Urban Wineries Are on the Rise: Here's Why Winemakers Have Traded Vineyards for the Big City
They're crushing it.
“Wrangling full semi-trucks to offload 20-plus tons of grapes in the middle of morning rush hour in New York City is not for the faint of heart,” says Conor McCormack, head winemaker at Brooklyn Winery in New York and District Winery in Washington DC. “But we make it work.”
McCormack is one of the many winemakers that have traded in vast vineyards of rolling hills and rows of vines for the big city. In his case, that means a winemaking facility that sits around the corner from one of busiest subway stops in the city: Williamsburg's Bedford Stop, which ushers thousands of passengers under the East River, to and from Manhattan each day, in impossibly packed train cars. The congestion on the street is only somewhat better.
Urban wineries are nothing new—they started popping up in earnest in the early 2000s, and have since continued to flourish, near universal rising rents across the country be damned. District Winery opened last year, San Diego’s La Fleurs Winery this past May, and Asheville’s plēb urban winery just this month, to name a few.
So why would a winemaker choose to work in an urban environment, as opposed to a traditional one? “I enjoy the challenge of it!” McCormack says. Good thing for serious wine drinkers: the wine coming out of these urban wineries is worth the rush (hour).
“Honestly we are not much, if any, different than any winery of our scale,” says Tracey Brandt, winemaker and proprietor of Berkeley’s Donkey & Goat Winery. The key difference, obviously, is that the winemaking doesn't happen where the grapes are grown. Instead, vineyards deliver temperature-controlled grapes to a given urban winery, where they're crushed and/or pressed, aged, and eventually bottled on site. Bottles are then case-packaged and shipped to a storage facility in Napa.
Most urban wineries source grapes from multiple vineyards, which is where things get interesting: It means that blends might be very diverse, combining grapes from totally unique terroir, and introducing drinkers to grapes they might not be familiar with.
“[It’s] a great way to connect wine lovers to regions they might not otherwise be familiar with,” McCormack says. “I can't tell you how many times I have seen people's eyes light up when I tell them that the unoaked Chardonnay they have fallen in love with is made from grapes grown in the Finger Lakes, NY. That never gets old.”
It also means that winemakers are able to be highly selective with the grapes they pick and choose. And that means good things for what’s going into your glass.
As McCormack says, “Both of our wineries are set up as high-end production facilities, focused on producing boutique batches of wine from grapes grown in different regions throughout the United States."
McCormack also points out that limited space necessitates efficiency and smart design when it comes to layout, production and workflow, which is never a bad thing.
Then there's the accessibility factor, of course—a selling point as much for winemakers looking to get customers in the door as it is for drinkers. Urban wineries can function as tasting rooms that city dwellers can easily pop in and out of, without having to make a whole day—or week—of touring wine country (although there’s nothing wrong with that!). Rather than spending time, energy, and gas money to make it out to wine country, urban residents can easily pop into an urban winery for a drink—after work, post-yoga class, or even for a quick liquid motivation between running errands. In this way, urban wine rooms might cater more to locals—a point that’s certainly true for Donkey & Goat, Brandt says.
What's more, visitors get the rare opportunity to drink the finished juice at the source, and may even get the chance to get a firsthand peek at vinification.
As for Brandt, she says, “Ours wasn't so much a choice as it was just the way we evolved." She and her husband, Jared, both had day jobs in the Bay Area upon founding D&G in 2004, making it impossible to head out to wine country at the end of the workday. “Because we made natural wines from the start, we felt it imperative to be in complete control of our winemaking (we never custom crushed) and to be close to our wines,” she explains. Tinkering with so many other parts of the winemaking process (which you can read all about here), they didn't miss being out in the vineyard.
To be sure, vineyard work is an integral part of the process for some, but others are happy to forgo the responsibility altogether. For those with a stronger vinification—as opposed to viticultural—background, the urban setting provides the perfect opportunity to zero in on and excel at the part of the craft that's most meaningful to them. And that alone might be enough to drown out the honking horns of rush hour.