Behind a roll-up door on a squat industrial building on Potrero Street is a family winery. At once unorthodox and deeply traditional, family name on the sign is not French or Italian like wine aficionados might expect, but rather Georgian.
The Erstavi Winery family has been making wine for some 400 years, according to Nikolas Eristavi, the son of winemaker Victor and labelmaker Lia Eristavi. The oldest relics of winemaking technology, he insists, were unearthed in Georgia. During Soviet rule, Georgia was the primary producer of wine.
In fact it is a national passion. Victor told me about the Georgian dedication to winemaking and how the surrounding environment had distinguished the flavors of two Zinfandels I was sampling.
“I knew how to make wine from an early age,” he said. “Everyone, in all the universities, was participating in the harvests. It doesn’t matter what you did.”
Having now established themselves in California, the Eristavis strive for “100 percent” wines – ones that are made completely from one type of grape, rather than blended. Victor experiments to see how much he can limit the addition of stabilizers, and how much he can vary the flavors of different wines.
Clearly I was out of my depth. I am an enthusiastic consumer of, shall we say, affordable approximations of wine. All I can tell you is that this is not my regular fare but rather “the good stuff.” If that strikes you as a somewhat weak endorsement, I should also mention the 40 or so awards the Eristavis have won since they started up their California version of the family business in 2009.
But there is no snobbery here, and my lack of expertise did not matter. Distinguishing tasting notes (while they are on the label) is not a prerequisite for coming here. The winemaker himself has run into an example of what excess taste-analysis can lead to.
“I went to a few places a few years ago, and [one of the vintners] said, ‘Can you taste the caramel, the sponge cake?’ One after another, all of these desserts,” Victor Eristavi tells me. He didn’t know what the man was on about.
So at his own winery, it’s not about coaching drinkers into identifying subtleties. It’s about chemistry and experimentation, old traditions, and new discoveries – and a family project.
The winery at 1300 Potrero Ave., where the Eristavis set up shop about a year ago after about a year on Treasure Island, is no hobby. It’s open Thursday through Sunday to the general public, and special events can eat up after-work hours on every other day too. They all have jobs. – Lia is a graphic designer, Victor is a chemist and quality analyst at Genentech, and Nikolas is a marketer both by trade and at the family business.
On a recent Thursday night, commuters rushed by while the Eristavi family extolled the Georgian food called khachapuri.
“Georgians are really good at peasant food,” Nikolas says.
“Peasant food? It has cheese! Cheese is expensive!” his father objects.
Clearly, not every piece of cultural knowledge has made it to the younger generation – Nikolas is definitely an American, by his own admission, but says, “Deep inside me, there’s this very hairy and drunk Georgian that’s like, ‘You have to go back!’”
I did learn about a few traditions, however.
“Every dinner is structured. One person is running the entire table, the toast master, who leads the series of toasts,” he said. “One to the country, one to women, often the impact their mothers have had…The whole goal is to keep drinking.”
With the exception of some of the grapes used for the wine, this is not necessarily a slice of wine country in San Francisco. It’s just what this family loves to do.
“We get people from all around the Bay Area who tell us, ‘we were planning to go to Napa, but then we found you,’” Nikolas tells me.
Part of the appeal is the laid-back attitude.
“I really like the atmosphere,” said Kendra Guerrero, a work colleague of Nikolas and an occasional visitor to the winery on her way home who has dropped in for a glass of rosé. “Everyone has always been friendly. I’m not a huge wine drinker, so I like to have that casual atmosphere.”
Jomar Monzon and Jamie Siochi, former roommates, were giving up beer for Lent – so they gave wine a shot. For $10 a tasting, or $8 -$12 a glass, they were impressed.
“I love the unassuming restaurants and places like that. It’s kind of hidden,” noted Siochi.
Once people find the winery, they like to stay.
“When people are coming, we have no problem keeping them in. We have trouble to kick them out,” said Victor.
“We’re all talkative people here,” Nikolas said. “Especially when we’re drinking, which is kind of inevitable.”