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Urban Wine: Broc Cellars

Broc Cellars fits hardly anybody's idea of a California winery. Concrete walls and barbed-wire fencing, you won't see any cellars or anything remotely pastoral like a vineyard. The cellars are a warehouse – an old ink factory, on a corner in an industrial district in Berkeley with its pleasingly proportioned but nondescript gabled facade. Across the street is a cement plant, across another is a motorcycle-repair shop and the melody of passing freight trains plays every once in a while. 

The exterior of Broc Cellars (Photo credits: Sprudge Wine)

But despite the asphalt vista, Broc, in business less than a decade, produces some of the most invigorating, interesting wines in California today. Some are from familiar grapes: Zinfandel, Grenache and Cabernet Franc. Others seem tauntingly obscure: Picpoul, Valdigue and Counoise. 

Broc is a tiny, low-watt operation. The proprietor, Chris Brockway, works with one assistant, Sam Baron, and gets occasional help from his girlfriend, Bridget Leary. But even on this small scale, Broc offers a glimpse into one possible future for the California wine industry, a future that depends on vision, hustle and entrepreneurship, rather than, as in Napa Valley, inheritance, or making a fortune in another business to finance wine ventures. 

Concrete eggs that are used for some of the picpoul and chenin blanc (Photo credits: Woodland Wine Merchant)

Chris Brockway, 49, grew up in Omaha, where, he said, his stepfather always had wine on the table and where he developed a taste for Zinfandels and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. He was a philosophy major at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and ended up in Los Angeles, "doing postproduction work for ads that never made it on the air". Feeling the wine itch, he pursued an oenology degree at Frensno State in the early 2000s, then moved to the Bay Area, where he got a job at Rosenblum and learned the basics of winemaking.

Along the way, Brockway stumbled onto 2 major influences: a book by Patrick Matthew titled Real Wine: The Rediscovery of Natural Winemaking, where he began to explore the possibilities of making wines focused on vineyard health and as little manipulation as possible in the cellar; and a natural wine bar in San Francisco called Terrior Natural Wine Merchant, where he began to discover wines outside his somewhat narrow conception. "If 'Real Wine' was the first step, Terrior SF was the last," said Brockway, "you'd walk in the door and try a wine you'd never heard before, like Pineau d'Aunis rose, and say 'whoa, what is this?".

Chris Brockway in his winery (Photo credits: The New York Times)

Brockway's experiences coupled with a conviction that California wine had changed since those evenings at his stepfather's table got him to make his own wine little by little. "Back then, Zinfandel was all about spicy, brambly fruit, I came out here, and the Zins were nothing like that." He made his first barrel in 2002, his first legal batch in 2004 and then left his job in 2006 to strike out on his own, acting as a négociant and gradually increasing his output. In 2013, Broc made 6,000 cases that included 15 varieties. "It's always been, make a little wine, sell it, make a little more," said Brockway.

The high demand for Broc in places like New York and Tokyo have made his wines difficult to acquire. Especially considering his average production is a scant 6,000 cases.

Chris Brockway sharing some of his mock-vin (Photo credits: Woodland Wine Merchant)

Brockway casts a wide net to find grapes, often from odd little patches of unexpected varieties, made from organic or biodynamic grapes and produced in vineyards and regions considered slightly off the beaten path – Marginal regions, marginal vineyards, spots where the big boys won't play and where the grapes are going to struggle to get to where they need to go, so to speak. 

Brockway often has a hard time saying no when he stumbles upon forgotten vineyards that he feels have something to say. "What's driveable in a day." That's one of Brockway's radius of vineyard sources. At any given one of those days may see him driving across several large counties to check on tiny and scattered vineyards, then return in the dark to manually bottle and label his bubbly Cabernet Franc so he can free up precious space in his winery. It's a constant process of monitor and adjust, and it's a labour of pure and passionate love. 

Broc's Cabernet Franc pet-nat getting the finishing touches on the bottling line (Photo credits: Woodland Wine Merchant)

In the cellar, Brockway is a minimalist. He ferments and ages the wine in a blend of old wood barrels, steel tanks and concrete, and does little beyond stomping the grapes by foot. "The way we make wine, the most important thing we do is decide when to pick the grapes," he said, "no adjusting, no adding, if we don't pick at the right time, there's not much we can do."

Across the board, Broc Cellars' wines are lively, dry and alive. They're edgy, playful, affordable and yet easily some of Californa's most intriguing wines of today. "I'm not trying to out-weird anybody or obscure anybody," he said, "we're trying to get back to a more traditional conception of what wine used to be.".

Brockway has a straightforward approach to winemaking, "I want to make wine that goes with food", hence in their wines, you will find a lower alcohol level and spirited acidity, which stands up marvellously with food. This no-nonsense approach informs other choices, like the labels. "It matches well with what's in the bottle", Brockway says, "very simple and pure, no filler or fluff... lots of emotion for me."

Chris Brockway opening his winery (Photo credits: Woodland Wine Merchant)

Brockway may be passionate about lesser-known grape varietals, 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. 

Shop Broc Cellars here and Brea Wine here.

Article credits: Woodland Wine Merchant, New York Times, Sprudge Wine, Uncorked Ventures.

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