Let’s rewind to 2015. Simpler times.
We’re walkin’ round the block to Chris Brockway’s winery in Berkeley, California, our first impression is concrete. Then power lines. Then aluminum siding. Certainly throws into sharp relief the notion most people have of wine. Our interest is piqued. Not a lick of pastoral landscape here.
Inside, we find a man who is by turns relaxed and irreverent, greeting us with a Midwestern drawl, like a retired cowboy who’s found his next craft. Just the sort of guy you’d want to knock back some beers with.
But Chris is far from retired.
He’s simply gotten pretty damn good at learnin’ how to lasso grapes into wine.
ON GETTING YOUR HANDS DIRTY
Glou Glou: You’re not born into this. What motivates a young person such as yourself to come to California to make wine?
Chris: There were a couple reasons. First of all, I was a philosophy major. That right there, you’re either going to be a lawyer, teacher, a chef or a winemaker. I was getting ready to graduate soon, and I was like, what the hell do you do with a philosophy degree? Somebody said, well you talk about wine all the friggin’ time, why don’t you become a winemaker, and I was like, I can’t do that! I live in Nebraska. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.
But I always had a passion. Some people collect football cards. I had a collection of my stepfather’s bottles I always liked lining up.
And then it kinda stuck with me for a little while. I was like, wait a minute, why don’t I just go do that. I packed up the car and was like I’m getting out of this town.
Glou Glou: This one horse town.
Chris: Yeah yeah and, you know, this town with all the bad beer.
Glou Glou: And all the cows.
Chris: Yeah and I drove out to Davis. That was ‘97. So a while ago.
I wanted to get my hands dirty. I wanted to be a California winemaker. Because living in the US, that seemed like where you’d wanna go. I was always kinda interested in older vine style, so I was drinking a lot of old vine Zinfandel, and things like that. Before things got super ripe.
Chris: When I came out of school it was the heyday of big wines. You pick it ripe and adjust it down after, was what I learned working with other people. But now I’m like, school wasn’t that ridiculous because we were taught to pick when it’s healthy.
Glou Glou: How do you know the moment when it’s healthy?
Chris: Well you just don’t let it become desiccated. You don’t let stuff become shriveled up by the sun. And, you know, there’s no nutrients left in the vine or the grapes. You pick it a little earlier when it’s happy and still growing, not when it’s kind of fading.
Glou Glou: Does everyone kind of have their own definition of when something’s ripe? How much of an art is it versus a science?
Chris: It depends on what you’re trying to do. That mindset that was still around in 2002—you know, get it off the vine when it’s happy and healthy—is completely gone. This bigger wine mindset is now the norm and I’m kind of the opposite of that.
ON URBAN WINE
Glou Glou: Where did you make your first wine? Was it in your own winery or someone else’s?
Chris: No, I made my first wine in a basement. When I was going to school I moved down to Los Angeles for a little bit cus I ran out of money.
Glou Glou: Is that what people do, when they run out of money? They go to LA?
Chris: Yeah, you know, I better go to LA, I’m outta cash [laughs]. No, I was working, editing really bad TV shows, stuff like that. Mostly things nobody’s ever seen for a good reason. So to build up enough cash to go back to school I lived in a place that kind of had a basement. Which is very unusual for Los Angeles.
So I made my first wine down there. Some grapes from Paso Robles. Made like a half a ton or something like that.
Glou Glou: How’d it turn out?
Chris: Uhh, it turned out poorly [chuckles]. It was alright for a little while but I used to kinda top off the barrel with whatever I was drinking—
Glou Glou: ...whiskey...
Chris: Yeah, like a little bit for your homies kind of thing. So basically that barrel ended up being every wine that I drank. One barrel with multiple flaws from a hundred wines. A lot of history. So yeah, I learned my first lesson. After that, I didn’t make wine until I started working professionally. I took a couple years off, and moved straight up into the Bay Area. Worked for a winery over in Alameda, never really left the city environment.
Glou Glou: So many people have this pastoral idea of winemaking, especially of winemakers. That’s their environment. How has being in an urban environment affected your winemaking?
Chris: Quite a bit, I think especially being in the Bay Area where there’s a style of food. The Chez Panisse effect—fresh ingredients sourced from this place, that place, with everything at its ideal peak. But simply prepared.
On the dessert list at Chez Panisse it’s, like, a bowl of tangerines. Literally four tangerines in a bowl. I don’t know what the price was. That might be going to the extreme.
Glou Glou: Was it the best tangerine you’ve ever had?
Chris: Yeah, you know it peeled perfectly and there was something very rewarding about that. Now what you see, whether it’s in San Francisco, or in the East Bay, are all these offshoots, so now that’s the general cuisine. With that in mind, the wine that you have with that kind of food changes as well. Lighter wines, wines with good acid that aren’t going to overpower a lot of the simply prepared food that you see around here. You have importers like Dressner and Rosenthal and obviously Kermit Lynch, and those wines go with a lot of that food, but there wasn’t a lot of local wine, or whatever you want to call it. The things they’re making in the wine regions around here didn’t match what was being prepared here.
So I wanted to have something. This is California, right?! We did this almost 30-40 years ago. Things were not always 15% alcohol. Things were more table wines in the best sense of the word.
Glou Glou: So it was a cultural decision.
Chris: Mmhm. Yeah, and so I became disillusioned with the style of winemaking that I was taught. And just decided to start over on my own. I was like, even if I’m not going to be able to sell any of my own wine, I better just make something I like. In case I have to drink it. That kind of cliché.
That was around the time that I first heard about the natural wine thing, where there was a name but it wasn’t real to me. And then Terroir [in San Francisco] opened up. I was kinda like, oh my God, what is this place?
I would go in there almost every night and there was always something new. Pineau d’aunis rosé! And I was like, what’s Pineau d’aunis…
Chris: I think being here in the Bay Area had a very strong influence on what I do.
So that’s what made it kinda fun. A handful of producers have cropped up, like La Clarine up in the Sierra Foothills, Donkey & Goat, which is right here.
Slowly things have been changing. My whole thing is I wanted to do a younger, fresher style of wine that matched the food where I live—something that’s fun to drink and I wouldn’t be embarrassed to pour for my friends.
—Berkeley, CA. April 2, 2015