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Fine Wines Bloom Amidst Big City Grit in San Francisco

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Amid the buzz of freeways from all sides, parking enforcement officers bang on clothing-covered windows of RVs in search of people living illegally inside. Members of the Ironworkers Local Union 377 stand outside on their smoke break as rows of plumbing, printing, jewelry and office supply manufacturers crank up to speed for the day.

This is the Bayview district of San Francisco. Its nondescript warehouses off Industrial Street are a far cry from the postcard images of the Golden Gate and Fisherman’s Wharf. But it’s also where some of the most interesting wine in California is being made today, and there’s plenty of opportunity for growth on the horizon.

“There are a lot more choices for lunch here than, say, Chalone.” —Tim Telli, Betwixt Wines

Inside one of these stark warehouses with roll-up doors is Ed Kurtzman, who’s been making wine in this general vicinity for about a decade. His winemaking résumé runs from Bernardus and Chalone to Testarossa, Roar and Fort Ross. The wide-ranging geographic sourcing from those wineries gave Kurtzman a taste for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from both sides of the Bay Area, from Sonoma County down to the Central Coast.

Tim Telli (left) and Ed Kurtzman outside their urban winery, August West
Tim Telli (left) and Ed Kurtzman outside their urban winery, August West

Today, aside from a handful of clients with vineyards both north and south, Kurtzman’s primary focus is on his own label, Sandler Wine Company, as well as his partnership in August West. The latter is named after the Burgundy-swilling character from the Grateful Dead’s song “Wharf Rat.” That’s especially fitting, since Kurtzman lives with his family in a home near the iconic corner of Haight & Ashbury.

Aside from being close to home, Kurtzman’s winery is located strategically about halfway between the Russian River Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands, his two primary sources of fruit.

“Per square foot, we’re paying the same as Santa Rosa or Salinas,” he says. “Once you’re up and running, the costs aren’t more than anywhere else.”

“And there are a lot more choices for lunch here than, say, Chalone,” says Tim Telli, who makes Betwixt wine in the same facility. Previously, he worked for both Kurtzman as well as at A.P Vin in the nearby Mission District.

There are, however, challenges to attracting customers.

“A lot of the wineries here don’t have tasting rooms,” says Telli, who estimates there are about 10 producers in the general San Francisco area, thanks to recent growth on Treasure Island and in the nearby Dogpatch neighborhood. He believes that a custom-crush facility would prove immensely popular.

“It doesn’t compete with the East Bay yet, but it’s growing,” says Kurtzman, who offers free tastings by appointment. He wishes for more collaboration amongst the nearby wineries. “There’s no cohesive group,” he says. “I wish we had one.”

There is movement in that direction, however. An hour later, as skateboarders roll by, Kurtzman, Telli and a half-dozen other producers gather for a tasting on Minna Street in the heart of downtown San Francisco.

Organized by Pietro Buttitta of Prima Materia and Rosa d’Oro, these “New Mission Winemakers” are a “loosely affiliated group of Bay Area craftspeople who operate outside of natural wine dogma, pursue many things in addition to balance, and hold the belief that grapes don’t care for manifestos, anyway.”

They’re not all based in San Francisco, but the highlights included the Chalone-grown Grenache by Flywheel and old-vine Zinfandel from Bacigalupi Vineyards by Cellars 33. Both projects call the Dogpatch home.

Bryan Harrington makes fascinating Corvina, Mission, Aglianico, Carignan and more familiar wines under the Harrington and Terrane labels. He’s based in a warehouse in the Islais Creek area, about a mile closer to the docks from Kurtzman.

Bottles out at Neighborhood Vineyards Project
Bottles out at Neighborhood Vineyards Project

Also on hand was Elly Hartshorn, whose Neighborhood Vineyards Project takes urban wine to the extreme. She’s growing a half-acre plot of Pinot Noir on a hillside of Alemany Farms in the Bernal Heights neighborhood.

“We harvested a few carboys worth of Pinot Noir for the first time in 2016 and foot-pressed on my rooftop in the Mission, a stone’s throw from where the vines collected in the 1880s would have been planted at Mission Dolores,” says Hartshorn. Her vines are open to the public, which present a unique challenge.

“I was nervous the grapes might be picked by others, so I may have harvested prematurely,” she says. “With this site, I suspect human factors will remain more of a concern than achieving ripeness, avoiding mildew, or bird saboteurs.”

If nothing else, Hartshorn’s project raises the flag of urban winemaking high above the seven hills of San Francisco. With a dense population of wine-savvy souls, excellent restaurants happy to promote hometown projects and a location that allows easy sourcing from the best California vineyards, more wineries are likely to set up stakes in the city’s industrial corners for years to come.