Can San Francisco establish its first urban vineyard since the 19th century?

Immigrants to the California city were once greeted by vast vineyards, and now a neighborhood project aims to bring the grapes back with the help of local people

Urban vineyard in San Francisco.
The urban vineyard in San Francisco. Photograph: Elly Hortshorn

Winemaking is not new to San Francisco. In the 19th century, hills were lined with grapevines – a familiar sight for many of the Europeans hoping to make it rich in California’s gold rush. In 2015, Elly Hortshorn, one of the founders of San Francisco’s Neighborhood Vineyard Project in the Bernal Heights district, hopes her project can rekindle the wine spirit that had existed in the city.

“Many of those people coming to the city [in the 19th century] knew it was their final destination,” Hortshorn says, a glass of pinot noir in hand. “They weren’t going to go back home, their families they might never see again, but when they saw San Francisco’s vineyards come into view, it was one of the first things that was familiar to them. People forget that this city was home to many vineyards and wines.”

San Francisco’s wine industry ended following the 1906 earthquake that devastated the city, killing thousands. In an effort to rebuild quickly, vineyards disappeared in favor of residential zoning.

On a small slope in Bernal Heights that is no larger than a basketball court, more than 200 grapevines are proof wine grapes can grow in the city. It doesn’t appear to be much, but it is heading in a good direction. Hortshorn says it takes time to develop vines for the long haul. “When the plants get big enough we will put them up and wire them together and then it will have that true vineyard look,” she says.

Until harvest in 2016, the project is featuring regional wines from the Central Coast, where Horthshorn shows her wine ability. The bottle’s labels are unique to each varietal, a touch from the former successful graphic designer. One bottle’s label shows the vast vineyards that welcomed those on the boats in the 19th century. Another label shows the inner layers of the earth, in what Hortshorn says gets to the core of the project.

“You have to want to learn about the earth if you are going to make wine, and what better way to connect than seeing how our planet is made?” she says while pouring out tastes from the Central Coast vineyards. The pinot noir, Hortshorn explains, are the same grapes planted on the hill nearby. She hopes the quality will be similar to the smooth, fruity taste of the wine in the glass. “It’s going to be hard, but I think we will be successful in what we are doing.”

If the team of volunteers who come regularly to weed and maintain the vines are successful in harvesting what Hortshorn says should be about a barrel full (about 250 bottles), it would be the only urban vineyard in the US to do so after attempts in Los Angeles and New York City failed. Commercial winery the Queens County Farm Museum Winery closed operations in 2014 due to upkeep, ending a 10-year run in the borough. LA’s Echo Park neighborhood non-commercial micro-vineyard D’Augustine Vineyard only had one harvest, in 2010, due to drought and wildfire threats.

For Hortshorn, who learned about wine while living in France, first as a graphic designer for the cheese industry before turning to grapes, she wants to prove it can work. “It’s about lessons in patience,” she admitted. “And the people who come understand that to do this right, we have to give it time.”

Begun in 2013, the Neighborhood Vineyard Project aims to continue to develop the city’s land for the underprivileged who live in government housing nearby. San Francisco has permitted the Alemany Farm, where the wine project is based, to persist in an attempt to help families learn about eating more healthily. While Hortshorn admits getting the housing residents excited about the project is taking time, she hopes that the wine can be a way to reach a larger audience.

“I still don’t know what I am going to do with the wine we produce, but it will be used to help build up this farm for the people living close by,” Hortshorn says.

If successful, the project aims to move across the city, establishing local, carbon-footprint-free vineyards that can help build up the communities in which they live.