Serving Hard Time — Wine Behind Bars

I guess you can make wine just about anywhere. Even behind bars.

Wines are often stored in out-of-the-way places like caves or underground cellars where temperatures remain naturally cool and constant.

In fact, archeologists earlier this month announced they had found the world’s oldest winemaking sites deep inside a cave in Armenia where grapes were fermented more than 6,000 years ago. None of the wine survived, but the researchers found both crude equipment and by-products that confirmed winemaking took place there.

Island Treasure

There are several urban wineries operating in the Bay Area that were built in some pretty odd places including warehouses, airplane hangars and even a former submarine repair shop, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything like the location of Fat Grape Winery on Treasure Island.

Grape bins along the security fence at Fat Grape Winery

Fat Grape operates inside the old Navy brig on Treasure Island where thick, reinforced walls, bars on the windows and doors and a perimeter security fence makes this an oddly perfect place to make wine.

That’s what Patrick Bowen, a concrete contractor who was bitten by the winemaking bug, thought when he decided to convert the former jail into a winery.

Bowen started in 1998 as a home winemaker and then turned pro in 2008. He had outgrown his hobby and needed a place to make wine commercially. He scouted all over Treasure Island before making his choice to convert the brig into a modern winemaking operation.

Free Weekend Tasting

The winery is open to the public on weekends for free tasting.

It was definitely cold inside the former brig during a recent visit to the former Navy base now being developed for multi-faceted civilian use by the city of San Francisco.

From the Fat Grape parking lot, you can see the new towers of the Bay Bridge expansion taking shape. Nearby, several World War II buildings are being dismantled, to make way for new development while other, existing facilities are being converted to civilian use, including an aircraft hangar that is home to an even larger winemaking operation called The Winery SF.


Bowen is committed to making wines without the use of sulfites, a chemical often used by many winemakers as a preservative. Bowen advises customers that his sulfite-free wines should be stored at temperatures below 56 degrees Farenheit, to guard against spoilage and deterioration.

The wines are happy in the chilly brig, which is cooled by the surrounding Bay waters, cold wind and fog that influence the island’s climate.

Fat Grape’s lineup of bottled wines for sale is all red — cabernet franc, mourvedre, petit verdot, sangiovese, zinfandel and cabernet. There are 54 barrels of petite syrah aging along one internal wall of the winery, not ready yet for bottling but available for sampling. Most of the grapes come from Lodi, where Bowen contracts with the grower to supply the raw materials for his work.

The wines are young, fresh, and interesting, but Bowen is not quite ready to challenge Chateau Lafite or any of the big name California wineries in Napa and Sonoma. His production is relatively small and prices are reasonable, ranging from $19-$23 per bottle. It’s probably worth buying a bottle, or a case, just to tell the story of getting your wine behind bars!


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