New Kids on the Block

4287

The clich is that family wineries are nestled in rugged foothills above bucolic valleys. But for Revolution Wines, the term shoehorned is more a. Squeezed ipnto a former auto shop at P and 21st streets in midtown, it’s a working microwinery right here in River City.

There’s something reminiscent of a speak-easy about the operation. You pass through a nondescript metal gate and walk along a little pathway to get to the winery at 2116 P St. As you step into the tiny tasting area, you are likely to be greeted by the winemaker himself. It’s hard to call a man with freckles and a soul patch a veteran winemaker, but Jason Fernandez, 34, has crushed with the best of them at Chalone, Bonny Doon and R.H. Phillips. For his own venture, he teamed up with his brother-in-law, Joe Genshlea Jr., a former product supervisor in the mortgage industry who now manages the winery full time; Joe’s wife, Gina; and a web of investors that includes local attorney Joe Genshlea Sr. and lobbyist Phil Serna, son of the late Mayor Joe Serna.

Fernandez and the junior Genshlea, 42, are a visual contrast. Fernandez moves quickly and smiles boyishly, with
dark eyes that flash serious intent. Genshlea is tall, relaxed, softer around the edges, with fair skin and hair and tentative blue eyes. After two years of making Revolution Wines in space rented from other wineries, they opened their P Street tasting room to the
public on July 13, 2007.

In their own way, these local sons are just as guilty of buying into the romance of winemaking as previous generations who went back to the land (or the château). In this case, however, they’ve chosen hip midtown as their wine country.

Part of my vision for being in the city is that I want to see wine more integrated in people’s everyday lives, says Fernandez. People who eat well know where their food comes from. I put wine in that category as well.

For a winery, there are advantages to being in the city. Power, water and transportation of case goods are cheaper. Labor is more plentiful, especially when you have a lot of friends&emdash;or can make them quickly by throwing good parties. Licensing and permits went through within 90 days, rather than the typical six months for rural wineries. Most importantly, the proximity to customers gives a winery a leg up, marketing-wise: Small wineries survive by selling directly to a loyal fan base, rather than duking it out with the big guys on grocery store shelves.

At Revolution, there’s a whiff of rebellion in the strong smell of wine and barrels. While the label’s logo suggests the revolution of the sun around the Earth, the more volatile meaning of the word is no accident.

I don’t want to make wine like everyone else or do things just because that’s the way we’ve always done it, says Fernandez. He uses French oak for aging Zinfandel, for example, and he doesn’t go by the book with fermentation temperatures, either. The fact that Genshlea is not from the wine industry helps, too, say the partners, since he often asks, Now, why do it this way?

They buy grapes from a patchwork of small vineyards from Napa to the Sierra Foothills and beyond. Some of the growers are longtime contacts of Fernandez, including his viticulturist uncle, Tony Fernandez Jr., vineyard manager of Napa’s Atlas Peak. At harvest time, the grapes are delivered by truck to the winery’s driveway, where they are crushed. The rest of the process&emdash;fermentation, pressing and aging&emdash;happens in these close quarters.

Last harvest, Revolution Wines made enough wine to fill 3,000 cases, twice the production of 2006. Varietals and blends are evolving based on the grapes available. This year, the partners were tempted into buying more grapes, says Fernandez. We couldn’t pass up some Grenache from Mendocino and some Washington state Riesling.

The vibe at Revolution Wines is similar to that at tech or media start-ups: long hours, fashionable denim, creative facial hair and tattoos, the scent of entrepreneurship and evangelism. But these are not young singles with nothing to lose: Fernandez and Genshlea each have three children at home.
Large wineries have their own bottling lines: a room full of snaking, shiny assembly lines that fill, cork, label and foil the bottles. Small wineries call
in mobile bottling lines, in which the same tangle of equipment is mounted on a truck, which parks on the winery’s crush pad and hooks up to the tanks.

Neither method is employed here. There’s no way to get one of those trucks down the alley, much less build an in-house line. So Fernandez, who has sent out hundreds of thousands of cases of big-name labels, now has a humble setup familiar to scores of home winemakers. A hand filler. A squeeze bottle for topping off. Two hand corkers, one of them needing a lot of patience. Labels and foil capsules are applied by hand. We really do it all here, Fernandez says proudly.

While the focus is on growing tasting room sales and a direct-mail list of customers, Revolution Wines have earned strategic placements at area restaurants and wine shops, including Paragary’s, Taylor’s Market, Discover California, Beyond Napa and the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. Prices range from $14 for the Pinot Grigio to $22 for the Syrah.

The press has been kind, most notably in several mentions in Mike Dunne’s food and wine blog for The Sacramento Bee. A State Fair gold medal for the 2005 Amador County Zinfandel has backed up the buzz generated by the novelty of a winery in the city. Friends who bring friends account for most of the traffic through the door. Some people may say they saw us in the Bee or in Sunset magazine, but most of our business is word of mouth, says Genshlea.

Instead of cultivating grapes, Fernandez and Genshlea are bent on growing a local culture around their business. Although getting the wine made and in bottles is the main focus these days, says Genshlea, the partners plan to market amenities not always found in rural wineries, such as space for private parties and personal wine storage. They also want to start a do-it-yourself program, called Vintage Experience, where customers can direct the making of their own barrel of wine and be as hands-on as they wish. A similar concept, the Bay Area’s Crushpad, has been very successful, drawing amateur winemakers, including several from Sacramento, to make their own wine with the help and equipment of the pros.

But this little team is already rocking midtown with their revolutionary winery. Starting a small business is something else, Fernandez says
with understatement. But I’m really happy with how we’ve done together.