Crush Time in the City

Forget the vineyard vistas -- this new wine country is right down the street.

February 19, 2009, 12:13 AM

Dec. 28, 2007 — -- Amid the drilling and hammering of ongoing construction, the new urban home of Bridge Vineyards emerges from the dust — a wine-tasting bar on one side, redbrick walls, the proverbial barrels.

Within the next few weeks, this New York winery moves its tasting room and sales — and eventually its winemaking — from the pastoral lanes of Long Island's North Fork to an edgily chic stretch of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where old machine shops and graffiti meld with a Pilates studio and a smattering of storefront galleries.

There's not a rolling hill or trellised vine in sight.

That its new location is 85 miles from the 20-acre vineyard that provides the grapes for its "handcrafted" merlots, chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons matters little, says co-owner Greg Sandor.

"To truck grapes into Brooklyn is nothing," he says. "I could be picking grapes at 5 a.m. and have them into Brooklyn at 8 p.m. that night. And we could crush all night if we needed to."

What's more important is that Bridge's new urban home, tucked into the ground floor and cellar of a luxury condo building, is within subway — or elevator — reach of customers.

With the move, Sandor and co-owner Paul Wegimont become part of a fledgling but growing urban winery experiment, a trend that first took hold around San Francisco's East Bay. It has since edged its way into other parts of California — including Sacramento, Santa Barbara and San Diego — and to such cities as Seattle, Portland, Ore., Denver, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Raleigh, N.C.

"In some ways it's an outgrowth on a commercial scale of winemaking that goes back to Prohibition days, when a lot of people made wine in cities with purchased fruit," says Paul Lukacs, author of "American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine" and "The Great Wines of America." "It also reflects the increased American interest in wine."

To some extent, the trend is a response to a demographic turnabout. Wine drinkers are getting younger, according to the Wine Market Council, which attributes much of last year's record-setting level of U.S. table wine consumption to the wine-drinking habits of those just under 30.

"The growth of wine bars, wine shops and tasting rooms is driven by this younger demographic, who do tend to live in urban areas," says Wine Council President John Gillespie. Ten years ago, the 35- to 44-year-old set dominated the market.

The way wine is sold — through a three-tier system of intermediaries — also figures in. As large wineries and distributors consolidate, it gets increasingly difficult for boutique-style operations "to funnel into the system to sell their wines," says Barbara Insel, managing director of research at MKF, a wine business consultancy in California's Napa Valley.

"The fastest-growing segment of the wine industry is selling direct to consumers in the tasting room," she says. "That's why this is taking off. Going urban "is really just going to where your customers are."

Like Bridge Vineyards, which has been in business since 2001 and has released a Brooklyn red and a Brooklyn white in time for its opening in early 2008, most urban wineries are within a few hours' drive of established grape-growing areas and emphasize local grapes. But not all.

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.

"Last year was the first year we were a little profitable, on paper at least," says Lewis, who started Hip Chicks about seven years ago with partner Renee Neely.

Distribution remains difficult for small wineries that can't afford to spend a lot on marketing and advertising, says MKF's Insel. "It's much easier for the Diageos, the Constellations or the Gallos. They have a huge volume, so they can supply national chains. Distributors will make money on those people."

While the Internet holds great potential for sales, the onerous paperwork and restrictions surrounding direct interstate wine shipping even in states that allow it — and 30 do, theoretically at least — discourages online ordering. "It deters people," says Lewis.

Finally, there's the challenge of getting people to open their minds to the concept of a winery set in the city and not in the vineyard.

Eliason of Periscope Cellars admits he often meets with incredulity.

"Grapes are the first thing people ask about," he says. Customers worry that he grows his grapes in Emeryville, whose heady industrial past includes paint factories and ironworks.

"Even I wouldn't eat anything planted in that ground," Eliason says. "But once they get over that, it's everything they want in a winery, minus the drive. People stop by after work, taste a couple of things and buy a bottle for dinner. And I have a chance to have my winery in with my community, my friends and my neighbors."

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