There's no majestic estate. No grapevines out back. And, instead of pests, these winery dogs chase street traffic and sidewalk skateboards.
Urban vinting may seem like a new or unusual concept, but it is as central to the history and success of the California wine industry as the Mission grape or the buttery chardonnay, from the pre-Prohibition commercial cellars in San Francisco to the first zinfandel Kent Rosenblum made on the docks of Alameda.
The majority of Bay Bridge wineries have sprouted in the last decade. Today, there are 50 in San Francisco, the East Bay and perched midway across the bridge. Most are small and family-owned, and some are making wines so good, the only reason you don't know about them is because their entire allocation has been snapped up by Gary Danko.
These vintners make wine here because they live here; because they can't afford to buy land in Napa, and, quite frankly, don't want to be limited by doing so. By chasing the best fruit and making wine for, in, and sometimes with the community, these winemakers are stalwarts of sustainability and locavore-living. They are challenging long-held beliefs that fine wines must be made next to vines or that credible winemakers focus on one varietal.
Marilee Shaffer of Oakland's Urban Legend Cellars couldn't imagine making wine any other way.
"We believe that our location actually liberates us to embrace a diversity of flavor and be absolutely devoted to terroir, because we can go where the variety is best suited," says Shaffer, who sources pinot noir from Napa's Carneros region and sangiovese from the Sierra foothills, where Italian varietals thrive.
Wine educator and historian Karen MacNeil says the urban wine movement is a reflection of the "wild West spirit" of those late 1970s and early 1980s "mavericks," like Rosenblum, Berkeley's Steve Edmunds and Rick Longoria of Lompoc's Wine Ghetto.
"They developed their own wine equivalent of the counterculture, and it continues today," says MacNeil, author of "The Wine Bible" (Workman, 2000) and chairman of the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena. "This is no-glitz winemaking. 'Just give me the grapes and let me do it.'"
It is no-glitz on the consumer side, too. In 2004, when Bryan Kane envisioned a winery for the people of San Francisco, the former Copain winemaker says he wanted to build something that was accessible to everyone.
"I wanted a fun place people could come, whether they're wine enthusiasts or just wine-curious, taste great wine, and have an experience that wasn't snooty or hoity-toity," says Kane, whose partnership has since opened Treasure Island's The Winery SF along with Vie and Sol Rouge, which specialize in premium Rhone-style wines.
Everywhere you sip, from abandoned naval stations to former airplane hangars, the community spirit is palpable, whether you're strolling Bluxome Street Winery's monthly "Meet Market" in San Francisco's SOMA or taking in the sustainable art at Two Mile Wines in the 25th Street Collective, an incubator in the center of Oakland's Art Murmur.
Winemaker Bill Bedsworth says Two Mile Wines feels like a neighborhood cafe, a place people can stop in to learn about and taste wine in a "non-snobby" environment.
"There's no reason for people to feel like wine is for a special group of learned people who've studied it," he says. "I've been at the winery tasting with a tattooed biker and a single mom who walked over with her family. We believe there are benefits to having the wine you drink made locally, not the least of which is easily connecting with the people who make it and actually getting involved yourself if you're interested."
Restaurateur Lev Delany of Chop Bar agrees. That's why several of the wines on his list come from within 10 miles of the Oakland restaurant. "If someone was visiting and wanted to experience what Oakland has to offer, I'd serve them a classic zinfandel from Dashe or one of Urban Legend's quaffable wines."
Closer and fresher is better, but it's not the only reason Mark Mendoza, wine director for the Daniel Patterson Group, which includes Oakland's Haven and Plum, has featured Donkey & Goat, Dashe Cellars and JC Cellars on his wine list.
"They are doing all the right things, going after the best vineyards," Mendoza says. "Some are sourcing organic or even biodynamic, too."
And, as MacNeil points out, influential wine critics like Robert Parker and Wine Spectator, which came of age in the late 1970s at the same time as those first urban wineries, have never cared if a winery had a "palatial spread."
"They were evaluating the wine alone," she says.
They still are. Jeff Cohn of JC Cellars is what you'd call a Parker darling, regularly scoring above 90 points for his luscious syrahs and elegant zinfandels since he started the Oakland winery in 1996.
Even after achieving success, he's still not budging, except to move to a larger facility this summer. At 7,500 cases, he's outgrown the warehouse he shares with Dashe Cellars.
"The going-after-the-fruit is never going to change for me," he says. "I've maintained those relationships with grape growers since the mid 1990s and even some from before that. This makes the most sense."