| May 2013
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By Olivia Boler
‘Thieves’ Uncork. Keith Crowell and Matthew Purdon (right), partners in Les Voleurs winery, will share a sip of their wines at the local Garden Tour May 11. Many of their varietals were bottled by the Wine Thieves, a club they started in Purdon’s garage. Photo by Pamela Gerard
Building community around the seasons and a fine craft—that’s what set friends Matthew Purdon and Keith Crowell on their path to founding a Noe Valley winemaking club, the Wine Thieves. In turn, the club was the springboard for their own urban winery, Les Voleurs.
Crowell and Purdon met in 2006, while working at a social networking company for teens called Piczo, which has since been absorbed by another company. Their desks were next to each other, and they soon discovered a common passion for two things—building what Crowell calls “micro-community” and making alcoholic beverages.
“I’d been making beer for years, and I wanted to learn how to make wine,” Crowell, 39, says.
“And I’d been making wine at home for a couple of years,” Purdon, 41, adds. “I wanted to try to expand and make a few barrels of wine.”
They decided to partner up on this adventure in libation creation, and soon invited people to join them in learning about the winemaking process. Flash-forward seven years, and the Wine Thieves boasts more than 100 members. The club meets about once a month to learn about winemaking or do a wine-tasting, often in Purdon’s Jersey Street garage or garden. Crowell lives out in the Richmond District with his dog, “but I’m over here all the time,” he says. He also makes sake.
“The name of the club comes from the device that’s used to pull wine from a barrel,” Purdon says. “It’s a pipette, and it’s called a wine thief. We thought that was fun. We also take trips—sneaking up to Sonoma to grab grapes at five in the morning, and most of our meetings are in my garage, so there’s that sense of it being an underground movement.”
“It feels like we’re getting away with something,” Crowell says. “We’re bucking the system with our micro-community, and now our local micro-business, Les Voleurs. Lots of great wineries have been consolidated, so about 50 percent are owned by three companies,” he says.
An Escape from Screens
Getting out into nature was important for the club’s cofounders, who both still work in social media. “We felt out of balance,” Crowell says. “We’re doing a lot of stuff online every day, and not doing things in the real world. The club brings back balance and ties community to nature’s cycle.”
Winemaking is fixed to the seasons—the fall harvest, the aging of the wine in winter, and the bottling of the wine in spring. Though their cellar is in the city, the club takes field trips to Sonoma to see vineyards and pick grapes. This past year, the club picked zinfandel grapes from Unti Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley. They’ve also acquired cabernet grapes for several years from Stonetree Vineyards in Glen Ellen.
“Winemaking is really physical,” Purdon says. Using the tools of the trade—a hand crusher for the grapes, a hand basket press to extract the liquid, and a corker when it comes time to bottle the wine—members of the winemaking club all get a chance to be a part of the process. “Everyone puts a little muscle into it.” The club’s annual haul has been about three barrels of wine.
In addition to the winemaking skills, members get to take home bottles of the wine they’ve made themselves. (Membership dues change each year, so if interested, contact the club.)
Raze, Crave and Amaze
The bottles’ labels are designed by Chuck Whelon, a San Francisco illustrator, and depict the silhouette of a figure running away with a bottle…like a thief. The wines have fun names—Crave Chardonnay, Amaze Zinfandel, Misbehave Sangiovese, Raze Rosé of Zin, and Praise Pinot Noir.
Naturally, Crowell and Purdon started talking about taking their interest in winemaking to the next level. Their wines had won awards at the Marin County Fair and the California State Fair, and their underground club had become so popular that people were asking where they could buy some of the wine it produced. They got advice from winemakers, who all said the same thing: “We wish we had started our business earlier.”
“We were coming back from Sonoma with a U-Haul full of grapes, and we decided, let’s not wait. Let’s start now,” Crowell says.
“It took a year to get the paperwork done,” Purdon adds. But the results were worth it. They chose the name Les Voleurs—French for “the thieves”—and became a bonded, licensed urban winery. Their facilities are on Bluxome Street in Mission Bay. For now, the label produces two wines—a pinot noir ($32) and a chardonnay ($22).
“We want to get really good at making these wines before we try anything else,” Purdon says. “We use the club to experiment.” He and Crowell are partners in the winery and continue to head up the club.
Tasting at Garden Tour
Want to get a sip of this underground wine? The Thieves will be taking part in the Noe Valley Garden Tour on May 11, sponsored by the Friends of Noe Valley. Participants can see Purdon’s Jersey Street garden, which he tends with his wife Liz and new baby girl Olympia. Those 21 and over will get a glass of wine to sip. They will also take part in the Noe Valley Wine Walk (next one is in August), offering wine tastings at Just for Fun on 24th Street.
To find out more about the Wine Thieves club, visit the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/winethieves. For more on Les Voleurs, go to http://www.lesvoleurswines.com/. To get tickets for the Garden Tour, visit www.friendsofnoevalley.com.
Keith Crowell and Matthew Purdon and the members of their popular club, the Wine Thieves, enjoy pressing the grapes, filling the bottles, and packaging the wines themselves, often in Purdon’s garage on Jersey Street. They also like tasting the fruit of their labor. Photo by Pamela Gerard