Columnist, Food

Erin Brooks of Grand Cru Custom Crush, in a Sonoma County industrial park. (Jacquelyn Warner/GrandCru/Ernest Vineyards)

The words “wine country” conjure images of beautiful vistas and vine rows marching (or sprawling, depending on viticultural philosophies) into the sunset. But as you plan your wine country vacations this year, don’t ignore the industrial parks, the winery co-ops or the “custom crush” facilities where several winemakers pool their resources. Warehouses may not be as sexy as sunsets, but some of the best wines are being made in the most unscenic places.

This is simple economics. Cutting-edge winemakers are not always going to be your rich tech entrepreneurs, real estate tycoons or pioneering medical researchers who cash in their large fortunes to make smaller ones by dynamiting hillsides and building faux Tuscan villas in a quest to produce the next cult cabernet sauvignon. Just as often they are young, ambitious winemakers who don’t own vineyards but work closely with growers to source quality fruit from top vineyards in hopes of producing the next cult pinot noir. Or sauvignon blanc, maybe Sangiovese or zinfandel from century-old vines. They may not have their own wineries, but they often are challenging the way wines are made, marketed and sold.

These places can be hard to find, in part because they don’t spend a lot of time and effort promoting themselves as wine tourism destinations. That makes them all the more fun to discover.

In California’s Sonoma County, just north of the Santa Rosa airport, Grand Cru Custom Crush is a gleaming new facility in a spare industrial park that includes DuMol and Marcassin wineries, two exclusive labels with avid followings. Russian River Brewing is building a huge facility with a restaurant nearby. Grand Cru has capacity for about 20 wineries; it housed 12 when it opened for the 2017 harvest. They include Black Kite, which produces pinot noir and chardonnay from various coastal vineyards, and Smith Story cellars, a membership winery with a philanthropic bent and an unusual marketing campaign based on a goldendoodle’s Instagram account.

Visitors to Grand Cru first encounter a rusted 1927 Fordson tractor, prominently displayed in the lobby. “It’s a reminder that everything we do starts on the farm,” says Erin Brooks, who co-founded Grand Cru, or G3C as she sometimes calls it, as a home for her own Ernest Vineyards label and other small wineries. “This is the wave of the future, sharing resources,” she says.

Beyond the rusty tractor, everything else about Grand Cru is sleek and modern, including the multimedia tasting rooms that can be transformed in a jiffy to present any of the member wineries. Grand Cru is technically open by appointment only, but walk-in visitors can schedule one quickly, Brooks says.


Rolando Herrera samples some pinot noir wine from a barrel at his Mi Sueño Winery. (Eric Risberg/AP)

Just south of Napa, near the famous statue of a man crushing grapes in a basket press that welcomes visitors to Napa Valley, there’s an industrial park where last year I found two wineries, Mi Sueño and Gustavo, run by Mexican American vintners who started as vineyard workers back in the 1970s. They don’t own vineyards or fancy wineries, but they make delicious, soulful wines in modest surroundings. There are several other wineries nearby, and they have halfheartedly promoted the area as the Crusher District, but marketing is mostly word of mouth.

If you’re visiting Santa Barbara wine country, by all means explore the tasting rooms of Los Olivos, Buellton and Solvang. But then venture west to Lompoc, which may not have much to offer other than some fast food chains and a nondescript industrial park known as the Lompoc Wine Ghetto. Here you can stroll door to door and taste wines of Arcadian, Domaine de la Cote, Stolpman, Palmina, Pali and Piedrasassi, some of Southern California’s most exciting labels. Notable wineries nearby include Sea Smoke and Brewer-Clifton.

The area is great for the wineries because “the vineyards are just a few minutes away” in the Santa Ynez Valley and that Sta. Rita Hills appellation, says Greg Brewer of Brewer-Clifton. And it’s great for wine lovers because so many delicious wines are within reach of a single visit.