You don’t have to venture to the countryside to visit a vineyard. At urban wineries across the U.S., producers ferment, bottle and sell their wine against the backdrop of a city landscape.
“Interest seems to be growing in urban wineries, and that coincides with a general growing interest in wine,” says John Balistreri, owner of Balistreri Vineyards in Denver. “The urban setting is convenient for people who want a place to learn, taste and have a great environment to gather with friends. I’m not saying the traditional winery setting isn’t still an amazing experience, but we are seeing many traditional wineries opening small urban tasting rooms as well.”
Urban wineries can purchase grapes from multiple vineyards. While it’s not cheap to start one, the barriers to entry are lower than for a traditional vintner who needs farming equipment, among other pricey assets.
But that’s not to say the industry is without challenges. For one thing, you need a financial cushion. “You may pay rent for a year before you open your doors because permitting can take that long,” says Adam Carruth, owner of Carruth Cellars in Solana Beach, California.
Mark Snyder, founder of The Red Hook Winery in Brooklyn, says that with his business comes an array of worries. “We’re concerned about climate change, the wildfires. Do we explore different regions to get our grapes? Then there is the increased cost of transportation and supply chain issues for things like bottles and even labels—things we never anticipated.”
Like other small businesses, the Covid-19 pandemic meant staff layoffs, closure of some locations and pivots to beef up wine clubs, deliveries, online sales and other strategies.
“We sold bottles to go on the sidewalk. I wondered whether we were done, if my dream was over,” says Ryan Sharp, founder of Enso Winery in Portland, Oregon.
It may never be back to business as usual, but several urban winemakers reflected on their beginnings, lessons learned and more.
Here are seven urban wineries from coast to coast to support.
When Laurie Lewis and Renee Neely get ready to do something, it’s on. Back in 1999, they had a mission: to make fun wine and wine fun.
“We thought about using our names but that was boring,” says Neely of their name. “We went for catchy, and we knew our target audience would be women.”
The pair decided to go into business one day while picnicking on the back of a pickup truck overlooking a vineyard. “We ran up our credit cards, got a second mortgage on our house and, after quitting our day jobs, cashed in our 401ks,” says Lewis. They purchased the grapes to make 500 cases of wine. Today, they are winemakers and owners of Portland’s oldest urban winery, producing 14 different wines.
They chose Portland for its quirky, thriving food scene and it being the gateway to Oregon’s wine country. They give back to the community by supporting Esther’s Pantry, a division of Our House of Portland that provides food and clothing to those with HIV/AIDS, and for anyone who needs it during Covid-19. Hip Chicks does fundraising, food drives and, this year, is donating a portion of the proceeds from its Pride Wines sold to Esther’s Pantry.
“At the time I didn’t think of us as being gutsy, but we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps,” says Lewis. “We had some challenges selling in stores at first with our whimsical label. We were told the packaging was too cute. It was groundbreaking, too, that we were lesbians in a male-dominated industry.”
Hip Chicks Do Wine is 15 minutes from downtown Portland in an industrial neighborhood tucked between the Brooklyn and Reed residential neighborhoods. When not in the middle of a pandemic and able to offer a standing cocktail-style event, they can accommodate 125 people. There are two warehouse units side by side. The primary winery is the largest at 3,800 square feet. They have a long, narrow annex space, a third of which is a seated wine-tasting area with the remainder for storage of empty barrels, fermentation bins and crush equipment.
“Most days I wake up amazed that we are still in business and am grateful that we are able to do what we love,” says Lewis.
Charlotte, North Carolina
It’s been quite a year for Camillya Masunda, who launched her Ebony Wine & Spirits in 2020. She’s been learning the business primarily on her own, be it bottling, marketing or compliance issues.
“I’ve been fighting my way through,” says Masunda. Her business is the fulfillment of a dream that began more than a decade ago.
“I researched wine in college,” she says. “I used to stare at bottles and wonder where they came from, and even took pictures of bottles in the store. I didn’t know when or how, but I knew I would have a wine business.”
Masunda is finding her way in the world of wine, which can be fussy. “Some people in the industry look down on you if you’re not a sommelier or don’t have a certain education,” she says.
She doesn’t scare easily, though. “If you tell me no, then I give it everything I’ve got,” she says. For her, wine isn’t just about what’s in the bottle, it’s a symbol, a way to celebrate Black culture and unity around the world.
She’s hoping that her presence in the industry inspires other people of color to get in the business. “Everybody deserves a space in the industry,” she says.
Masunda feels the love on Instagram from people who encourage her to keep on keeping on. Her wine is in restaurants and specialty shops in 10 states, ships to 40 states and will be available globally soon.
“The winery is in Mint Hill, North Carolina, about 15 minutes from downtown Charlotte,” she says. “The area provided us with a lot more room and availability to provide more than just the winery experience. It boasts three rooms that can be utilized for events, art shows, retail space and more. We plan to not only provide Ebony Wine but also a place where people can gather and where other brands and artists/entrepreneurs can be showcased.”
Brooklyn, New York
Many years ago, Brooklynites Brian Leventhal and John Stires were having fun making wine with coworkers at a winemaking facility in New Jersey. But, in 2010, ready to move on from their jobs at a tech startup, they got serious.
“We wondered how come no one was making wine in Brooklyn,” says Stires.
They got their winery started with help from funds raised from family and friends. “We had an itch we had to scratch,” he adds.
“Everyone loves wine, but not everyone can get to Napa,” says Leventhal. “People like to experience a winery in an urban environment.”
The winery is in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. The 8,000-square-foot building can host weddings and events from 100 to 165 guests.
A major plus is that they are not beholden to their own vineyard and get grapes from a variety of farmers, giving them a diverse portfolio. The flip side is logistics, as transporting grapes on refrigerated trucks so they arrive as if they were just picked presents its own set of challenges.
The biggest issue today is nature. “We get our ingredients once a year; it’s a lot riskier now with the change in the weather,” says Stires.
Ten years later, with some 150 employees, there are no regrets. The barrier to entry was steep. “It took patience and capital to get to the point of serving product,” says Stires.
“I was in the corporate world—I needed to feed my soul,” says Destiny Burns. To do that, she opened CLE Urban Winery five years ago.
After 13 years as an executive in the defense industry, retiring as a Navy officer, a divorce, a child finally grown and Burns hitting 50, it was time to set her sights on her true passion—wine. She returned to her native Cleveland, “a real foodie town where breweries were a part of the culture,” she says. “I thought a tap room would also work with wine.”
She had never made wine but found a local winemaker who had studied his craft in Napa. She set up shop in a 100-year-old former auto garage. Burns was guided by her belief that wine is a catalyst to bring people together and that she wanted to celebrate Cleveland. “It’s not just about selling wine, but the community it creates,” she says.
Burns marvels at the journey. “People think this is cool and sexy—this is a business,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about point-of-sale, or event planning. I wear a lot of new hats.”
“It’s a neighborhood joint, but one downside, unlike traditional wineries, where people take long drives to the countryside and buy a case, being local, people tend to have a glass of wine or two and only take home a bottle.”
What does wine have to do with a mathematical theorem? It’s a bit of explanation, so best to get the gist here. Suffice it to say, The Infinite Monkey Theorem likes to do things a little differently.
Launched in 2008 in the back alleys of Denver, the winery stands out for the monkey on the label of its bottles and canned wines. These days, there’s much buzz about the complete shift in management—it is now majority woman-owned and -operated. In 2020, Nicki McTague, who joined the company in 2013, took the helm as president and CEO.
Another change is the company is looking at charities that have special meaning to employees, like Can’d Aid, a woman-owned and -operated organization, through which they present bikes to low-income children.
“We are more than just women selling wine,” says McTague. “We are more important than that. People in the wine industry get hung up on scores. Covid gave us 20-20 vision to recognize what’s important.”
Their winery is in the River North Arts District. They can host as many as 350 people.There’s a main room with cartoonish, comic strip paintings around the bar in an industrial warehousing space. But they have other rooms that they can gussy up for a more formal event.
Charles Smith says if you invite him to a party with 150 people, the first thing he’ll do is go to a corner and figure out how he can leave in 15 minutes. “I’ll speak on stage if I have to, but I’m shy—I don’t crave the microphone,” says the founder of House of Smith, which is home to seven brands.
That’s surprising, as he spent a decade managing a rock band in Europe before returning to the U.S. to Seattle’s then emerging music scene. While traveling in Europe, he fell in love with wine. In 1999, he turned that passion into a business with his first vintage of Syrah that he sold out of his van.
The 32,000-square-foot House of Smith Jet City Winery he opened in a former Dr. Pepper bottling company in 2015 is among the largest urban wineries on the West Coast. “I wanted to bring the wine country to the city,” says Smith. “Walla Walla is more than 200 miles away from Seattle. Here, people have easier access to begin their journey of enjoying wine.”
He recalls challenging times back in December of 2001 when opening his first winery, K Vintners. The construction crew worked many hours overtime in a race to get the winery open as scheduled. “I had $37 in the bank; we had to get it going.”
The beginnings may have been humble, but wines like Kung Fu Girl Riesling, the Velvet Devil Merlot and Boom Boom! Syrah put him in the spotlight. He was named Winemaker of the Year in 2014 by Wine Enthusiast.
“I found the thing I was supposed to do,” says Smith.
Tracey Rogers Brandt and business partner Jared Brandt’s only formal wine training was working with famed French winemaker Eric Texier in 2002. Each morning, as they walked to his house to get their instructions for the day, they passed his neighbor’s property where a donkey and a goat were together in the pasture. They learned donkeys provide organic weed control and goats are calming to them.
That experience inspired the name of the company they formed in 2004, after a year of winemaking at home.
However, making natural wine from 2004 until about 2010 was one big challenge, Tracey says. “The lack of a domestic community of natural winemakers and supporters in the channel, combined with an overwhelmingly negative vibe from much of the domestic winemaking community that challenged everything, even native ferments, we swam uphill with one paddle for years.”
Donkey & Goat is about 5,600 square feet between the winery and office. A bonus is the 1,700-square-foot urban yard that includes a bocce court. Donkey & Goat is in the storied Gilman District, home to 924 Gilman, a renowned venue in the punk rock universe, and a part of the city with a long history of manufacturing, arts and crafts.
These days, climate change and the impact from lack of water and catastrophic wildfires are worries. The Caldor Fire this past August was devastating for Donkey & Goat. “We will be without 10-plus wines in the 2021 vintage, which is very hard to face after being 35% below planned production in 2020 due to the impact of smoke,” Tracey says.
But she remains committed.
“We will continue our creative efforts to make delicious wine, even under crazy circumstances,” she says.