Our mental images of the single-minded winemaker who long ago forsook all but one grape in the pursuit of something nearly spiritual in wine, tend to be sepia colored and involve the backdrops of small villages in the European countryside. These men (and women) who work, often alone, in both the vineyards and the cellar to master the equation of one grape + one barrel + one vineyard on a personal level seem decidedly Old World.
Over time, I have found a few new world examples of such winemakers, holed up in small towns or in the far reaches of some of California’s valleys. The last place I expected to find one, however, was in San Francisco. But Bryan Harrington is undeniably cut from the same cloth as the old crusty winemakers whose eyes light up as they recall their decades long relationships with a single plot of earth. Bryan, however, is young, and buys his grapes from other people (some of them old codgers), but over a decade ago he decided he wanted to do only one major thing for the rest of his life: make great Pinot Noir.
OK. So any number of people have been bitten by the Pinot bug. There are several wineries or wine labels in Northern California that exist solely to produce wine from this grape. But I knew Bryan was a special case when midway through our interview for this posting he happened to mention that over the last decade he’s planted Pinot Noir grapes all over San Francisco.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said. “No. Seriously,” he replied, and proceeded to tell me all the different places he had put vines into the ground, including a patch not 200 yards from my door in Bernal Heights. “I eventually had to move those plants to the Inner Sunset,” he admitted, after the politics of the Bernal Heights community garden got finicky, “But I kept making wine from them along with the guy whose yard they ended up in.”
Not only did Bryan plant Pinot Noir here and there around the city. he actually made wine from it. “At one point I nearly had the Willie Brown administration ready to give me a bunch of unused land in the city, and then we really would have had some vineyards. But at one point a new planning commissioner took office and it got shelved.”
Pinot Noir wasn’t always the driving force in Bryan’s winemaking life. At first, it was any wine possible.
In the early 1990’s he was working in the restaurant business as a bartender, and found himself in the company of some real wine fanatics, who turned him on to drinking the stuff with a critical eye, and eventually persuaded him to take some time to travel around Europe learning about wine. It was there, in the small villages of Burgundy, the Loire, and Provence that Bryan realized that he wanted to make wine. “I saw these tiny little operations, with just a couple of barrels, and realized that I didn’t need to be a multimillionaire to make wine. Anyone could do it, as long as they knew how.” But of course, he didn’t.
One day, however, he found himself talking to a customer at the bar where he worked who knew how to make wine, and had the money and connection to get started, but didn’t have the space to do it. That was an easy problem for Bryan to solve, and the two soon found themselves crushing their first 500 pound lot of Zinfandel in Bryan’s basement in San Francisco.
“Since the wine was at my house,” says Bryan “I ended up doing more of the work.” It hardly mattered, however, because he was hooked. “My partner only wanted to make one wine, I think, but we quickly got to the point where I had six or seven half-ton fermenters going in my basement.” Bryan also started buying higher quality grapes with bigger price tags. “At a certain point my business partner just decided I was in too deep, and that he had other things he needed to do.”
Since then Bryan has been a one man show, and after several years of making wine in Bernal Heights he graduated to a cooperative facility which he shares with several other small wine labels in Berkeley. Along the way he also stopped making all other varietals except for Pinot Noir, and says he has no desire to make anything else. His “light bulb moment” came after he tasted some Chalone Pinot Noirs in the early 1990s.
“I was struck, I think, by the tremendous variety that exists within the varietal. There’s a range there that you just don’t get with any other grape, from the light vin gris to the dark brooding Pinots, and everything in between. There’s room for so much finesse with this grape. Its a great dance. I know we’ve all heard these descriptions before but it’s just true. No other wine has the same dynamism for me.”
Bryan also finds that dynamism in the making of the wine. “I have had such tremendous moments in the process of making Pinot that no other winemaking experience can come close to. Working with Pinot gives you tightrope to walk on. Things can go strangely awry, for a long time, and then magically come back. I’ve had some real tragedies over the years that just don’t seem to happen with other varietals — wines that go so vegetal as to be nearly undrinkable and then in a couple of months those distasteful qualities have transformed into attractive spice and fruit. You don’t get that wild ride with Zinfandel or Cabernet,” says Bryan. “Pinot is like the wild bucking horse of the rodeo.”
Bryan has come a long way since the early days in his garage. He now officially “knows what he’s doing in the cellar,” courtesy not only of more than a decade of trial and error, but also with the help of classes at UC Davis, time spent working with winemakers like Tom Leaf of Grapeleaf Cellars, and generally “being a pest.”
“There were several years there where I’m sure I was the most annoying person around,” says Bryan. “I had so many questions, and I wasn’t afraid of asking anyone. But people in this industry are so willing to share what they know. I was able to learn an awful lot, and I probably got brushed off only once or twice.”
Along with perfecting his winemaking craft, Bryan has secured relationships with some excellent vineyard owners around the state, including the famous Hirsch vineyard on the Sonoma Coast. He works very closely with his growers, only accepting contracts where he has full control over the fruit, including the pick date. Unlike a lot of Pinot Noir producers, he is actually shooting for less ripeness these days rather than more, as he refuses to water down his wines to lower alcohol levels because he feels it cripples the wine’s aromatics.
Harrington Wines makes a little more that 500 cases each year, and Bryan has no plans to increase that by very much. If pressed about the distant future he admits that he might get to 1000 cases one day. For now, he’s content to keep things small enough where he can take care of everything himself.
When he’s not in the wine cellar, Bryan can be found in his painting studio, and he draws a lot of similarities between winemaking and painting. “I want layers to my wines, and this is the same thing I want from my paintings. I build a lot of information in. With a wine the colors and palettes are different than in the studio — you’re working with berries, barrels, oak, time — but everything is put together in a composition that will be complete and that will take you on a journey. I want my wines to lead you though a bunch of different experiences — a passage through many places where there is a tension created and then a resolution, like a story with a beginning, middle, and end. When your last sense memory evaporates off the palate hopefully it’s been a great journey.”
By way of full disclosure, Bryan is a fellow member of a wine tasting group that I joined a couple of years ago. I knew he was a winemaker, but didn’t have a chance to taste his wines until recently.
Some of these wines are served in local San Francisco restaurants including Town Hall, Frisson, Plouf, and Hawthorne Lane, as well as a few local wine bars such as Hotel Biron and CAV.
2002 Harrington Morelli Vineyard Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
A medium garnet color in the glass, this wine has a sweet nose of candied grapes mixed with earthier notes of dried cranberries. In the mouth it is poised, with a nice balance of acid and fruit flavors which tend towards cranberry. The fruit core of the wine is veined with spidery flavors of earth and black tea that carry through to a very nice finish, making this wine more interesting than a simple expression of what is undeniably very tasty fruit. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $25. Where to buy?
2002 Harrington Iund Vineyard Pinot Noir, Carneros
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a classic cool-climate Pinot nose of floral cranberry and pomegranate aromas. In the mouth it delivers more of the same, with lush cranberry and pomegranate fruit, excellent acidity that plays with spicier notes in the wine to create a lightness and an intensity of flavor that lasts through a fantastic, drawn out finish. Score: 9.5. Cost: $30. This wine is currently sold out.
2003 Harrington BirkmeyerVineyard Pinot Noir, Wild Horse Valley, Napa
Light garnet in color, with a very bright center, this wine has a shy nose which eventually yields some light cherry and floral aromas. On the palate, however, it shows well, albeit in a lighter style than the first two wines, with primary flavors of cherries, plums, and spices that are more delicate than they are intense. This wine has California fruit, but a more European texture and quality to it. Score: 9. Cost: $25. Where to buy?
2003 Harrington Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
A pure light garnet in the glass, this wine has a seductive nose filled with aromas of raspberries, vanilla, and caramel. In the mouth it has excellent texture and fantastic acids that assist in bringing flavors of pomegranate, raspberry and umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum) to the taste buds, where they lounge a while around for a very nice finish. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $50. Where to buy?
Bryan also has been making a rosé (of Pinot Noir of course) in recent years, and says that he may sell some larger quantities commercially in the coming years.