Operating out of what he calls "an $150,000 garage," Chip Emmerich of Burnet Ridge winery in Cincinnati has the grapes for his zinfandels, Bordeaux-style blends, cabs and merlots trucked to Ohio from California's renowned Mendocino and Sonoma regions in frozen 1-ton lots.
"It's no different than freezing a container of shrimp," says Emmerich, whose wines allowed him to retire from his state elevator inspector job. "Wine gives me the opportunity to express myself and manufacture something tangible," he says.
Self-expression aside, today's urban wineries have as much to do with real estate and the cost of vineyard land.
Brendan Eliason worked for 10 years as a co-winemaker in Sonoma's Dry Creek. But when it came time to open his own winery, he looked to San Francisco's East Bay, near his home.
"There's just no way I can compete with all those doctors and lawyers and venture capitalists who are coming in," Eliason says.
So in 2005, he set up Periscope Cellars in a former World War II submarine repair facility in Emeryville, between Berkeley and Oakland, buying grapes for his syrah and zinfandel-based blends from eight Sonoma growers.
"If I bought the smallest piece of land I could legally buy in Sonoma County and built the smallest winery I could on that land with the vineyard, it would be $2 million to $3 million, and that would be pretty miserly," says Eliason. "In land costs, it's about $100,000 an acre. And that's with no vines, no nothing."
Instead, Eliason says he pays about 50 cents a square foot in Emeryville, "just over $3,000 a month," for a 7,000-square-foot winery.
And better yet, he doesn't have to commute.
Ironically, Eliason believes his urban location makes him better situated for grapes than if he were smack in the middle of Sonoma.
"Emeryville is surrounded," he says. "I'm within a three-hour truck drive from almost every major vineyard in California. I have Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Santa Cruz, Lodi, the Sierra foothills. They're all wrapped around my location."
Laurie Lewis, co-owner and co-winemaker at Hip Chicks Do Wine, situated between Reed College and the rail yards in Portland, Ore., agrees.
The grapes for Hip Chicks' "fruit-forward" ready-to-drink wines with names like Drop Dead Red and Bad Girl Blanc come from seven growers — four in Washington state and three in Oregon.
"We've added sangiovese and malbec from [Washington's] Yakima Valley for some of our red blends," Lewis says. "We added a cab franc. We tried a little grenache and some pinot blanc." When customers asked for syrah, for cabernet, Hip Chicks pursued those grapes too.
"We're not stuck into making one type of wine," says Lewis. "We're able to adapt more to what our customers seem to want."
Still, urban winemaking can be a tough terroir to tackle, and it's "not for everyone," says Emmerich, the Cincinnati garagiste.
Small-scale urban wineries are cash- and labor-intensive businesses. "We're owner-operators," says Lewis. "We're the crush crew and the bottling wine crew and the winemaker and oenologist and everything."
Most of these boutique operations make 2,000 to 5,000 cases a year, not even a ripple in the tank when compared with the million-plus cases Beringer's produces from its California vineyards alone. Revenues rarely break $1.2 million, and profits are long in coming.