San Fran’s urban wineries13th December, 2013 by Charles Lawrence
Rather than the long drive to Sonoma and beyond, dive into the city to discover its nascent wine industry.
San Francisco is rhe sophisticated city by the bay with icons abound – The Golden Gate Bridge, Street Cars, Lombard Street, Coit Tower, Swan Oyster Depot, the Trans America Pyramid and the 49ers. It’s also home to America’s tech industry, a local food movement, California Cuisine and of course it’s the gateway to California’s wine country.
Crossing the GGB and leaving “the city” in the rear view mirror along the 101 you head to the appellations of Sonoma County and Napa Valley. Intrepid oenophiles, who heed the marketers’ siren song of Wine Country Romance, can soon be sampling wines as well as attitudes in one among hundreds of cellar doors that dot the landscape like specs of dust on disused furniture.
That, or they could have chosen to stay in the cosmopolitan confines of SF and sip locally on wines produced within the city limits. That’s what I did. Rather than contend with the long drive and more of the same wine country facades, I dove into the nitty gritty of the city to discover its nascent wine industry. There are no vineyards in SF and the grapes are trucked in from afar. With that out of the way, let’s focus on two producers who are doing good things with grapes while building a legitimate urban winery scene in the Golden State.
Treasure Island - tiwines.net
There are serious wines coming from fermenting tanks on the former Naval Base of Treasure Island. Positioned in the bay between SF and Oakland, the 365 acre Treasure Island Naval Base was decommissioned in 1996 and is now part of District 6 of the city and county of SF. Literally cool, but what does a city do with all that land? Develop it of course. But how? That’s the issue, and so it sat idly for a number of years with big dreams but little to no actual investment. Driving along its weedy streets felt like being in an episode of the Walking Dead. I half expected “walkers” to give chase at every corner.
After a few minutes of imaginative navigation, I found Treasure Island Wines. Started in 2007 by brothers Jim and Paul Mirowski, who decided a naval base was the perfect place to put a winery, it is now home not only to its eponymous label, but for other winemakers as well and as such, is rather like a creative collective for urban based winemakers. Touring the facility and learning the history of the venture with Jim one cool autumn day in early November, I got the sense that he and other winemakers in the facility, like Derek Rohlffs, seek quality over quantity and authenticity over hyperbole. While most definitely not the whimsical and romantic tasting facilities associated with popular portrayals used in marketing materials, TIW offers honest wines from a working winery that just so happens to be housed in an architecturally intriguing site where old wooden beams are juxtaposed by shiny stainless tanks.
Three Treasure Island wines to seek out…
Sonoma Coast AVA Pinot Noir 2012
Boasting a super bright nose and an energetic, precociously playful palate, it’s complex enough to entertain the inevitable oenophile in the room. Loved the zippy acidity.
Russian River Valley AVA Sonoma County Pinot Noir 2012
Has a nose of rich ripe fruits, hints of rhubarb, some briars, and spice. The palate was altogether more brooding, with dark, sizable tannins and balanced acidity. I’m already planning the wild mushroom risotto that would pair perfectly…
Chalk Hill AVA Sonoma County Zinfandel 2010
Sourced from Dunns Vineyard in a slightly warmer portion of the larger Russian River Valley AVA, Jim’s Zin has a rich nose of voluptuous black fruits built on a buxom, full-figured palate of mouth-coating tannins. A big, balanced wine.
Bluxome Street Winey - bluxomewinery.com
Even with its apocalyptic appeal, Treasure Island isn’t exactly the gritty part of the city. It’s not quite as unhinged as the Mission near BART, South of Market, or as it’s known by its hipster affected acronym, SOMA. Tucked into this arena of off beat is double block long Bluxome Street, home to a winery bearing the same name. I stumbled upon it while shopping at K&L Wines, SF’s venerable go to for unique drops, but seeing that it’s a wine shop, not a winery, it’s sole purpose in this story was how it helped lead me to a good find. No appointment, facility closed, but it didn’t matter. I knocked and associate winemaker Tyzok Wharton opened the door revealing a small but tastefully designed facility, complete with exposed beams and appetising architectural touches like hand-blown Italian lighting. My hipster radar was off the charts and Tyzok’s cool reception, “I can give you five minutes”, had me thinking the place was more style than substance, the exact opposite of Jim and Treasure Island. Thankfully, Tyzok warmed up, chatted, and tasted with me for nearly half an hour. Its hipster image aside, Tyzok and crew know what to do when it comes to crafting enjoyable wines
Top three wines from Bluxome Street Winery:
La Rochelle Vineyard, Russian River Sauvignon Blanc 2011
Excellent floral notes with touches of wild flower honey and light toast. Vibrant and fresh, with just enough texture to intrigue, the palate is fun and finishes with flourishes of lemon curd.
Long Oak Vineyard, Russian River Chardonnay 2011
A wine with great zip and with nice layers of citrus nuanced with splashes of faint vanilla and whiffs of light cream. Not a buttery behemoth, but a lithe, congenial and fun to drink wine.
Weir Vineyard, Yorkville Highlands Mendocino County Pinot Noir 2011
Hailing from an area a bit warmer than Anderson Valley AVA, the Weir Vineyard is sought for its powerful Pinots. Thanks to a cooler than average growing season in 2011, the brute force has been tamed. While still a large Pinot, it has sophisticated acidity, elegant tannins, and an incredibly silky finish.
There are other urban wineries in San Francisco, along with several in Oakland that I didn’t have the chance to visit. Maybe next time I’ll be able to venture further along the urban wine path. For now, I’m happy with the wineries I sniffed out. So, when you’re next in the Golden State with time on your hands then drive around, taste some great wines, meet some unique characters, and arm yourself with stories to share when you return to Blighty.