Red Wine District
By: Mark Lukach, Photos by Orange Photography, Designed by Nick Navarro
This story is brought to you by the great people over at the Bold Italic. The Bold Italic is an online magazine, shop, and events hub in San Francisco. We celebrate the free-wheeling spirit of the city.
“Listen, we gotta get on the roof real quick.” That’s how Chris Nelson greets me when I arrive at the Bluxome Street Winery in SOMA to help him make wine. We jump in an electric platform lift that is on the sidewalk, and start to go up, and suddenly realize there are some newly installed decorative lights right above us. We scratch our heads, and then Chris concedes defeat. “Alright, we’ll get to the roof later. But this is a good lesson about the wine industry. If you can’t improvise in this business, you’re screwed.”
Chris Nelson is the winemaker for Bluxome Street Winery, which he runs with the president and founder, Matt Reidy. The two are seasoned veterans from the wine industry, and are basically polar opposites. Chris is scruffy and curses a lot through his mumbled New Orleans accent. Matt wears nice suits and articulates clearly, and with pride, about being a fourth generation San Franciscan.
What brings them together is that they both love wine, which is why they have opened the first new winery in downtown San Francisco in over 100 years. I’m not talking about a wine bar, or a mere tasting room. I’m talking about a full-fledged winery, with barrels, presses, and grapes. In the heart of the city, only 4 blocks from AT&T Park.
A quick history lesson, since I used to be a history teacher: back in 1906, there were around 70 registered wineries in the city. While the grapes were grown in Sonoma and Napa, they were brought down to the city for production, sale, and distribution. As W. Blake Gray wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006, “In 1906, San Francisco was Wine Country… it was to wine what Hollywood is now to the movie industry.”
Most of the wineries were centered in the industrial portion of the city, in the neighborhood known then as South of the Slot (the cable car tracks that ran down Market Street). The SOMA that we know today used to be abuzz with gruff immigrants who worked in factories, but also in wineries. That all changed with the 1906 earthquake, which burned them to the ground. They slowly re-built, but were dealt another blow with the advent of Prohibition. Eventually, it made more sense for the wineries to be located near the source of the grapes, so wine-making in San Francisco was essentially dead.
There are a few other wineries that operate in tucked away corners of the city, but Matt and Chris are not seeking to merely open a winery anywhere in the city. They want to resurrect the historic wine district of San Francisco. “It took us 2 years of hunting to find this location,” Matt explains to me. “And I did my research.” He whips out a photocopy of a page from the 1905 San Francisco business directory, back when businesses had phone numbers that were only 3 digits. “From my guess, about 50 wineries used to be located within a 6 block radius of where we sit.” As such, Bluxome Street Winery, which has a tasting room, event space, and of course, facilities for making wine, is downtown’s return to wine-making.
One of the coolest parts of the experience is that the tasting room is encased in huge windows that open to the wine making that takes place the next room, so as you drink, you can watch Chris and his crew in action. In fact, the night before I came to visit, a dozen women who were doing a tasting became so intrigued by the wine making that they actually ended up pitching in for a few hours of work, something that Matt and Chris encourage.
I’m eager to get my hands dirty myself. Punch downs are one of the more labor intensive parts of making wine: you take a steel pole with a large square at the end and punch the flat end of the pole into a vat of grapes. This way, you get rid of the CO2 that builds up from the fermentation and prevent the top layer of grapes from rotting. The grapes are stored in huge plastic vats, sorted by clone and farm source and date. All of them need to be punched down, a couple of times a day, for about 2 weeks. So we punch down, and let me tell you, it’s not exactly easy labor.
Chris likes to work by feel, and is prone to sticking his arm up to his elbow into the vats in between punch downs, in order to feel the temperature of the fermentation and to soak in the smell. He’s a trained chemist as well as a wine-maker, which Matt thinks is one of his strengths. “It lets him look at wine-making as a balance of science and art.” I follow Chris’ lead and jam my own arm into the grapes, and am surprised by how hot the broths get just by natural fermentation.
So another disclaimer here. I’m not much of a wine drinker. My knowledge of wine is, how do I put this… limited. How limited? Sort of like how a virgin’s knowledge of sex is limited. So when I arrange to come out and visit Chris and help him make wine, I know he’s going to want me to taste it, which has me pretty nervous. Nervous to drink wine in the first place, but most of all, nervous about looking and sounding like a complete idiot. Thankfully, my ignorance of wine is not an obstacle for Chris. The ethos at Bluxome Street Winery simple: drink what you like, and like what you drink.
Just because his palate is refined and experienced, he doesn’t expect that everyone else will be equally equipped. My tastes are mine, and he’s ok with that. We start with the whites – a Chardonnay, a Gewurtztraminer, and a Sauvignon Blanc, all from 2010 – and although I can’t keep up with Chris’ references to French and New Zealand styles of growing, I just keep falling back on his mantra: drink what you like, and like what you drink. I like the Chardonnay, and I really like the Sav Blanc, which has a tropical flavor to it, sort of like pineapple.
The Pinot is harder for me. I have the palate of a nine-year old boy, utterly devoid of any finery, and so I have a tough time distinguishing between the Russian River Pinot, which is a blend of 5 vineyards, and the Thornridge Pinot, which comes from just one farm. But again, I like them. I especially like how the pinots fill my entire mouth with taste, like no taste bud can escape the flavors of the wine. “We shoot for elegance and balance,” Chris says as we sip. But most of all, we want our wines to be something anyone can enjoy.”
If even I can enjoy the wines at Bluxome Street Winery, as the lowest common denominator of wine knowledge, they have obviously mastered one side of the spectrum. On the other hand, it’s clear that Chris and Matt, who have earned 95-point reviews from Wine Spectator in the past, can rumble with the big boys, too. They are bursting with pride to share their wines with the wine world at large.
The fact that Matt and Chris are creating an urban wine experience at the Bluxome Street Winery is exciting. But it’s even cooler that San Francisco’s historic wine district, located South of the Slot, where foot traffic is heavy, and food trucks can (and do!) pull right up to the doorway for pairings, is back in business.
Bluxome Street Winery is located at 53 Bluxome Street, an alley between Brannan and Townsend. Their tasting room is open Tuesday through Sunday, noon-7pm. Throughout the winter, Chris and his crew of workers will be busy sifting through barrels to test the wines as they evolve. So if you stop by for a wine tasting, you’re likely to see Chris at work. Don’t forget, it’s also an event space, so if you’re interested in using the winery for an event, contact them through their website.
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