SF Chronicle: Wine Country in The City: Making Pinot Noir in heart of S.F.

Alemany

By Jon Bonné

I heard about Elly Hartshorn the way you hear aboutwine projects these days: on Instagram.

It made sense that people were drawn to her story. Young woman plants community nonprofit vineyard. In one of the city’s poorer areas. Finds volunteers. Makes wine to fund the project. Designs her own canvas labels.

At the same time, the whole thing felt a little over-the-top DIY, so moonbeam. It was too San Francisco to be true.

Except it was true, probably because Hartshorn has never let anyone’s skepticism stop her, and she’s the first to acknowledge that she has become a poster child for the improbable. How else would you get away with planting Pinot Noir on an unused bit of public land adjacent to the community garden at Alemany Farm, at the foot of Bernal Heights?

“I mean, pretty crazy, right?” she says.

You do it by understanding San Francisco’s long, if not thriving, history with vineyards. Across two centuries, the city has attempted on occasion to grow vines and make wine among the seven hills. Over the course of several conversations, I realized the extent to which Hartshorn is a careful scholar of that, and of California’s wine history.

Neighborhood Vineyards, which Hartshorn, 33, founded with her longtime friend Jenny Sargent, has a very specific purpose, however, and it isn’t making wine. By tending vines in the city, they hope to teach urbanites that behind each bottle is a hard agricultural reality.

This is a crucial lesson in the San Francisco of today, which loves to fetishize wine and is also obsessed with urban agriculture. Doubly so, because of the city’s current set of Fantasyland economics.

“I don’t think there’s any other city in the world where I could have taken on a project like this,” Hartshorn says.

San Francisco’s luck with vineyards, candidly, hasn’t been good. Its 19th century plantings all vanished. Recent efforts, like Pinot Noir planted a few years back by Bryan Harrington, who makes wine in the Islais Creek area south of Cesar Chavez Street, haven’t fared much better.

Hartshorn believes this time will be different.

For one thing, she has a serious support base — not hippies and freegans but serious wine types with no illusions about the industry’s many hangers-on. Her years running a wine marketing firm in San Luis Obispo gave her a deep network of vintners who owe her favors. One wrote me that Hartshorn was “one of the most charming women” she had ever met.

And while good wishes and moonbeams won’t buy you a Mission burrito these days, Hartshorn also runs a successful for-profit business, Sidekick Delivery, a Bay Area service for small wineries and breweries.

Which is why, one June day, I found myself walking through dense rows of headstaked Pinot vines on an otherwise weedy hill just west of the Alemany Farmers’ Market, squeezed above a block of public housing and below a row of modern Bernal Heights townhomes. Hartshorn set out an old knit blanket and poured me a glass of Albariño.

Her vineyard dreams began in France, where she went in 2009 with hopes of becoming a cheesemaker. That plan fizzled, not least because she realized her social life in rural France mostly involved playing petanque with septuagenarians.

After some wine marketing work in France, she returned to California in 2012, but not before she had visited Clos Montmartre, the tiny vineyard planted on Paris’ outskirts. Hartshorn loved the notion of thousands of Parisians coming to help with the mostly symbolic harvest. It wasn’t about the wine; it was an affirmation of wine’s cultural importance. Could San Francisco, as much a spiritual wine capital as Paris, have something similar?

She’d begun volunteering in the garden at Alemany Farm and one day struck up a conversation about her vineyard ideas with another volunteer — the wife, it turned out, of San Francisco Rec & Park general manager Phil Ginsburg. Hartshorn and Sargent (who has since retired from the project) began drawing up plans to present to the city.

“They were very serious,” Ginsburg recalls. “I remember them coming in and talking to me about the project. They were lively and gregarious, but they’re clearly thoughtful and experienced horticulturists and vintners.”

Sort of. Hartshorn wasn’t a winemaker, but she had grown up around vineyards. Her family split its time between rural Bishop (Inyo County) and Lake County, where they grew grapes for several major wine companies, including Robert Mondavi and Kendall Jackson.

She landed at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo for a degree in mechanical engineering, which was her uncle’s trade. Cal Poly offered wine courses, which she took “in case I needed to take clients out to dinner.” She took a marketing job at Edna Valley Vineyards, which led to an offer to be marketing director at nearby Laetitia Vineyards. She began the week after graduation.

With one of her former interns, Josh McFadden, she started Proof Wine Marketing, which became the Central Coast’s specialist in a sort of postmodern wine branding. Hartshorn taught herself graphic design, and soon Proof was drafting eye-catching labels for wineries like Folkway and Sans Liege. Then she left for France.

Just how feasible would a vineyard be? Hartshorn spent hours at libraries researching city history and studying the essential but little-known work of Eugene Hilgard, the 19th century soil scientist whose viticultural reports documented the success (or failure) of most of the world’s wine grape varieties in California soils. She discovered where vines had been planted in 1800s San Francisco and read up on the bustling South of Market wine trade, most of it wiped out by the 1906 earthquake and fire.

By 2013, Hartshorn and Sargent were ready to plant. Ginsburg, a strong advocate of the city’s urban agriculture efforts, offered a bit of hillside next to Alemany Farm, which the women planted that July all Pinot Noir, which suits the city’s generally cool and often foggy climate. (There’s actually less concern in San Francisco about ample sun than about winter vine dormancy. Vines, like most other fruit-bearing plants, need a period of rest in the winter; if it doesn’t get cold enough, they can’t properly restart their growing cycle.) Vines were donated by Andrew Jones of Paso Robles’ Field Recordings label, which Proof helped to launch. Jones had secured the baby plants via his day job as a vine nurseryman.

Other vineyards can be found inside city limits. There’s a private plot near Cow Hollow, for instance. But Neighborhood’s is the only one whose mission is to teach. Volunteers work the vines each month, usually with a lesson from a guest winemaker or viticulturist.

It’s also a novel use of a throwaway bit of land, something that resonated with Ginsburg and city officials. Putting a trial plot in one of the city’s more economically barren areas? Another bit of insurance to ensure that vine tending doesn’t become like, say, the city’s chicken husbandry — for many, more a hobby than a necessity. It is an opportunity, as Ginsburg puts it, “to teach folks who may never have the opportunity to be on a vineyard in Napa or Sonoma to see what viticulture is like in the gritty streets of San Francisco.”

Which isn’t to say vines are a perfect match for Alemany. Grape bunches have been taken repeatedly. Rather than fence in the plot, Hartshorn decided to plant vines for table grapes near the garden’s perimeter, easily pickable by nearby residents.

And the wine? Hartshorn’s plot won’t yield much, if any. Maybe a single barrel, more likely a few gallons. Her hope is that other parcels will add to the “city cuvée” she wants to make. She’s working with Rec & Park to find more slivers of unused land, perhaps in Golden Gate Park’s community garden or the Glen Park green belt. But there never will be more than a few cases. Of course, in a city of have-everythings, nothing appeals like the unattainable, which is precisely what Hartshorn wants to avoid.

“The point of this project is not to be elite,” Hartshorn says, “and I’m a little worried that if I have a barrel of wine, everyone’s going to be fighting over it.”

To avoid that temptation, and to help fund the project, she crafted additional wine under the Neighborhood Vineyards label with grapes from her winemaker friends, and has released at least four bottlings. Again, my skeptic hackles went up, but the wines are superb examples of type. In addition to that Albariño there’s a Cabernet Franc and two Pinot Noirs (Field Recordings’ Jones helps her make one), including a cuvée called Ruinenlust from a plot near Hearst Castle.

Each wine is adorned with a canvas label with a drawing by Hartshorn. One Pinot Noir displays a stylized map of the city’s 19th century vineyard plots; the Ruinenlust sports an interpretation of Turkish kilim rugs. In Hartshorn’s head, the way we fetishize collectibles like the kilim is no different than the way we fetishize grapes like Pinot Noir — European plants that have been appropriated for Californian purposes. “We just steal things, bring them over, put them in the ground and call them our own,” Hartshorn says.

Not the most romantic thought, perhaps, from someone whose plans can sound downright fanciful. But it’s also a reminder that this most San Franciscan of projects has a very clear-eyed mission.

Jon Bonné, former wine editor of The Chronicle, is a contributing editor.

How to help

Volunteer sessions are typically held one Saturday per month at Alemany Farm, 700 Alemany Blvd. The next will be 1-3 p.m. Aug. 15, with guest winemaker Jeff Fink of Tantara. Sign up at www.neighborhoodvineyards.org.

The wines

Neighborhood Vineyards makes several wines from Central Coast properties, sold through its website and in local shops. They are priced to be “the cheapest I think you can make real California wine for,” Hartshorn says — which is to say the spendiest Pinot Noir tops out at $30.

A sampling

2014 Silt & Strata Central Coast Albariño ($16, 13.5%): From a parcel near Edna Valley and named for San Francisco’s soils. Just a bit salty, with ripe peach and a classic, fresh texture.

2012 Ruinenlust Enchanted Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir ($30, 13.8%): From a plot near San Simeon. The right mix of ripe plum, spicy caraway and the pleasant herbal twinge from using whole grape clusters. A serious coastal Pinot.

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