Mapping San Francisco's Microclimates With Wine Grown in the City

When you think of wine, you probably don't think of an urban farm wedged between public housing projects. But a pair of devoted viticulturists have upped the game in local winemaking, planting San Francisco's first vineyard since the 1906 earthquake. What will the terroir of a city built on sand and landfill be like?

We won't know the exact answer for another two years, when, in 2016, the first bottle of pinot grown from grapes in San Francisco's Bernal Heights is ready to drink. If we had better historical records, we might have a clue. Small vineyards once dotted San Francisco's hills before fire ravaged the city after the 1906 earthquake. Only now have winemakers finally returned.


But we might have a guess to the city's terroir. Winemakers Elly Hartshorn and Jenny Sargent suggest to the San Francisco Examiner that the city's wines might resemble those of the nearby Sonoma Coast or perhaps the Santa Cruz Mountains—or even the hills of Derbyshire, England. San Francisco's silica-heavy chert does present a challenge for wine grapes. The winemakers have chosen the pinot noir as their test species because it can grow in the cool, sandy areas that other varietals might not tolerate.

There's a reason—actually plenty of reasons—that backyard winemaking hasn't taken off the way homebrewing has. Chief among them is that growing grapes for good wine is hard. As WineMaker Magazine cautions in its long list of reasons why backyard viticulture may go wrong, municipal water has chlorine and fluoride, the soil may be contaminated, mildew will wreck your grapes, densely planted vines are bad, and on and on.

"Producing fine wine from an urban or suburban environment is a miracle unto itself, like winning the Triple Crown on a draft horse," it sums up.


(I should add I have some experience with this, because my father once decided to make wine from mystery grapes that were growing by the busy street next to our side yard. It tasted like rubbing alcohol cut with Welch's purple grape juice. Granted, it was also made in an old tomato sauce jar in our fridge—so I have higher hopes for real winemakers.)

However, if there's any city whose terroir would at least be interesting to explore, it would be San Francisco with its numerous microclimates and submicroclimates. That's the idea behind the the duo's larger Neighborhood Vineyards project, which aims to map the terroir of the city. How will wine from the foggy hills of the Outer Richmond taste like? Or the flat sunny expanses of the Mission?


I'm reminded of David Gissen's "Metro Wine Map of France," which plots the relationship between geography and wine using the familiar visual language of subways maps. With enough neighborhood vineyards, a MUNI map might be reimagined to represent the terroir of San Francisco. [SF Examiner]


Top image: Natalia Davydenko/Shutterstock

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