Wine grapes are hitting the road and making their way from chateaus to the city.
“It’s an easier way to start a winery off,” said Ryan Carr, chair of the Santa Barbara County Wine Trail. “We’re not coming from large bankrolls to make our wine.”
There are six urban wineries along the Santa Barbara County Urban Wine Trail, and they’re among a growing group of urban wineries popping up in cities from Seattle to Austin.
“In my view, the urban winery model is catching on because it wipes away so many barriers of entry into wine production as we previously understood it,” said Ross McLauchlan. “For instance, I’m a 25-year old, with Italian wine roots, but no immediate living family involved in the business, and am not a heir to any fortune.”
McLauchlan owns the Austin Winery, one of Texas’ first urban wineries, set to open his doors in May 2014.
“I think there’s a perception somehow that it is cheaper to have an urban winery,” said Laurie Lewis, president of the Portland Urban Wine Association in Portland, Ore.
Carr says it’s common for smaller wineries, like urban operations, to share resources, borrowing tanks and other winemaking supplies from neighboring wineries. Portland’s urban wineries also enjoy being close – in proximity and friendship – to fellow urban wineries.
“If somebody runs out of filter pads, you can just run to your neighbor’s,” Lewis said.
With city dwelling, however, come city prices. One of the biggest concerns among urban operations is the cost of land and facilities, which is more expensive in cities.
Some urban operations have found ways to deter higher prices by opting to share facilities.
Portland’s Southeast Wine Collective has eight different member wineries, According to co-owner Kate Monroe, the harvest months can be quite busy and require lots of patience. Monroe and her husband also own Division Winemaking Company, and produce their own wine in the collective’s space.
“There’s a beautiful camaraderie and community here,” Monroe said. “We’re all in this together.”
Many wineries – urban or rural — chose to buy their grapes from vineyards instead of growing their own.
“Nobody goes to breweries and says, ‘Where are your hops from?’” said McLauchlan.
The Austin Winery trucks in grapes from well-known regions in California, including from the Napa, Sonoma and Russian River Valleys – and it’s the ability to hand-pick the grapes that draws many urban wineries to set up shop in larger cities.
“When you’re buying, you can be more selective,” McLauchlan said.
Paul Beveridge started making wine in his garage in Seattle, Wash., and then branched out to first still-operating urban winery, Wilridge Winery. Eight years ago, he planted a vineyard on the other side of the state, but still opts to purchase some grapes.
“A vineyard – that’s a big commitment,” Beveridge said.
Weather and disease are always concerns of winegrowers, and wreak havoc on a vintage. Getting a bad crop is another constant worry. But by purchasing grapes, he says, “you can always say no.”
Another plus is the mobility.
Winemakers “can basically have their winery anywhere,” Carr said.
There is a cost to ditching the vineyard: transporting the grapes to the winery. Grape delivery costs vary from vineyard to vineyard; some include it in the cost of the grapes, and others charge extra for it. According to McLauchlan, it can cost anywhere between $3,000 and $5,000 to transport one semi-truck load from California to Texas.
And the grapes themselves aren’t cheap. In 2013, grape prices hit a high mark, but are projected to go down this year, according to Silicon Valley Bank’s 2014 State of the Wine Industry Report.
But by letting “the grapes do the commuting” as Lewis says, urban wineries increase their proximity to consumers.
“A big city is a great place to have a tasting room,” Beveridge said.
In cities like Portland, where public transportation and cycling are popular, many people never make it out to the winegrowing regions of the state.
And it’s paying off to be close to the customers. Direct-to-consumer sales are expected to continue as “the largest growth channel for most wineries” this year, according to the State of the Wine Industry Report.
“We want to be really accessible,” McLauchlan said. “We want to be reverent and respectful [to traditional wineries] but also new and approachable.”