Three Urban Wineries Making Some of California’s Best Natural Wines
French oak barrels are stacked high around vats filled with plump, indigo grapes that barefoot workers stomp into must. Crush season has arrived—that time of year when grapes have reached prime acidity and optimal sweetness—and eager winemakers hurry their harvest to the winery for stomping, pressing, fermentation, and bottling.
But this is not a chateau in France or even a vineyard in Napa—this is a warehouse in Berkeley owned by Donkey & Goat, one of many urban wineries that have cropped up in the Bay Area.
“It smells delicious,” Donkey & Goat co-owner Tracey Brandt says of the start of crush season in the winery.
Just behind them, at neighboring Windchaser Wine, owner Dave Gifford is also beginning his winemaking and feels the same way. “The smell in the winery is just fantastic,” he says. “Somebody the other day was in the winery in the tasting room and walked past a couple of barrels…and she just swore it smelled like blueberry muffins.”
While the sight of workers sorting verdant stems and leaves from batches of lush grapes dripping with juice might seem romantic, Brandt admits the process isn’t always picture perfect. “Making wine is not without generating lots of mess, lots of water, lots of sticky things.”
But pour a glass of their Gadabout White, with its stone fruit flavors and crisp acidity, and we think you’ll agree it’s worth the mess to get it here.
If Grapes Could Talk: The Benefits of Natural Wine
Donkey & Goat, Windchaser Wines, and Broc Cellars all occupy one block of the Gilman District of Berkeley, between Fourth and Fifth streets. These urban wineries pride themselves on making low-intervention wine from local Californian grapes, producing what some would call “natural wines.” While the definition of the term is hotly contested—and Gifford steers clear of it, preferring “handmade” or “minimal intervention”—the goal is the same: intervene in the winemaking process only when necessary, using as few ingredients as possible.
Or, as Bridget Leary of Broc Cellars puts it: “It's really letting the grapes speak for themselves.”
If natural winemaking means minimal intervention, you might be wondering: How is wine typically made, then? In reality, the wine you buy at an average grocery store is probably made with many steps and additives: fining and filtering the wine to improve clarity, adding cultured yeasts to control fermentation, or mixing in enzymes to manipulate color.
But natural wineries prefer to work with only two ingredients: grapes and, as needed, sulfur (to inhibit unwanted bacterial growth and prevent oxidation).
The result? Wine that is lower in alcohol content, easier on the wallet, and more accessible to consumers of all backgrounds.
“I want wine to be less intimidating for people,” says Gifford, who prefers to play punk rock rather than chamber music in his tasting room. “I think that the industry enjoys the intimidation factor in wine.”
“We try to keep it really honest in terms of pricing” adds Leary, whose natural wines sell for a modest $20 a bottle. “It's not for a certain class or whatnot.”
Taste the Difference: How to Pair Wines from Broc Cellars, Windchaser Wine, and Donkey & Goat
With higher acid and lower alcohol, Broc Cellars’ wine draws inspiration from restaurants such as the award-winning Chez Panisse. So it’s no surprise when Leary says: “You want to sit down and pair [our wines] with food, and really enjoy them while eating.” She recommends sipping their sparkling Chenin Blanc—made in a pét-nat style that infuses “energetic force” into the wine—with seafood, salad, or even a simple spread of cheese and bread.
For a medium-bodied red wine, try Windchaser’s Grenache, which tastes of ripe red fruit and berries with a hint of earthiness. It’s the perfect pairing for roasted mushrooms or lamb chops, with a light color that’s a result of Gifford’s minimal intervention philosophy: “Instead of doing anything to manipulate that and kind of fix it to make it more what people expect,” explains Gifford, “I bottle it the way it is and talk about it with people, and they seem to really like that honest approach to winemaking.”
If you’re looking for a red wine you can stick in the fridge, opt for Donkey & Goat’s Twinkle Mourvèdre. This “quintessential chillable red wine” will surprise you with its lightness. “We're purposely trying to make a lively kind of light- to medium-bodied red wine that we prefer to serve chilled,” says Brandt, who likes to pair Twinkle with a flavorful shrimp and chorizo dish.
Embrace the Unexpected: There’s More to the Bottle Than Meets the Eye
From sustainably farmed vineyards in Mendocino to oak barrels in a warehouse in Berkeley, Donkey & Goat and its neighboring urban wineries are bringing a unique California twist to the age-old tradition of winemaking. And if it’s not in the setting you expected, that’s a good thing.
“I think that too many traditional California wineries are trying to be some chateau in Bordeaux or some kind of crazy villa in Italy,” says Gifford. “We should really just be proud of California and making great California wine.”