The alcohol industry continues to evolve at a rapid pace of late, and successful producers are adapting along with it. While beer consumption actually declined in 2017 (though the craft category was up), the bright spots in booze last year were wine and spirits, which stole share from beer and increased in volume. Wine in particular is evolving in an ever more interesting manner from its traditional roots and vines. A growing number of wineries and winemakers are opting to situate themselves in surprisingly urban settings, taking a page from craft beer and capitalizing on urban traffic, pedestrian and bike ways and city wine trails.
Some of these wineries are also expanding their product portfolios, dipping into cider, beer and spirits. St. Clair Brown Winery and Brewery is a great example. It’s a first-of-its-kind urban winery in Napa, Calif. The winery just announced the launch of its nano brewery — only four years after opening. Even more exciting, St. Clair Brown is wholly owned and operated by two women (Elaine St. Clair and Laina Brown), one of which is both brewmaster and winemaker (that would be St. Clair).
“I have been making wine for over 30 years, but I also had a brewery for 10 years back in the ’90s,” explained St. Clair. “After we closed the brewery, I continued making wine, but I never lost my love for brewing. After a 20-year brewing hiatus, I was encouraged by my friends and family to get back into the beer industry and I am so happy and grateful. Our wine and beer garden is a rare place where you can sit outside or in our greenhouse, relax, meet up with friends and have a freshly brewed beer.
“I strive to make great, fresh beer that is complex, balanced and brewed with the best quality fresh organic ingredients. Selling direct to our customers and brewing in our small, 2-bbl brewhouse allows flexibility to create and develop many recipes. I draw on inspiration from brewing tradition and from the local food and wine scene. To me, brewing is like cooking. It is a craft that you perfect over a lifetime. We are focusing on a diverse range of styles from Kölsch to a Black IPA, making only four kegs at a time.”
In one of the world’s most famous wine making regions, St. Clair Brown is a unique endeavor. An urban winery is not a common occurrence. A winery and brewery even less so. Yet as an urban winery and brewery, St. Clair Brown is uniquely able to circumvent many of the county regulations put into place in the early 1990s. They are able to stay open later, serve their wine and beer by the glass alongside a food menu and, most importantly, be open to the public without requiring a prior appointment.
“Since we are located in the city limits, our use permit is regulated by the city rather than the county,” said Brown. “The Napa Valley is an agricultural preserve, so retail business or business activities other than agriculture are highly regulated. They are trying to protect the farmland. The county tightened the regulations on wineries in 1990, and new winery permits issued after that point are required to be appointment only or the daily foot traffic is very limited. Wine poured on site can only be in a tasting format. Our business model is 100 percent direct to consumer, so it is essential that we are open to the public. This was our initial motivation for locating our winery in the city limits. The ability to stay open later and to create an environment where people could experience a technical tasting or simply enjoy a glass of wine and beer with great food was also important to our vision. When we laid it all out, the city made the most sense for us.”
The alcohol licenses were by far the biggest challenge for St. Clair Brown. There are some post-prohibition laws that limit owners of more than one alcohol business to prevent monopolies. The company could have poured beer sooner, but the wine and beer tasting areas would have had to be separated by a wall. It was important to Brown and St. Clair to be able to serve both its wine and beer in the same space, so they were determined to make it work. The local government finally made a change to their brewery license last year that allowed St. Clair Brown to serve wine in its taproom since they are a producer of both and because it has a separate food program.
“So, we abandoned the license for the wine tasting room and filed for a license as an offsite taproom under our brewery license. It just made it all that much sweeter in the end,” said Brown. “Environmental Management made us submit two separate engineering plans for our wastewater system before they approved it. They kept questioning the intake and output ratio for the water. With wine production, the water usage is predominately for cleaning tanks and barrels. It took a while for us to get them to understand that when you make beer the water goes into beer and it stays in the beer. That said, the city of Napa was great to work with. The best thing that we did was to approach the city before we started and ask them where was the best place for us to be located within the city plan and how best to proceed to do all of the things that we wanted to do.”
Today, St. Clair Brown is a boutique direct-to-consumer winery with under a 1,000-case wine production. Its 2-bbl brewhouse brews 60 gal of beer a batch. The St. Clair Brown program now includes 11 wines and 11 beers with more developing all the time. Each beer is bottled by hand in resealable, 750-ml champagne bottles. St. Clair Brown features three beers on tap at its Greenhouse Tasting Room, which sits across the street from the actual winery and brewery. The rotating selection includes a pilsner, Kölsch-style ale, honey wheat ale, farmhouse saison, pale ale, red ale, Scottish ale, brown ale, black IPA, oatmeal stout and a porter with more recipe trials underway.
“My advice is to keep sight of the creative aspect of brewing and to elevate quality wherever possible,” St. Clair said. “As an industry, I think we still have so many beer styles to explore. My day job has always been in the wine industry, and I was fortunate to make sparkling wine for two renowned Champagne producers. These companies both invested heavily in research to improve quality. I was shown the art of blending to create balance. I also learned the art of growing and tending yeast and taking care of fermentation. Winemaking is an annual event. There is a keen focus on improving the vineyard and the wine production techniques to enhance flavors the following year. This is a useful approach for beer making. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait a year and can try new ideas as soon as the next fermenter is available.”
Clair has been making wine in the Napa Valley for more than 30 years. As a UC Davis graduate, she attended both the school’s winemaking and brewing programs and holds a degree in fermentation science. Shortly after graduating she joined the winemaking team at Domaine Chandon where she started making beer on the side. For 10 years, Elaine St. Clair was headbrewer and co-owner of Napa Ale Works, one of Napa Valley’s original breweries, while continuing to make wine full time. After 21 years, St. Clair is brewing once again but on a much smaller scale.
“The craft beer industry has changed a lot over the last two decades,” St. Clair said. “There is more malt, hop and yeast selections, and there are more organic options. There is also a lot more equipment available for small-scale brewing. Beer drinkers have also changed. They are much more knowledgeable and open to trying new styles. It is exciting to develop new recipes knowing that our customers are eager to have a new selection on tap or in their beer club shipment.”
The approach of St. Clair Brown is purposefully entrepreneurial, small and elegant. The facilities offer an urban oasis two blocks from Main Street in downtown Napa. The Greenhouse Tasting Room is a beautiful outdoor/indoor facility with intimate tabletops, mighty umbrellas, outdoor bar and local foliage flowing throughout — backdropped by an edible culinary garden. Tours, events, a wine club, beer club and store round out St. Clair Brown’s portfolio (for now).
“Our next big project on the horizon is the addition of a second taproom in the brewery building, hopefully by next year,” said Brown. “Gearing up for that, we will start kegging our first vintages of wine in a couple of weeks. The wine will be poured on tap alongside the beer in our Greenhouse Tasting Room this summer, and in the new taproom when it opens. A small hop garden is going in this summer, which will be fun in our urban setting.”
St. Clair Brown Winery and Brewery is located at 816 Vallejo Street, Napa, CA 94559. They are open to the public from Thursday through Saturday 12 to 8 p.m. and Sunday and Monday 12 to 6 p.m.