In 2015, Christopher Renfro landed a job waiting tables in downtown San Francisco at a newly opened eatery called Oro. The name, meaning “gold” in Spanish, was a tribute of sorts to the restaurant’s location in a plaza shared by the former San Francisco Mint.
Renfro was 32 years old, and Oro was his first gig at a high-profile restaurant. An artisan with an environmental bent, he had done many things over the previous decade, from refurbishing storefronts for American Apparel to working the register at a co-op grocery store to gardening at the city’s Conservatory of Flowers. Before Oro, he had worked at a ceramics company, where his innovative thinking sparked the creation of a tile-recycling program. “The work was backbreaking,” says Renfro. He calculated that he was lifting the equivalent of two elephants, or about nine tons, in tile a day. Earning generous restaurant tips seemed a better way to provide for his young daughter at home.
At Oro, he says, he wore a nice blue shirt that covered the tattoos on his espresso-brown skin, and he kept his black, woolly Afro cut short and combed out. The cuisine was served family-style and highlighted local California produce, fresh meats, and charcuterie cured in-house—reminiscent of the pâté, liverwurst, and other foods Renfro had eaten as a boy in Germany. (He’d spent 10 years of his childhood there while his mother worked on a U.S. Army base.) But what intrigued him most was the menu of 140-plus mainly Italian, French, and Californian vintages. The wine director, Kelly Evans, had been the head sommelier at Saison.
Renfro’s early experiences with wine had been subpar. While he was growing up, his mother drank wine coolers and amaretto sours. As a teenager, he had a friend who worked for a gallery, and they would hang out at art openings for free booze. The first time Renfro drank red wine, it made him sick. It wasn’t until working at Oro that he came to understand how fine wine could elevate the dining experience. He asked Evans if he could assist him in the cellar (actually a dusty backroom office). Renfro started off taking inventory and would study the bottle labels to remember them, but what he learned about wine’s history was disheartening.
“I saw all these bottles [with] châteaux and domaines on them and was reading white people’s stories about their sons taking their land,” he says. “There’s not one story like this in Black history, at least that I know of.” While those châteaux and domaines established generational wealth, Black Americans were entrapped in 12 generations of slavery. President Thomas Jefferson cultivated grapevines at his plantation, Monticello, where enslaved Black people had a hand in nearly every aspect of food production, except winegrowing (Jefferson hired Italian workers for that).
Renfro found himself having an internal dialogue with the wine world’s whitewashed history: You guys are selling juice that tells racist stories, and people buy it for tons of money. He saw the potential for a career in wine, though he felt it was time for another kind of winemaking story, told on different terroir, by Black and brown voices.
Oro shuttered within nine months of opening. Renfro pivoted to a nearby restaurant, Liholiho Yacht Club, where he took his first strides as a sommelier. He grew more interested in learning about how wine was made, but his ambitions went beyond that. “Nobody was doing anything positive for Black people in wine,” he recalls. What he really wanted was to stake a claim in the hegemonic world of viticulture for people who’d been shut out of it for centuries. Wine country was just a stone’s throw outside the city, but “I didn’t think Napa was the best way to get there,” says Renfro, “and I didn’t know anyone in Napa.” He lived in South San Francisco, and it turned out that there was an alternative nearly in his backyard—Alemany Farm, on the south side of San Francisco’s Bernal Heights.
Renfro discovered that a nonprofit, Neighborhood Vineyards, had planted pinot noir there in 2013. The community-run project taught its volunteers about viticulture, aiming to sustain its work through sales of its wine production. Renfro reached out to the nonprofit’s founder several times but says she never replied to him. In December 2019, he went to Alemany Farm to harvest a cutting, only to discover that Neighborhood Vineyards had abandoned the site, leaving behind about 65 vines that looked to be dying. Here was Renfro’s opportunity to pursue his vision of a new wine story. He introduced himself to the farm’s manager and offered to care for the vines. He didn’t have any grape-growing experience, but he was willing to learn. Within a week, Renfro had his vineyard.
This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Alemany Farm was once just an empty hillside overlooking the 280 freeway. In the early 1990s, it was a local dump site for cars, refrigerators, and other junk. The land was converted into an organic urban farm by the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners in 1995. Among other initiatives, SLUG offered paid internships to youth; the majority lived in the neighboring housing project, Alemany Apartments, and others came from the nearby Bayview area. Black and brown hands tended the land for almost 10 years, until the city accused SLUG of pressuring employees to do campaign work for local elections and slashed its funding. The farm’s ensuing shutdown took a toll on the surrounding Black community, and the land lay nearly abandoned until Friends of Alemany Farm arrived in 2005. Today, Alemany’s 3.5-acre farm is the largest agricultural site in San Francisco, yielding about 12 tons of produce a year, most of which is donated to local food pantries, including one at Alemany Apartments. Anyone in the city can come to the farm and harvest fresh produce for free.
In Renfro’s mind, the local community had “a free, organically farmed mecca of food and peace where you can walk around, pray, do whatever you want.” As with the invisible lines drawn elsewhere in San Francisco, though, he didn’t see any Black residents from the housing project coming to reap those benefits. Before the pandemic and the reignition of the Black Lives Matter movement, the wine industry at large wasn’t yet talking about its race issue. Renfro envisioned creating a safe space “for the community right here that’s been impacted by agricultural injustice, food injustice, and land injustice.” He wanted to teach marginalized youth about a sector of agriculture they otherwise might not know about and, in the process, give them new skills they could monetize. The 280 Project, as Renfro named it, would give the Black community a reason to return to the farm.
Germany has a lot to do with who I am,” says Renfro. His fourth-grade teacher, Frau Naser, inspired his love for nature. She was an older German woman with fashion sense, wearing her blond hair in a pixie cut, a white suit with aviator sunglasses and jewelry, “but then, she was all about the earth.” Naser took her class to the countryside to learn about animals, fossils, and ecosystems. Renfro had a curious, sharp, and rebellious spirit that sometimes got him in trouble. “I remember that lady gave me the permission to be able to be who I already was. She saw it and nurtured it,” he says. “I could speak the language, and I played with the kids, and I was able to run through forests, and I never had anyone aiming guns at me.”
His mother made sure he read books on Black history and culture. Renfro was drawn to George Washington Carver’s story. Though Carver was born enslaved, his pioneering discoveries in agricultural science at what is now Tuskegee University played a crucial role in saving impoverished southern farmers during the Dust Bowl. “I would think about that,” Renfro says, “and I’d be like, Damn, this guy is like a superhero.”
Visits to relatives in Louisiana could cause culture shock. Instead of pâté and liverwurst, there were family crab boils. Renfro gazed at the giant oak trees in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward and the region’s beautiful Victorian houses, but he also began to comprehend the pangs of being a Black man in America. When his family moved back to the States—bouncing around Kentucky, Texas, and Colorado—he witnessed racial inequities across the Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities he lived among.
Renfro made his way to San Francisco in 2006, but, he says, “when I moved to the city, it was a real problem to be Black.” Poverty, police brutality, and gang violence waited in the streets. Renfro lived in the Western Addition, a historically Black neighborhood at the heart of the city that had been nearly decimated by a roughly 55-year-long municipal campaign to clear the “blight.” The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency had shuttered 883 businesses, torn down roughly 2,500 Victorian homes, and displaced 4,729 households in the area, SFGate reported in 2008.
Like many other Black San Franciscans, Renfro eventually migrated to South San Francisco. His own path was proving just as rocky, as that job at American Apparel had ended in a racial discrimination lawsuit. He won the case but says he lost the majority of his compensation to lawyer fees. “I lost my mind for a bit after that,” says Renfro, which compelled him to get back to what had always been constant joys in his life—plants and the outdoors. He took courses in environmental horticulture at City College of San Francisco. Still, Renfro sensed microaggressions in almost every workplace. While at Oro, he quickly learned that restaurants had their own set of issues.
When he landed at Alemany, Renfro needed to learn how to prune the vines, and fast, as the growing season was about to begin. He had recently attended a trade event spotlighting U.S. viticulturists Steve Matthiasson and Mimi Casteel, and he contacted them. Matthiasson, based in Napa Valley, was widely respected for his decades of work in organic farming; Casteel, for her work popularizing regenerative farming in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. They both agreed to give Renfro pruning lessons over video chat.
“I’ll talk to anyone about pruning,” says Matthiasson. He was blown away when he learned what Renfro was up to. “I had no idea there were grapevines in San Francisco. I would have thought it’d be way too foggy.” Matthiasson Winery is based in Napa’s Oak Knoll District, where winegrowers once thought it was too foggy to ripen cabernet sauvignon. Matthiasson proved them wrong. Like Renfro’s, his path to winegrowing had started in San Francisco, though almost 30 years ago and at a community garden on Potrero Avenue. It was through urban gardening that Matthiasson became a farmer. Now he is one of Napa’s most trusted sources on organic winegrowing. “I was really mentored along the way, and viticulture—there’s no way you can learn this on your own or from books,” he says. Passing along that information was a part of the tradition. After the virtual pruning lesson, Matthiasson and his wife, Jill Klein Matthiasson, visited Renfro in San Francisco to see the vines up close.
Just as Renfro began restoring the vineyard, the pandemic hit, and he was furloughed from Liholiho Yacht Club. “Everything changed in life, but for me, it was for the better,” he says. During quarantine, the farm was a place for Renfro to reconnect with nature. He worked the vineyard almost every day, and his partner, Jannea Tschirch, and their daughters came along. Ahmarie was a toddler and grew up as the vines did, and Sula, who was 10 years old, learned how to plant, prune, and graft vines alongside her dad. In the summer of 2020, Renfro and chef Haley Garabato launched Feed the People Collective, preparing a free monthly lunch at the farm. The Renfro-Tschirch family even had a winemaking operation in their kitchen that harvest. However, winemaking is only a fragment of Renfro’s end goal. “Wine is just the vehicle to talk about all of these other things,” he says.
In 2021, Renfro read about a Japanese-native grape variety called koshu in a British lifestyle magazine and wanted some of his own. Matthiasson connected him to plant biologist Elisabeth Forrestel at UC Davis. “People often come to me to ask where they can find certain grape cultivars or varieties or species now,” she says. Forrestel spent a postdoctoral at Harvard and UC Davis studying climate change and its impacts on living collections of grapes across the globe. She has worked with cultivars in France, which has the largest collection, and with all of North America’s wild vitis species. Sure enough, she knew where to find koshu: Wolfskill Experimental Orchard in Winters, California, run in partnership by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and UC Davis. The 280 Project was invited to visit and propagate some of the vines.
Wine as a luxury product was inherently exclusionary, but Renfro felt that winegrowing was especially inaccessible. During that initial interaction with Forrestel, he shared an idea for a new initiative: a paid apprenticeship that taught BIPOC and LGBTQ youth about viticulture. His new allies joined in the effort. “He just has this vision, and somehow it is infectious,” says Matthiasson. He offered direct access to Napa’s biggest, most successful winemakers and winegrowers, and Forrestel opened the doors to academia.
It was still the peak of COVID-19, and without the infrastructure to transport youth to wine country, the project’s focus shifted to working adults. Renfro promoted the apprenticeship on Instagram, and many people expressed interest. “I guess you’re a part of it,” Renfro told them. “Whoever wants to come.” For the first meeting, the apprentices gathered at Matthiasson’s estate in Napa, where they were joined by his vineyard crew, and everyone shared their backgrounds and career goals. Looking around the room, Renfro couldn’t believe they had made it to this point, that “we all [wanted] to be in wine, and this is what it took for us all to be here.”
Almost every Friday, Renfro; his 280 Project manager, Rita Manzana; and the apprentices went to a different winery or vineyard, including Andy Beckstoffer’s famed To Kalon Vineyard, one of the most sought-after sites for cabernet sauvignon in the world. They did hands-on learning in vineyards and attended organic seminars taught by Matthiasson. “There’s nothing like that even in formal education,” says Forrestel. At UC Davis, grape geneticist Andrew Walker gave the apprentices a lesson in grapevine identification, and Forrestel taught them how to propagate vines. They also produced a collaborative wine made entirely from wild vitis species native to North America.
These excursions were often a clashing of worlds. Program participants faced microaggressions, like when one apprentice got into an altercation with a winegrower on the subject of paying vineyard workers fair wages. The winegrower’s opinion was outnumbered by the opposing BIPOC perspectives in the room. “It was just interesting seeing the depth of privilege in the wine industry,” says Renfro. “It felt special to be in that space and community together.” Multiple apprentices noted that the confrontation was an integral moment of the program.
The apprenticeship is now in its second year. For the 2022 growing season, the Gérard Basset Foundation provided funding for five apprentices of color. This year’s selected participants include an army veteran and mechanic, a former real estate agent, and a cheesemonger, all wanting to break into the wine industry. Financing continues to be a major obstacle, however. There is a team behind the scenes volunteering its time and skills to keep the 280 Project afloat.
Renfro is now working full-time as the wine buyer at Canyon Market in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood but remains hopeful that one day he’ll be able to fully focus on the 280 Project—and Alemany Farm, of course. In between the pinot noir vines, he has interplanted other varieties he has collected along the way: a U.S. hybrid called marquette from Vermont, sémillon from Sonoma’s Monte Rosso Vineyard (the second-oldest such planting in the world), and the koshu from Wolfskill Experimental Orchard. There are four additional terraces of vines planted up the hillside, thanks to the apprentices. After two years of care, the vines are ready to produce grapes—and likely wine.
He has everything mapped out: the apprenticeship program growing to be bicoastal or maybe international; the land he’ll own in Oakland, Half Moon Bay, or Daly City; the cooperative winery; the farm and seed bank that will grow and preserve the Black community’s foodways. “It’s all coming, man. I know it,” says Renfro. “I feel closer to this power than I’ve ever felt in my life.”•