Fog and bridges, hills and bicycles. What San Francisco looks like is known the world over.
But what does The City taste like? Nobody knows.
If winemakers Elly Hartshorn and Jenny Sargent had to guess, they would say San Francisco is probably reminiscent of the Sonoma Coast. Or maybe a bit like the Santa Cruz Mountains. Even Derbyshire, England.
The truth behind The City’s terroir (a popular term in winemaking to explain a wine’s sense of origin in its flavor profile) won’t be known until 2016, when the first wine grapes will be ready for harvest from the 349 pinot noir vines that the pair of viticulture pioneers planted in Bernal Heights last summer. Pinot noir tends to thrive in cool climates such as The City, Sonoma coast and Santa Cruz Mountains.
The fruit will be the first grown in San Francisco to make it into a barrel since before the 1906 earthquake, the last time vineyards dotted the hills around town.
BOOM TOWN, WINE TOWN
Well before Napa Valley wines knocked off France’s finest bottles in a legendary competition in Paris in 1976, and well before anybody outside of California knew where Sonoma County is, San Francisco was a winemaking town.
Clusters of zinfandel, grenache and long-forgotten grapes like folle blanche — all grown using cuttings stuffed in a suitcase in Europe and replanted in a nursery in Sonoma — dotted the gardens and backyard vineyards of post-Gold Rush, pre-1906 San Francisco, according to 19th-century records unearthed by Hartshorn and Sargent.
It was a different wine world then. Most grapes grown ended up becoming brandy. Still, San Francisco was on its way to truly being the Paris of the West, complete with the small neighborhood vineyards similar to those enjoyed to this day by Parisians in places like Montmartre.
But those dreams ended in fire. And now, in perhaps the unlikeliest of times — with the price of land at an absolute premium in The City, and housing in demand like never before — Sargent and Hartshorn are trying to bring back truly “local” wine.
Hartshorn acknowledged that their venture might be a “pipe dream,” but she said local wines are “really important for a city.” She described the motives behind their Neighborhood Vineyards Project, which aims to plant vineyards in each of San Francisco’s numerous microclimates.
WHAT S.F. WINEMAKING LOOKS LIKE
Hartshorn and Sargent are both in their early 30s, befitting of the tech-worker-in-a-coffee-shop image San Francisco has come to be associated with. Their urban appearance belies a wealth of experience in winemaking and organic farming — before she went to France to study winemaking, Hartshorn’s parents in the Central Coast had a sizable vineyard; Sargent studied organic farming in Hawaii as well as cheese-making in France before the pair met in that country’s most famous wine region, Bordeaux.
Still, they might have chosen an unlikely spot to revive San Francisco’s winemaking tradition.
Bernal Hill’s southern-facing slope — ideal for growing grapes — is among the warmest places in town and should get plenty of sun over the next three years, but also has the cool nights ideal for pinot noir to thrive. But on a recent rainy February morning, the constant hushed roar of nearby Interstate 280 was the main soundtrack at the vineyard.
The small plot formerly laden with trash — Hartshorn and Sargent still pick out bits of broken glass and other long-lost garbage — is on an uphill portion of the community gardens at Alemany Farm.
And down the hill, a few minutes’ walk from the neat rows of tiny vines a few inches tall, the nearest neighbors are some of San Francisco’s long-neglected public-housing projects.
The vineyard does fit in well with the rows of other produce growing at the farm, which is one of many Recreation and Park Department-approved urban gardens.
THE TASTE OF BERNAL
San Francisco will never be mistaken for legendary winemaking regions such as Rioja in Spain or the Rhone Valley in France, let alone the Peninsula section of the Santa Cruz Mountains. There are no wine-structure-gifting stands of limestone underneath our feet. Quite the contrary: The terra firma in sandy and landfill-laden San Francisco contains Franciscan chert 2 feet down. The silica-heavy sedimentary rock is considered quite unfriendly to grape vines.
“Once [the vine roots] touch, they won’t produce,” Hartshorn said.
That’s partly why they chose pinot noir for their project’s initial grape. The roots grow outward rather than straight down, and the famous grape does well in cool coastal regions with sandy, clay-rich soil that other varietals might loathe.
“The worse the soil, the better,” Hartshorn said. “And they [pinot noir vines] love hillsides.”
The winemakers hope to identify two more plots of land where they can plant vines sometime this year, but they have plenty to keep themselves busy for now. They’re looking to raise the $30,000 necessary to build a trellis system for the pinot on the hill.
Part of that money will come from the three wines they already make and sell: a cabernet franc, a rosé, and a white blend of pinot beurot and favorita. All three wines are made with grapes from the Central Coast.
That will hopefully be enough to keep the momentum going until 2016, when the first barrel of Bernal Heights pinot will be ready.
Still, in this fast-paced world where no one can seem to wait for anything, San Francisco wine is no exception.
“People keep asking us, ‘Well, what kind of wine will it be?’” Hartshorn said. “We say, ‘We hope it will be good.’”
“But this is less about unearthing the next terroir,” she added. “It pushes aside the notion you can’t grow in San Francisco. “It might be the best idea we’ve ever had.”
Got a crush?
Anyone can donate to the Neighborhood Vineyards Project at www.neighborhoodvineyards.org