Concrete warehouse buildings and barbed-wire fencing may not be things you typically associate with wineries, but with the renewal of urban wineries in places such as Portland, the Bay Area, or Paso Robles, they have become fairly common. Broc Cellars in Berkeley, California, is no different. Since moving from their old location in 2014, Broc now calls this imposing industrial monolith—an old ink factory—with its pleasingly proportioned but nondescript gabled facade home.
We recently had a chance to check out the urban winery on a weekday when it would normally be closed. As you cross the threshold, the urban hustle and bustle evaporates, replaced by calm. We’re welcomed by a long line of Broc wines shimmering against a backdrop of shou sugi ban paneling. As perhaps a nod to legacy, an old cask from the Renaissance Winery—an early adoptee of organic farming and where Gideon Bienstock was winemaker—stands guard against the opposite wall. A harsh exterior gives way to a warm and inviting interior—with rusted metal patina and delicate artwork—easily subduing the raw factory shell that surrounds it.
Like a cabinet of curiosities, the interior is spotted with all manner of intriguing objects helping to explain the Broc Cellars universe. There is an exquisite hand-drawn map of California by Marta Elise Johansen highlighting the 15 locations and 17 vineyards it has sourced from. For example, the Happy Canyon AVA that supplies Brockways’s 100 percent Cabernet Franc that we will taste later. We even spot a miniature concrete egg fermenter.
I'm greeted by Chris Brockway, mastermind behind the winemaking and vineyards at Broc Cellars, and his partner, Bridget Leary, who handles everything else. Like many vintners these days, Brockway started his career on a different trajectory with a major in philosophy from his native Nebraska. With a heavy interest in wine, it was only after moving to California that he commenced wine studies at UC Davis, though Brockway would have to wait until he moved to Los Angeles to complete a degree in oenology from California State University in Fresno. Armed with the scientific knowledge to make conventional wine, it wasn’t until he read Patrick Matthews’s Real Wine: The Rediscovery of Natural Winemaking that he began to explore the possibilities of making wines focused on vineyard health and as little manipulation as possible in the cellar.
Brockway has a straightforward approach to winemaking. “I want to make wine that goes with food,” he says. Having paired the Broc Love Red Blend recently with food, I’d agree that its lower alcohol level and spirited acidity stand up marvelously together. This no-nonsense approach informs other choices, like the labels, also drawn by Johansen: “It matches well with what’s in the bottle,“ he says. “Very simple and pure, no filler or fluff…lots of emotion for me.“
He’s passionate about lesser-known grape varietals growing in California, such as Picpoul, Mission, and Counoise. But he hasn’t turned his back completely on grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay; he created BREA Wine Company with Tim Elenteny to explore these classic varietals.
But Brockway has larger factors to consider, such as access and affordability. Like many independent, small-scale wineries, Broc is conscious of trying to find that balance between making minimal-intervention, and therefore labor-intensive wines, and accessibility. The majority of their wines sell for $20 to $30, with a couple of bottles right at the $20 mark, seemingly the bar under which so few natural wine producers can descend.
When I ask Brockway about the specifics of producing wine in Berkeley, he acknowledges that “this area has influenced my palette,” referring in particular to Chez Panisse, where you’ll now find Broc on the wine list. Shifting to the larger Californian context and what contribution a winery like Broc is having, he laments “everyone was making the same thing…” Since he started winemaking, he and his counterparts have worked hard to change that, not just offering drinkers a larger variety of choices, but also improving the land where the wine originates. “California is a lot healthier because there is variety,” says Brockway.
Being based in San Francisco may have shaped his palette, but at times he finds the city limiting. “San Francisco is so small, there’s a stasis going on,“ he says. “I’m waiting for the next wave,” echoing the feelings of other local winemakers in the area. “L.A. is more vibrant, more people would travel down to L.A. than the opposite.”
While he is based in Berkeley, Brockway is closely tied to the land from which he sources his grapes, and the recent 2017 Sonoma fires posed an enormous risk. He initially feared 20 to 40 percent of his grapes had been lost. “It was raining ash,” he says, noting the need to wear breathing equipment in the vineyard. But fortunately, his farmers were some of the lucky ones, and the grapes stayed intact, though more fermented in the vineyard than in the cellar.
Many articles about Broc have rightly pointed out the lack of pastoral in this urban context, and one frustration a visitor may feel specific to urban wineries, is you don’t get to see the vineyards. Brockway knows this and is quick to share stories of the places he sources from, as well as sharing those stories visually on Broc Cellars social media.
As we taste the 2017 Mission from Somers Vineyard in Lodi, Brockway relates the pleasant discovery of Angelica wine, traditionally a dessert wine, and how it has encouraged him to transition away from France’s Valdiguié grape toward the Mission varietal. Initially brought here by Spanish missionaries, hence the name, it was once the most planted grape in California. There is something reassuring about the renewed interest in grape varietals that have a longer history in the Americas than their more recent European cousins.
We move on to tour the production side of the winery, where I see three impressive tronconique (truncated cone) oak vats—once used for fermentation. From this vantage point, I can also see Broc’s most notable neighbor, Donkey & Goat Winery, across the huge expanse of concrete and parking lot adjacent to the winery.
The outside patio features an intimate wood-paneled seating area from which visitors can get a glimpse of the working winery. If you can’t see the grapes, then at least you remain connected to the winemaking process. It's an ideal place for visitors to visually connect what is in their glasses to the winemaking process.
As we follow the winemaking back to the vineyard, I ask Brockway about where he sees the future taking him, and whether or not he has any desire to own and work his own vineyards. “There have been a lot of maybes,” he says, adding optimistically, “I will someday.”