When Tom Leaf moved to San Francisco from Texas in 1988, he liked to drink beer. Then one day he took a trip to the wine country, tasted a Hop Kilm 1985 Reserve Zinfandel and had a revelation.
“If someone told me when I was in Texas I would come to California and make wine, I would have laughed,” Leaf said “But that day I went wine tasting it was literally a light-bulb experience. I fell in love.”
By 1991 Leaf, an environmental consultant, was making wine in the basement of his San Francisco home.
By 1994 his wines were winning awards at state and county fairs throughout the Bay Area.
By 1999 Leaf had won over 150 awards and his passion for winemaking posed a problem.
“I was making more wine than I could use or give away to family and friends, so I had to cut back or become professional,” he said.
Unwilling to cut back, Leaf decided to make a career change. He hooked up with another
budding wine company to share space with and began looking around the Bay Area for a good facility to start a professional winery. After looking in Sonoma, Napa and Marin they found what Leaf described as the “perfect” location in a town not widely known as a wine center – Berkeley.
“We knew right away this was the place,” Leaf said. “It had operated as a winery for 20 years so it had everything we needed, a good water supply, drainage and existing city permits.”
In addition, Leaf said he is located a short drive from the Napa vineyard where he purchases his grapes.
Leaf took his life’s savings “and then some” and opened Grapeleaf Cellars in 1999 in a building that was originally a meat-packing facility on Camelia Street.
Leaf had become part of long and little known local tradition of winemaking. His also became the fifth operating winery in Berkeley. The others are Catalpa Creek (Leaf’s co-tenant), Rubissow Sargent Wine Co., Edmonds St. John and the largest, Audubon Cellars.
Gale Bach, the cellar master for Audubon Cellars, said there has been both professional and amateur winemaking in Berkeley for many years. Bach, who began making wine with plums from his back yard 25 years ago, said Berkeley’s climate and location is good for winemaking.
“It’s not too hot and not too cold,” he said. “You need a relatively cool and steady temperature and it’s easy to do that here in Berkeley.”
Bach said other advantages include plenty of warehouse space in west Berkeley, easy access to vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties and an enthusiastic environment created by the Bay Area’s well-known love of food and good wine.
The Oak Barrel Wine Craft has been selling winemaking equipment to home winemakers and small wineries from its San Pablo Avenue store for nearly 50 years. Owner Bernie Rooney said he sells equipment all over the state but a large percentage of his customers are Berkeley residents who are making wine in their basements and garages.
Rooney agrees the Bay Area food culture inspires many locals to make wine. “Berkeley and San Francisco are the center of the whole food and wine scene in the Bay Area,” he said. “People here like to try new and interesting things.”
Leaf said his first vintage of chardonnays, pinot noirs, a zinfandel and a blended table wine were a success. He produced his goal of 1,000 cases and is beginning to market them. “I’ve been spending money for two years and am just now starting to get some back in,” he said.
Standing among the 50 French oak wine barrels and three Italian blending tanks, Leaf said he would like to have a big presence in Berkeley and that he looks forward to operating his winery here. He also invited anyone who’s interested to tour his operation and taste his wares.
Wine tasting and tours of Grapeleaf Cellars can be made by appointment by calling 527-1305 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org