The urban winery is a recent phenomenon whereby a winemaker chooses to locate his or her wine making facility in an urban setting within a city rather than in the traditional rural setting on or near the vineyards. Grapes are grown in a remote location then transported to the urban facility for crushing, fermentation and aging. Urban wineries have been opened in cities across the United States including San Francisco, Sacramento, Portland, Seattle, Cincinnati, San Diego and Los Angeles.
Wine lovers traditionally had to travel to remote areas to learn about winemaking firsthand and to taste the offerings of a wine producer in the setting in which they were made. Now, many urban dwellers can hop in their car for a short drive or take a bus or walk and have an authentic winery experience. Many urban wineries offer productions tours and a traditional tasting room for this purpose and also offer retail sales of their wines. This allows the consumer to purchase directly from the source ensuring that wines have been stored correctly and not subjected to extreme conditions that can occur in transport which can occasionally result in spoiled wines.
Some urban wineries are also incorporating full service restaurants or venues for live entertainment. Many also offer their customers the ability to make their own wine under the guidance of their winemaking team. Amateur winemakers can choose the grape varieties, select an appellation, make production decisions along the way and participate in the final blending, bottling and even design their own labels. This has spawned a new generation of boutique wines that are available in micro quantities as small as 30 bottles.
From the winemaker’s standpoint, the business model closely resembles the neighborhood brewpub which became popular in the 1980s. Winemakers open their wineries, often with tasting rooms and retail shops, in downtown or industrial-park settings miles from the vineyards that produce the grapes. Rather than pay sky-high prices for land in wine country, they rent a space in the city, truck in the fruit from a variety of regional vineyards and ferment and cellar the wine on site. ”There is a growing recognition that you really don’t have to tie the winemaking to one piece of dirt,” says Brendan Eliason, who in 2005 opened Periscope Cellars in a World War II submarine repair base in Emeryville, California. His winery/tasting room/art gallery has become a popular gathering spot and is a part of an alliance of 15 East San Francisco Bay urban wineries, most of which have opened in the last five years. Most of those ventures source their grapes from vineyards that also supply the famous estates in Napa and Sonoma Counties.
San Diego County has a burgeoning urban winery industry, with wineries such as Carlsbad’s Witch Creek Winery crafting premium wines steps from the beach while using grapes from San Diego and the growingly popular Guadalupe Valley of Baja California, Mexico. San Pasqual Winery uses grapes from similar locations and is the region’s oldest urban winery, while Carruth Cellars in Solana Beach is the newest urban winery on the San Diego scene. The growth of this urban niche has sparked sufficient wine industry interest that many wine professionals recently converged in San Diego for a well-attended seminar dedicated to analyzing the ins and outs of the urban winery business model.
To varying degrees, all urban winemakers say their aims are to demystify wine and reach new audiences, provide a place where locals and visiting oenophiles to hang out, and nudge palates toward deeper appreciation. ”People came in here drinking semi-sweet blends five years ago and now their drinking Cabernets,” says one urban vintner. ”The advantage we have is instead of going to a supermarket and seeing a wall of wines that are indistinguishable from one another, they can come in here and taste first, then select and be happy with the bottle they take home.”