Dressed in blue jeans, Bob Rawson and Fred Dick, of West Berkeley’s Urbano Cellars, peer into the fermentation tub of mourvedre grapes, check the recently barreled tempranillo and plan the next deliveries of their wine.
“Here we are in Berkeley, running a winery a quarter [of a] mile from the San Francisco Bay. The cooling breezes gives us natural air conditioning for our wines. Next to us are coffee roasting companies, and nearby, restaurants and breweries. Fourth Street is a special place to make wine,” said Rawson.
Ten years ago Rawson and Dick left their business suits behind to launch the winery, and celebrated the anniversary in August. The two vintners started out making their wine at custom crush facilities and shared tasting room space in Emeryville and then Oakland. Five years ago, they moved the entire operation to Berkeley, and now produce a broad spectrum of wines and serve as a custom crush facility for other wineries.
The Urbano Cellars tasting room, a few steps from the winery, is a hub for locals who regularly refill their liter glass bottles with Fourth Street White, Red and Rosé blends. With rotating art exhibits on the walls, the cozy room attracts visitors exploring Berkeley’s food options, UC Berkeley parents stopping by after dropping off students, and East Bay wine lovers who like its proximity and affordability compared to Napa.
The Rawson-Dick collaboration was born out of a mutual appreciation of food-friendly, reasonably priced wine. With a serious, hands-on approach to the technical aspects of winemaking, they also focus on hunting down exceptional sources for their grapes, building relationships with their customers in the tasting room and at restaurants, and supporting the community.
Two wine lovers meet up
Urbano Cellars’ name refers to the main street in San Francisco’s Ingleside Terrace neighborhood where Rawson and Dick lived and met. At the time Rawson was working as an accountant and consultant, while Fred was in advertising. Mutual friends introduced them upon hearing that Rawson made wine in his Urbano Drive cellar, and Fred was a keen oenophile. The winery’s graphic image harkens to the neighborhood where the winery was conceived.
The secret to their successful partnership, said Dick, is simple: “We agree on what we don’t want to produce — no cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay.” With a smile, the vintner added, “We aren’t into buying popular grapes that would make us rich.” The two shared winemaking duties, but Rawson, now an Oakland resident, handles the financial books, while Dick leads social media and marketing endeavors from Ingleside Terrace.
Over the decade, the vintners have forged strong relationships with vineyard owners in California
from Mendocino to Lodi. Grapes from Greg Lewis’ vineyard in the Clements Hill appellation of the Lodi region appear in many of Urbano Cellars bottlings. When Lewis planted a row of nebbiolo a few years ago, Rawson quickly offered to buy them, resulting in one of his favorite Urbano Cellars’ wines.
The vintners use an older, recently repainted manual press. “With newer equipment you can push the button for chardonnay, but we like to have control over the process depending on the year’s harvest,” said Rawson.
As a small operation, Dick and Rawson rely on a volunteer crew of wine lovers to help with the manual labor during harvest. Production is about 1,200 cases a year.
After visiting several European wine regions, Rawson found himself drawn to lesser known grapes. His “aha” moment happened when he toured the Rhȏne valley. One of Urbano Cellars’ more playful labels is Côte du Clements, a blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre grapes from Lodi that riffs on classic Côte du Rhȏne blends.
Urbano Cellars sells about 10 wines, plus the environmentally friendly, one-liter Fourth Street blends. “Our customers like the diversity of choices when they taste our wine, and we like to offer a range of varietals,” said Rawson. “Of course it is more work to ferment and crush so many small batches of grapes.”
When making their white wines, Rawson and Dick eschew a second malolactic fermentation and oak treatment, common practices for red wines and whites like chardonnay that result in softer, “buttery” flavors. Instead, they rely on stainless steel fermentation to preserve the natural fruit flavors and acidity of the wine. They gravitate to more obscure white wines, such as chenin blanc, with hand-picked grapes from the Clarksburg appellation. “We’ve been making it for years,” said Dick. “Chenin blanc was formerly the most widely planted white grape in California.”
Say the words “chenin blanc” and Rawson immediately brings up the subject of food. “We make a crisp, bright chenin blanc that pairs well with goat cheese and any seafood, [especially] oysters and mussels,” he said.
Another popular white is Urbano Cellars’ aromatic viognier. On the menu at A Grape in the Fog wine bar in Pacifica, a Frenchman sampled the winery’s viognier and drove to Berkeley the next day to buy several bottles.
Dick related another incident where a varietal evoked a strong guest reaction. “We served teroldego to a group in the tasting room. A red grape from the Trentino Alto-Adige region of Northeast Italy, teroldego is deeply flavored and age-able,” he said. “When our Italian guest tasted it, she spoke nonstop in Italian to her friends. We don’t know what she said, but she was definitely excited.”
Red wines comprise the majority of Urbano Cellars’ production. The reds age from 15 to 18 months in mostly neutral French, American and Hungarian oak barrels. Again, the vintners want the fruit to shine through rather than undergoing oak manipulations in the cellar. When feasible, the vintners take a hands-off, minimalist approach to winemaking. They prefer to let wild, natural yeast start the fermentation for wines like their sangiovese and barbera.
Urbano Cellars’ refreshing grenache rosé melds well with summer picnics or Thanksgiving turkey, but it is also the quickest to sell out. Another top seller, barbera, has won several awards at wine competitions and cries out for a slice of pizza.
The 2016 harvest, said Rawson, looks like a winner. The grapes delivered to Fourth Street from Aug. 30 to Oct. 6, were “tasty,” a result of the winter rains and sunny summer. But Rawson added that one often never knows for sure how the wine will develop until two years into the process.
With the goal of making wine affordable, Dick and Rawson price their standard 750 ml bottles anywhere from $15 to $25. The one liter, refillable Fourth Street blends are likewise an excellent value at $15 to $17. There is a $5 bottle fee for the first purchase of Fourth Street, but when customers return with empties for a refill, they receive a full, fresh bottle.
On the wine list
Urbano Cellars ships their wine throughout California and hand-sells to select restaurants in the Bay Area.
At Sushinista in Downtown Berkeley, owner Hiro Nishikawa serves only a few wines, but Urbano Cellars represents what he calls “a good local wine.”
Romney Steele, proprietor of The Cook and Her Farmer in Oakland, offers a different rationale for carrying Urbano Cellars sangiovese and viognier. “We build relationships here,” she said. “I buy oysters directly from the fishermen. Bob [Rawson] came in and got involved with us. He speaks with our staff about wine in general and his wine. We’ve been to the winery and observed how carefully he makes wine.”
Steele continued: “Many restaurants serve Napa wine. We don’t. We list small European producers and some from Mendocino and Carmel. Urbano Cellars fits in.”
Urbano Cellars is also served at Handles Gastropub in Pleasanton. Since opening five years ago, Handles has offered 16 wines on tap. Managing Partner Chris Hampton has stocked Urbano Cellars Fourth Street wines for four years and often offers Fourth Street for Happy Hour at $6 per glass. “The customers know value for good wine when they taste it,” he said. “We serve local and West Coast wines on tap, and Urbano Cellars has a home here.”
West Berkeley’s beverage scene is expanding, said Rawson. To help it continue to grow, he’s working with Tracey Brandt, the owner of Donkey and Goat Winery, in a community-wide effort to ramp up visibility for local wine and beer makers.
Called Berkeley Made Libations, the marketing collaborative includes three wineries and four breweries. “Berkeley has a long history of wine and beer making, and we are tapping into those traditions,” said Brandt. She and the team expect to release maps and social media by the end of the year.
In the meantime, Rawson and Dick are planning for their annual ham and latke party on Dec. 4 and continue to enjoy hosting guests on the weekend at their tasting room.
Many winemakers dream of owning vineyards one day. “In theory we would like to own some vineyards, but it takes a different skill set and bank account,” said Dick. “We’re urban dwellers.”