Posted by: acooksca | 04/03/2009

San Francisco’s Urban Winery

They provide winemaking expertise, source exceptional grapes for you, crush, and ferment then age your barrel of stu-at-crushpad-1a1wine. You can be a part of every decision (such as what yeasts to use) or you can let them use their extensive wine making backgrounds to make you look really good. Who are these guys?

Crushpad in San Francisco has a brilliant concept: amass a knowledgeable wine making team and assist fledgling wine makers in producing their personal vintage. I heard about Crushpad from a colleague who went to work there at the beginning of this year’s harvest. Then I started noticing articles that raved about Crushpad. I had to see how they managed this.

We found a discreet door at 2575 Third Street in an industrial warehouse area of San Francisco. Stepping in we were immersed in the heady scent of grapes fermenting and the hum of winery activity. To our left lab techs were analyzing graduated beakers of wine. In the background we saw a forklift dumping a one-ton bin of fermented grapes into gravity operated extractor.

Stuart Ake bounded forward with an enthusiastic welcome and we were whisked into his highly technical world of wine. “We invite all our clients to drop in as much as they can. You really learn the most by being hands on. We think of it in the spirit of ‘come over to our place and play!’ Some people are down here at 5:30 in the morning during the crush to be a part of that. Some, who are out of state, take their family vacation in San Francisco to be here during crucial decision making times.”

Are many of your clients at distance I asked Stu.  “Oh yes. See that fellow there, talking to one of our winemakers? He is a businessman from the East Coast. He comes out a lot. This is his chance to get his hands dirty and see if he really likes the lifestyle before he becomes a full-time winemaker.”

“With our live web-cams we can show clients their vat of wine as it ferments, for example. We have a few clients in Japan who see this as their opportunity to make wine in California. When the fruit comes in we hold up batches to the camera and they can tell us which fruit they prefer.” He explained that some of these distance clients are  hobbyists and some were making wine for their own restaurants.

While most wineries produce 6 to 8 wines in a vintage Crushpad produces 500-600 small lot wines each year. They do this while nurturing hundreds of novice winemakers. “We are the most logistically challenged winery in the world. You just missed the intensity of the harvest. During the two months around September and October we have all these people, equipment and fruit which we orchestrate into an industrial ballet.”

You are always welcome at the winery to sniff your Chardonnay as it cold ferments or run your hands through the cap of fermenting Petite Syrah grapes as it bubbles at 91 degrees. We did just that at one of the many T-tanks (one ton of fruit and juice tanks). “Everyday the winemaker checks for the punch-down (of the cap) and to see how the fermentation is going. Then we e-mail the client about his vat. It lifts the veil to Oz… keeps the process transparent so the client can be as involved as they like. It’s all about customer service.”

Well, not all. Crushpad is a state-of-the-art winery facility. It is manned by a large staff of wine professionals who guide you toward a great product. As we toured the rooms of barrels ageing gracefully in racks Stu rattled off names of famous vineyards where the fruit grew. I asked how they had access to such superior sources. “It is all about relationships that our five winemakers have cultivated over the years with individual growers. We buy from growers that farm for ultra-premium wines.”

The educational opportunity at Crushpad was very impressive. Making a barrel of wine under their tutelage is worth years of wine-making school. “While anyone can smash some grapes and just see what comes up, our clients want to make wines that are complex, concentrated and age with grace. Getting there requires a whole bunch of decisions – some of them are small, but every one is important.”

Stu handed us the 2007 Crushpad 30, a list of 30 winemaking decisions to help define the style of wine a client wants to make. This list walks the client through each step of the winemaking process and provides a plan for the winery to help achieve their goal. As always… help is right there.

Stu also handed us the Crushpad Yeast Companion, an easy to follow briefing on what yeasts you should consider for your specific varietal and why. The Crushpad barrel companion explains who coopers specific barrels and what characteristics they would impart into your wine. Crushpad has innovated a Zebra-barrel. This is a barrel made of alternating new and used oak staves, an ingenious answer to imparting the style of two types of barrels.

And what happens to your barrel when it is ready to bottle? Crushpad will bottle, cellar, label, pack, and ship for you. The company license allows wines made in the Crushpad winery to be sold so a client can try his luck at selling his own wine. “About 1/3 our clients are individuals or a small group that make 1 or 2 barrels a year. About 1/3 make 2 to 5 barrels a year. The rest are higher production with one guy making 48 barrels last year!” Stu told us.

Stu proudly introduced a new creation, the Crushpad Fusebox. This home kit comes with eight 375ml sized bottles of various Crushpad produced varietal wines, recipes, pipettes and graduated cylinders for you to make your own wine blend. “The original intent was for folks to blend then order a barrel or a case from our stock to their specifications. We aren’t there yet, the Fusebox just came in today!” For the $120 cost we thought this was an excellent educational tool for anyone interested in gaining knowledge of varietal characteristics and how blending works.

February is the slow season and there will be educational evenings for the general public at Crushpad. Whether you plan to make a vintage of your own or just to have some fun understanding what that dream might take, this is worth checking into.

Call Crushpad at 415-864-4232 or see their site at

Originally published in Farmstead Cheese News by Karen Bolla, edited for A Cook’s California (A Cook’s CA)  by Karen Bolla.


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