Wines (Sacramento)
More info: East Bay Vintners Alliance

Fall Line
More info: South Seattle Artisan Wineries

Urban Wineworks
Hip Chicks Do Wine
Boedecker Cellars

Henke Winery

-Talia Baiocchi

Talia Baiocchi is the former editor of WineChap in the U.S. and a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. In her former life she was a dressage trainer for unicorns and her mother still thinks she'd make a great lawyer. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi.

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