The Urban Wine Experience
The Winery San Francisco
Wealthy people with no particular connection to wine, except that they like drinking it, have been jumping into the California wine business for decades, mostly because they’re attracted to the life style. Escaping urban competition for market share, money, and status in exchange for the more natural rhythms of nature is a seductive idea, especially if aspiring winemakers believe that they can support the new lifestyle by making even more money. Some have succeeded beyond even their own dreams, which may be true for Francis Coppola. Others have been modestly successful, at least compared to Coppola. They have established stable businesses that they could enjoy and then hand over to their children, who in some cases developed them into much larger businesses. The Corley Family at Monticello Vineyards in Napa comes to mind. The Sinsky Family is another. Of course, some have failed.
Bryan Kane is the winemaker and part owner of both The Winery San Francisco and Vie on Treasure Island and the sole owner of Sol Rouge in Lake County above Napa. He points out that you can throw a lot of money at a wine project, buying land in Napa, building a winery, filling it with equipment, engaging a prominent winemaker, hiring an accomplished viticulturist, eventually getting good scores, and finally building the hopeful mansion on the back forty. But in order to support that investment, you’d need to charge $100 a bottle. Ultimately, only a few wineries can do that because few wine consumers are able or willing to make the purchase. In other words, the business is less formulaic than someone making the attempt might think.
Bryan Kane must be in his forties, but the years don’t add up on his face or even in his body language. Long dark hair tied back in a pony tail, he is casual and affable, quick to laugh. But in back of his easy presentation is, no doubt, a highly analytical mind and a creative one that finds its own way. “I don’t think you can go into this business thinking that you’re going to have the next cult wine, and a lot of people do.” He goes on to say that the wine in the bottle has to be good, of course, but that something else is required now. People want access to the “wine experience.” They want to know how wine is made. They want to visit the winery and want to get acquainted with the winemaker. “That’s where wine is transitioning at all levels,” he says. “The winemaker has to touch consumers in different ways, whether that consumer is a wine expert, a wine snob, a person with a lot of money who wants to look impressive, wants the right bottles and the right wine club, or the person who just loves wine and doesn’t have a lot of money and is looking for good value, or the wine nerd who wants to learn more.” When many different wineries cluster in various places, the successful winery will be the one that differentiates itself by offering not just good wine but the best “wine experience.”
Bryan was attracted to the wine business in the first place because of the particular type of shared experience that it offered. He left Michigan and settled in California in 1994 to enroll in the Anderson School at the University of California, Los Angeles for an M.B.A. degree. He worked for Deloitte Consulting, Oracle, and Apple, where he said he had some of the most fun that he had ever had at a job, and for each of these companies he was involved with Customer Relationship Management and used all the new technology that was developing. He was self-taught for the most part, as everyone had to be then. Teachers didn’t exist during the rapid development of “personal” computers, which were to replace main frame computers so big that they occupied entire rooms. As Vice President of Marketing for Enterprise Software, he says that once a client chose software, that company stayed with the choice for ten years because it was a big investment. “Getting that initial sale is everything. You fight. You talk about road maps. You create a vision, and you constantly pitch that vision and have the team execute toward that. But what’s tough is that after that vision becomes reality, you never get any thanks. It’s a big thinker’s job in some ways, and they’re always wanting the next thing.”
Bryan sees the wine business as the opposite of his gruelingly competitive Silicon Valley experience. “People drink a variety of wines all the time, not just one brand. It’s more competitive when you talk about shelf space for big wineries. I understand that dynamic. But when you’re a boutique winery, your wines are in the same realm with other boutique wines. You connect with customers who drink different wines. It’s cooperative, unlike the software industry. I love that. I was ready for that shift in my life, going from an ultra competitive industry where winner takes all to an industry where you are really trying to do something in a more collaborative nature with other winemakers for the good of over all change, whether it’s natural winemaking or farm-to-table or whatever.” He had done well financially in Silicon Valley, and it was time to look at what would satisfy him on a deeper level and to make that transition.
But for Bryan Kane, love is not blind. He very gradually introduced himself to the business. He had grown up in Michigan with French wine. At the time, California wine was not widely distributed in the East. “Back in Michigan, I was a kind of wine expert among my friends.” While he was working in Silicon Valley, he says that he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on wine, collecting, buying, and selling wine. One store informed him that he had purchased 450 bottles of futures of 2000 Bordeaux, “and that was only one store.” California wines were in the mix, too. Because he was spending a lot of money on wine, he was able to get acquainted with winemakers and ask them questions. After a girl friend paid for an advanced winemakers’ class at University of California, Davis, which he attended on weekends, he began to make wine, but it wasn’t very good, he says. “I decided to learn how to make great wine. I was paying these winemakers as much as $300 a bottle, whatever it was, so I got close to them, helped with the harvest.” He would take home buckets of grapes and said that his wines improved. From his garage, he transferred his winemaking to a warehouse in the Mission District of San Francisco together with Michael Brill and a few others. Michael Brill would go on to establish Crushpad, where home winemakers, who had outgrown their garages, could make wine. The site launched a fair number of wine businesses. But for Bryan, its weakness was that it had no tasting room, and he wanted to offer his customers a full wine experience within the city, a setting where they could taste his wines and see how they were made, much like someone might find in wine country, but this experience would take place in the city.
While still working in tech, Bryan purchased 70 acres in Lake County, a part of an old walnut orchard that was planted on steep slopes. In 2005, Lake County was a bargain. High profile Napa winery owners were buying land there, and Andy Beckstoffer, the most powerful grower in Napa, made a big investment in Lake County. Bryan planted 35 acres of state-of-the-art vineyards to his favorite Rhone varieties Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Counoise, and Cinsault together with Petite Syrah, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. These wines are beginning to win important prizes. Production is small at this point, and prices are unlisted on the website.
But Bryan was still captivated by the urban winemaking experience. After considering various sites in San Francisco, he landed on Treasure Island, a 365-acre island that was built in 1936 and 1937 from dredged mud below the Bay Bridge for the Golden Gate International Exposition. Views of San Francisco from the island are spectacular, the geometry of its downtown buildings framed by two bridges, the Golden Gate and Bay bridges. Sail boats glide across the water between them. Visitors are mainly San Franciscans, who want a reprieve from the city life, Bryan says, but most tourists are unaware of the location. The island became a U.S. Navy base during World War II and is now part of the City and County of San Francisco. A resident population of about 2,500 people takes the short trip back and forth into the city on the 108 bus, which Brian says is alternately called the Wine Wagon or the Booz Buss. The island now accommodates six wineries, The Winery San Francisco being the largest and housed in a 2,200 square foot warehouse that used to be a film studio. The Vie tasting room is down the street, but the wines are made at The Winery San Francisco.
The business model for both The Winery San Francisco and Vie involves purchasing fruit. Vie wines are made from some of the most famous vineyards in California, Brian points out. “We became known as a value winery for ultra premium Rhone and Zinfandel at around $40 because other wineries were charging $55 for wines made from the same vineyards. When 2008 hit, fewer people were buying $40 bottles of wine, and even fewer were buying $65 and $75 bottles. But at a certain point, we can’t go much lower and still make money because of the fruit costs. So Vie is at the lower limit for ultra premium fruit.” Case production remains at 1,200 or less.
The concept for The Winery San Francisco was that it would b e an urban winery, serving local San Francisco people. So Bryan wanted to produce wine at accessible prices that most San Franciscans could afford. “Sommelier Journal called me one of the next five cult winemakers because I’m known more for those $75 bottles of Cab, not here at The Winery S.F. but as a winemaker. All these people who are producing $45 to $75 bottles of wine, that’s great for those people who can afford it, but that’s a very small segment of the market. Not everyone is going to want a $40 wine, and that really challenged me to take a different approach to prices. We still keep the quality very high. That’s why we’ve been very successful in the market place even though we’re just starting to get our wine out there.”
The other part of the concept for The Winery S.F. was to bring the community into the winery. This year, Bryan hopes to give $100,000 back to San Francisco. Around Valentine’s Day, the winery does its Puppy Love event when guests bring their dogs. Proceeds are donated to a dog shelter. Each year the winery hosts a gala for the Make-a-Wish foundation. In addition to charitable events, the winery hosts its club members for quarterly functions and provides corporate entertainment as well. “We hosted an interesting wine dinner for Samsung executives. Everyone spoke English to a degree. They were very well to do and wanted a wine experience but didn’t have the time to go all the way up to Napa. We can produce any kind of experience that people want, bringing in caterers or chefs from San Francisco.”
“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial bent. I see opportunities, look at them, and wonder if there’s business potential.” With an attitude like that, Bryan Kane is likely to be around for a long time and to make another fortune.
California Wines of the Month
The Winery San Francisco – 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, North Coast
Winemaker Brian Kane’s Notes
Bordeaux or California? 2011 took everything we know about California winegrape growing and threw it out the window. The 2011 vintage was the most even, temperate growing climate that we’ve see in recent memory. There were no summer heat spikes, no extended fall growing season without rain. It felt much more like France than California. And it shows in the wine. The 2011 produced a much leaner, more balanced, and naturally structured wine with classic old world style. For those who love European wines, the 2011 vintage is definitely the vintage for you! From the instant you put your nose to the glass, you know this wine is Sauvignon Blanc. With bright lime and citrus notes in the nose, this wine exhibits crisp acidity and grapefruit up front on the palate, leading to a multi-layered mid-palate filled with key lime pie and lemon curd that make this wine a perfect match for appetizers. Enjoy this wine with seafood or lightly spiced poultry (Alcohol 13%).
Anna Maria’s Notes
If you were to translate Bryan Kane’s description of weather conditions, you might say that the growing season was just plane cold, cold spring with rain, very cool summer, and early rain in October. The good news is that the weather prevented winemakers from picking grapes at excessively ripe levels that eliminate acid and varietal flavors. So wines from 2011 are more balanced than they have been in the last few years when winemakers were free to ripen grapes to what some might say were excessively jammy levels. “From the instant you put your nose to the glass, you know this wine is Sauvignon Blanc.” That’s the description of a fine wine. Serve chilled.
The Winery San Francisco – 2009 People’s Blend, North Coast
Winemaker Brian Kane’s Notes
Our 2009 People’s Blend reflects the unique diversity of the people of San Francisco. This delicious blend of mountain fruit contains Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Malbec, a complex wine that is amazingly affordable so that everyone can enjoy the wine. From the first smell of bold, black fruits and creamy mocha notes that fill the nose, one notices that our 2009 People’s Blend is a serious wine. Although not instantly recognizable by varietal, this complex wine exudes dark berry fruits with a hint of juicy blueberry up front, which carries into the mid palate, where white pepper spice and cassis develop. The wine fills the mouth with a melody of fruits as the diverse flavors dance and overtake the palate with pleasure. The finish dives dark and deep with a slight hint of oak tannins that carry through to a long and satisfying finish with a lingering touch of black pepper spice. The People’s Blend can be enjoyed now by itself or with food but definitely tastes best when shared with friends (Alcohol 14.2%).
Winemaker Brian Kane’s Notes
Bryan Kane is partial to French Rhones, which are mostly blended wines, and he has very successfully imitated the technique with his California production. At least to some extent, he blends most of his wines. This one is delicious. My only reservation is that Bryan’s drink-now wines at $25 and under are all closed with screw caps that end up in landfill. Bryan insists that he wants to make a fine wine at a good price, and he’d rather use the best fruit possible and save a bit on corks. Most of his wines are sold either directly to customers or to restaurants, and restaurants encourage the use of easy-to-open screw caps. Ultimately, the market will decide which is best.
Vie 2007 L’Intruse (The Intruder) – Santa Barbara County
Winemaker Brian Kane’s Notes
L’Intruse appears subtle and unobtrusive at first sip but quickly proves itself worthy of your attention. This blend of Mourvedre and Grenache from the Alta Mesa Vineyard with a bit of Syrah from the Thompson and White Hawk Vineyards is a big wine with a long, sustained finish. The Intruder is here to stay. The 2007 L’Intruse exhibits a hint of herbal notes in the nose, common to Mourvedre, and subtle bright rid fruit underneath. On the palate, this wine exhibits blackberry fruit with a hint of truffles on the mid palate, turning darker with a long sustained finish that has underlying red berry fruit. Enjoy this wine with a variety of foods from heavy red meats to barbeque to meats with Asian spices and enjoy over the next five to seven years (Alcohol 14.4%, pH 3.73, Total Acidity 0.66, Case Production 166).
Anna Maria’s Notes
This is a memorable wine, made with indigenous yeasts rather than added yeasts that speed up fermentation. The wine is aged for 18 months in neutral French oak barrels that do not mask fruit flavor as new oak barrels can do. The fruit is harvested from notable vineyards, which Bryan describes as follows: “Thompson Vineyard, Los Alamos Hills, Santa Barbara County: The steep hillsides and south facing exposure of the Thompson Vineyard ensures complete ripeness and produces an amazing concentration, robust dark crimson color, and equally rich flavors…. White Hawk Vineyard, Los Alamos Hills, Santa Barbara County: The White Hawk Vineyard is planted on ancient sand dunes on the south facing slope of Cat Canyon, in Los Alamos Valley, Santa Barbara County. It’s 21 miles west of the Pacific and two miles north of Los Alamos and planted at 900 feet elevation…. Alta Mesa Vineyard, Cuyama Valley, Santa Barbara County: Located in eastern Santa Barbara County in the Cuyama Valley, Alta Mesa Vineyard sits perched at 3200 feet in elevation directly northeast of Cuyama Peak. This vineyard is home to eight acres of Mourvedre and nine and a half acres of Grenache…. There is a massive swing of daily temperatures that is very beneficial to the grapes, most often a 40-50 degree difference between day and night.” Bryan Kane made just 166 cased.
Vie 2007 Syrah – Alder Springs Vineyard, Mendocino County
Winemaker Brian Kane’s Notes
Our Alder Springs Syrah exhibits the cool climate characteristics that Alder Springs Vineyard can exhibit in certain years. The wine has a purple hue common in high-elevation fruit with dark berry fruit and a hint of herbal notes on the nose. The cherry and white pepper flavors on the palate come from a mixture of the Clone 174 from the Emerald Pool block and Clones 383 and 300 from the Spirit Rock block on the vineyard. Very elegant and multi layered in the mouth, this cool climate Syrah has the depth and structure to enjoy over the next seven to eight years. The Alder Springs Vineyard, Mendocino County, is planted on the hillsides in the northern part of the county with southern and eastern exposures at elevations ranging from 1750 to 2700 feet. Alder Springs Vineyard’s warm days and cool nights, combined with micro-climates and outstanding soils, makes it a truly extraordinary site. The vineyard owner, Stuart Bewley, takes great pride in growing the finest grapes possible, utilizing tight vine spacing and low yields to produce tiny berries with a high skin-to-juice ratio, leading to concentrated, dark wines (Alcohol 14%, pH 3.81, Total Acidity 0.65, Case Production 76 cases).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Bryan Kane implemented his blending magic even in this delicious Syrah. He’s blended three different clones and added 3% of white Viognier, known for its intense aroma. The wine is a jewel, and he made just 76 cases.
Vie 2008 Roussanne, Round River Ranch, Lake County
Winemaker Brian Kane’s Notes
Roussanne is one of our favorite alternatives to Chardonnay as it is one of the only varietals that can compare in terms of richness and mouth-feel. Although a completely different flavor profile than the Chardonnay grape, Roussanne provides the full-bodied backbone found commonly in Southern Rhone blends. On its own, Roussanne can be quite special and expressive, showing bright honeysuckle characteristics. The Round River Ranch, located in Bachelor Valley in upper Lake County, provides the perfect environment for this Southern Rhone varietal. Its warm days allow this late ripening varietal to fully develop its flavors while its high elevation and cool nights provide structure and acidity to the wine. Our 2008 Roussanne boasts great structure and full palate weight showing elegance up front with honeysuckle and apricot notes with a clean crisp entry on the palate with mineral notes under luscious round full-mouth caramelizing fruit and balanced acidity, allowing this wine to be enjoyed with or without food. Drink now and within the next three to four years (Alcohol 14.1%, pH 3.52, Total Acidity 0.67, Case production 138).
Anna Maria’s Notes
I first tasted this wine when it was very cold, too cold, yet the aromas bounced up from the glass. Later when it had warmed up a bit, it was even more aromatic. You’ll love this multi-dimensional, rich but crisp white wine. Like most Vie wines, the production for any single one is extremely small.
Menu of the Month
Happy Saint Valentine’s Day
Leek and farro soup with a sprinkle of grated Parmegiano
Broiled lamb chops and baby spinach leaves lightly braised in olive oil and served with lemon wedges
Bittersweet salad with radicchio, dressed with seasoned rice vinegar & olive oil vinaigrette
Recipe of the Month
Bittersweet Salad for Two
Everyone has a different take on Saint Valentine’s Day. If you’re looking for reasons to disparage it, the possibilities are many. But I like the holiday and send good wishes to those who might think it worthy of celebration for any reason whatsoever. Our recipe of the month is adapted from the cookbook Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi, who owns a restaurant in London and writes a vegetarian column for the Guardian. He has his own problems with the holiday. “I don’t usually celebrate Valentine’s Day. This is due to cowardly cynicism, combined with a firm belief that you cannot just create a momentous intimate occasion, especially when millions of other couples are trying to do exactly the same. It just feels a bit claustrophobic. But if you twisted my arm and forced me, I guess I would choose this salad to celebrate the day, representing the more realistic flavors of love, bitter and sweet.” The theme of the salad is the color red. The leaves are bitter, so Ottolenghi makes an elaborately sweet dressing to balance the flavors. I have a simple version of his beautiful salad.
2 blood oranges (or plain ones)
1/2 small radicchio (the round head)
1 small Treviso (the elongated variety of radicchio)
Handful of small red leaves (such as red chard, purple basil, the red part of red leaf lettuce, or any other red leaf you can find)
1/4 red onion finely sliced
½ cup good-quality ricotta
2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
Seeds from 1 small pomegranate
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1.5 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar
Sea salt to taste
Take each of the blood oranges in turn and use a small sharp knife to slice off the top and base. Now cut down the side of the orange, following its natural curve, to remove the skin and white pith. Cut in between the membranes to remove the individual segments, and set apart. To remove pomegranate seeds, cut the pomegranate into two horizontally. Hold one half over a bowl, with the cut side against your palm, and use the back of a wooden spoon or a rolling pin to gently knock on the pomegranate skin. Continue beating with increasing power until the seeds start coming out naturally and falling through your fingers into the bowl. Sift through the seeds to remove any bits of white skin or membrane. Pull apart the radicchio leaves, tear them roughly into large pieces and put into a mixing bowl. Add the Treviso leaves and onions. Add the dressing and toss gently. Divide the salad leaves between two serving plates. Dot with the orange segments, small red leaves, and spoonfuls of ricotta, building the salad up. Finish with pine nuts and pomegranate seeds.