Chris Brockway, Winemaker + Owner
The Broc Cellars story begins with a move from Nebraska to California. Chris Brockway grew up in Omaha and felt drawn to wine. Specifically spicy, brambly Zinfandels from California, and took a leap to move out West. He received an oenology degree from Fresno State and began making his first wine in 2002 – it was just one barrel. The following year he made three barrels, and by 2004 had 14 barrels of wine to call his own. Broc Cellars was born and had its first official release in 2006. At the time, the mentality surrounding California wines was “bigger is better”. Chris personally felt the wines to be too big, too much alcohol, too much everything. He set out to do something else. In 2008 he moved to his first winery space in Berkeley, which was originally known as Grape Leaf Cellars, located only one block away from where we are now. This is where Broc found its way.
In his first winemaking years in Berkeley, Chris sourced from only a handful of vineyards in California. Arrowhead Mountain Vineyard, an organically farmed Zinfandel vineyard in Sonoma, was one of the first places Chris purchased fruit from starting in 2006 and continues to make wine from this special vineyard today. Chris learned that picking before what was considered ripe in California at the time produced wines that he really enjoyed drinking. This was true for not only the Zinfandel from Arrowhead, but all the other vineyards he worked with. Picking before the grapes got too ripe led to fresher, lighter wines that were lower in alcohol - they showed the special character of the vineyard. Today, the Vine Starr Zinfandel is still recognized as one of the most fresh and balanced Zinfandels made from California.
In 2009, Chris made his first vintage of Carignan using carbonic maceration and it was also the first year he experimented with skin contact whites, making a Rousanne. Another wine that paved the way for Broc early on was the whole cluster Cabernet Franc, now known as KouKou. In 2010 Chris began working with Cabernet Franc from Happy Canyon in Santa Barbara and made it using whole cluster fermentation. The wines made in 2009 and 2010 were unlike most wines being made in California at the time and were building blocks for how Broc wines are made today.
By 2013, something was starting to shift. Wine drinkers were taking notice of winemakers and growers moving beyond what had become typical in California winemaking -- monocultural, high alcohol, big body and pesticide ridden farming. Organic farming, expressions from little known varieties, preservation of land, and fruit sourced from vineyards winemakers did not own were now becoming a topic of conversation. Many people who may not normally gravitate to California wines started to seek them out.
A pivotal moment (now locked in time) was the book release of “The New California Wine” by Jon Bonné. It explored what he calls a “revolution in taste” and among the stories of innovative winemakers in the state is one told about Chris and his small Berkeley winery situated in an urban setting, closer to his customers and where he was living in the Bay Area. This was the first time Chris along with other producers were being highlighted for what they were attempting to accomplish and how they were making exciting wines that weren’t the typical norm at the time. His Vine Starr Zinfandel was a primary focus in the book. It became his flagship wine, a delicate expression of the California grape -- the antithesis of what had become popular. He was one of the first of this new generation of winemakers to really embrace the natural acidity and fruit of Zinfandel but in an uplifted, restrained way.
In March 2014, an article in the New York Times by Eric Asimov titled “Fruit of the Bartered Vine” came out in print. It put Chris and his approach to winemaking front and center. After the article came out, the phones started to ring -- people wanted to buy wine directly and growers were offering new and exciting fruit sources. It marked the beginning of something bigger for Broc and what Chris knew was possible for his winery.
In 2015, Chris’s partner in life, Bridget Leary, became a full time partner in business as well taking on the role of General Manager of the winery. With her help he was able to focus more time on making wine, visiting vineyards and improving the cellar. Together they were able to grow Broc to what it is today -- exploring new sites to source grapes from in California and spending more time introducing people to Broc in other states and countries as far away as Japan. Ellia Starr, their first child, was born in 2018 and their second baby is due February 2022!
When lockdown happened in March of 2020, Chris and Bridget found themselves with more time to think creatively together. Home felt very special for them at that time and a passion project that was inspired by travels to Japan and spending more time at home was born. They designed a wine glass together with Rafil Ajl of The Long Confidence, whose shop is located just down the street from the winery in Berkeley. It became a beautiful symbol of a strange time. The glass was so well received that we got to work on making a decanter to match and it just added to our online shop.
Chris had two major influences that paved the way. The first was a book called “Real Wine: The Rediscovery of Natural Winemaking” by Patrick Matthews that he read during school, not assigned, but on his own. The second was San Francisco’s first natural wine bar Terroir in its opening year. He learned about varieties and wines he had never heard of before. He tasted wines that woke up his palate and senses and left him wanting to create that same feeling.
Chris was also inspired by many restaurants in the Bay Area focusing on ingredients sourced locally and more simply prepared – the best way. He noticed most wine lists focused mainly on imported wines. What you eat influences what you drink and Chris wanted to make wines that complimented dishes. He wanted to bring back the history of California wines and what they were originally – great table wines. He set out to make lighter, fresher, lower alcohol wines that are more affordable. And so began the creative and learning process of making natural wines and where we are today.
How we make wine:
Our goal in making wine is to bring out the natural expression of the grape. We start by using only native fermentations, a process that means we only use native yeasts and bacteria that exist on the grapes in order to make wine. We pick grapes early while they are still healthy and less desiccated. This allows for an easier fermentation without the need to add yeast because you don’t have copious amounts of sugar. We also pick the grapes early for good acidity. We don’t add anything – this includes nutrients, yeast, bacteria, enzymes, tannins or other popular fermentation agents. Sulphur is a naturally occurring element in all wine and the amount found can vary. We add little to no sulphur, depending on the wine and style.
Where we source grapes:
We source an eclectic mix of grapes from all over California, working with vineyards as far south as Paso Robles and as far north as Mendocino. All of the vineyards are smaller and farmed organically.