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Pinot and Popcorn in San Francisco
By W. Blake Gray
May 28, 2013
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Most wineries smell like wine.  Ed Kurtzman's winery smells like popcorn.

Kurtzman makes Pinot Noir, Syrah, etc., from grapes from up and down the California coast.  But he doesn't toil among the vines; he works in a converted warehouse in San Francisco that used to be called the Stone Tile Depot.  The owner subdivided the huge building about a mile south of AT&T Park in one of San Francisco's few remaining industrial areas.  Kurtzman and his wines rent one side, and Thatcher's Gourmet Popcorn rents the other.

Thatcher's supplies all the popcorn for Disneyland, so its poppers are cranking all the time, whereas Kurtzman's wine is only fermenting in autumn.  So you walk in the winery and the enticing smell of hot popcorn is everywhere except the sealed, refrigerated barrel room.  Then you walk out of the barrel room:  Blam!  Another burst of popcorn aroma, more noticeable than ever.

"Some days they're making tiramisu flavor," Kurtzman says.  "Then it smells really interesting in here."

Kurtzman frequently trades wine for popcorn; how could you not?  Resisting it all day must be like a vampire trying to give up schoolgirls.  But even at one bottle for four bags of popcorn, the deal is lopsided, because his wines are really interesting, and there's probably something for everyone -- unless you're a Cabernet fan. 

Kurtzman makes wines under three labels at the urban winery:  August West, a partnership between himself, Garys' Vineyard co-owner Gary Franscioni and tech multimillionaire Howard Graham; Roar, owned by Franscioni; and Kurtzman's own label, Sandler.

The Roar wines reflect the ripeness of fruit from Garys' Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands.  Sandler is small lots of wines for enophiles, with leaner bodies and the additional flavors of grape stems.  August West wines are in between, with access to some great vineyards. 

Kurtzman owns the rarest of businesses in wine-loving San Francisco, an actual working winery without a tasting room, because he likes living there.  That's where he went when he got the wine bug in his hometown, Boston.

"I was a cashier at Big Y Wines in Northampton (Mass.)," he says.  "This was the mid-'80s.  People would come in from New York and spend thousands of dollars on wine.  This was very intriguing to me."

Kurtzman said he didn't know anything about wine before getting the job, nor did the people hiring him at Big Y ask him anything.  "They just said, 'Can you run this (cash) register?' "

He continued working in wine shops while not-quite finishing a degree in sociology at University of Massachusetts.  "I decided life in the wine sales business might be good," he says, so he moved to San Francisco in 1989 and lived there even while getting his degree in enology in Fresno State, nearly 200 miles away.

"I was a taxi driver in (San Francisco) on weekends," he says.  "I couldn't even find an $8 an hour job in Fresno.  Driving the taxi, I worked two days a week, Friday and Saturday from 5 pm to 3 am."  And he made enough money to finance his education.

Kurtzman worked at Bernardus, Chalone and Testarossa before going out on his own.  He moved back to the city after leaving Testarossa.  He could have more easily and cheaply found warehouse space in northern Sonoma County, but he likes the city enough that he first rented a warehouse in the sketchier Bayshore neighborhood.  "I've never been broken into," he says.  "I guess everybody knows there's no money in wine."  He moved into the 20,000 square-foot warehouse in the Dogpatch district last year.

It's easy for a guy who makes a lot of Pinot Noir to say, "I let the vineyard speak," and to a large extent that's true; Kurtzman doesn't turn the wines into something they're not.  But the difference between wines made with stems and without is huge, and it's a pure winemaker choice.

Kurtzman makes 24 cases of a Sandler Boer Vineyard Chalone Pinot Noir 2011 ($36) using whole clusters of grapes, with the stems, in the way that Chalone Vineyard founder Dick Graff did in the 1960s and '70s.

"It takes longer, and it's all tannins at first," he says.  "But my favorite California Pinots are Chalone Pinots from the 1970s.  They last for decades.  By the '80s everybody was de-stemming in California.  But some people are changing."

The wine in question has a nice mouthfeel; the tannins aren't drying, but they are persistent.  For such a light-bodied (13.7% alcohol) wine it has real presence, with dried cherry fruit and savory notes.

Kurtzman was also able to put stems in the August West Sierra Mar Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 2011 ($45) because Roar also makes Pinot from that vineyard and Franscioni likes the wines to be different.  The wine is noticeably spicier, with some green notes, and without the straightforward fruit: this might be a mixed blessing for some people.  But sip to sip, it never gets dull.

Perhaps his most interesting wine is a Sandler Connell Vineyard Bennett Valley Syrah 2010 ($20) that is an eye-opening 11.6% alcohol, a number hardly seen on a red wine in California in 25 years.  You'd think he had to pick the grapes crazy early to get that, or use reverse osmosis, or add water.

"The vineyard is on the top of a hill, and it's always foggy and cool there," Kurtzman says.  "In 2010, on November 5, it was at 21.6 Brix and the owner, Sally Connell, said, 'We have rains coming, what should we do?  Let it hang?'  I said, 'Pick it, can I get a discount if it doesn't work?'  But I love it."

It's light-bodied and savory, with salumi-like preserved meat flavors up front and cherry fruit you notice more on the finish.  It's well worth four bags of popcorn, even tiramisu-flavored popcorn.