By Frier McCollister
A quiet block of San Fernando Boulevard in Downtown Burbank seems an unlikely location for a productive winery, tasting room and restaurant.
The modest and unassuming storefront belies a series of handsomely designed dining areas inside and a spacious outdoor porch and patio in back. Open a house brand bottle on the rustically elegant porch and the transportive atmosphere conjures a charming Tuscan trattoria, with live jazz music spilling out to the nearby alleyways of Downtown Burbank.
Urban Press Winery is the brainchild of the ever-affable and voluble Giovanni D’Andrea, a former tech executive and first-generation Italian native of Montreal.
“Growing up in Montreal, they had to import grapes from California. I had a little bit of knowledge on how to make wine back then but never took it really seriously,” D’Andrea recalls. “Coming out here, I realized grapes were available and we have wine-growing regions within an hour-, two-hour drive from us.”
After settling in Southern California in 1989, D’Andrea began making small batches of wine from his rented garage.
“I was actually renting a room, when I asked the owner for permission to start making wine in the garage,” he says.
“Back in 1993 was my first year. It came to the point where my wife told me, ‘OK, I think you have to move this out of the garage. You now have eight barrels.’”
Over time, his passion for winemaking extended to the acquisition of grapes from a few farmers’ vineyards in Sonoma County, where he expanded the scope and range of his winemaking. Still, D’Andrea’s vision was more expansive.
“I wanted to make the wines, but I wanted to bring the whole experience to the city. There are millions and millions of people here in LA who have never visited a tasting room or had the opportunity,” he notes.
He emphasized the importance of tasting and compares wine selection to buying perfume. A wine-tasting sample should direct you in the same way a spritz of perfume informs an aroma preference.
“The tasting room is all about educating people that there are great wines out there that are affordable,” D’Andrea asserts. Accessibility is important here. The reasonable price points for the high quality of the wine reflect the fact that there is no distributor or “middleman” adding surcharges.
In 2011, D’Andrea acquired his winemaking license. “We cultivated and produced our first vintages. Believe it or not those were all reds. Back then, I was really a ‘red’ guy. I was a big fan of the heavy cabs. Now we do four varietals,” he notes.
“Being in the city you have to be able to offer all kinds of varietals. I was never the biggest fan of pinot noirs. Guess what? I love pinot noir today. It’s one of our top sellers here. In the city, you have to please a lot of different palates.”
To that end, experienced French winemaker Francois Cordesse joined D’Andrea’s team in 2018. An award-winning oenologist, Cordesse largely tends to the active cultivation of the vineyards and their harvests for specific vintages.
D’Andrea grins and replies when asked about his favorite.
“Honestly? Any bottle that’s open,” he says. “But I’m really big into my syrah rose. We just released our 2017 syrah red. I’ve been eating and tagging along with that syrah right now.”
For many connoisseurs, the best wine is meant to accompany and enhance the experience of enjoying finely prepared cuisine. One needn’t leave the premises of Urban Press Winery to test a chosen bottle with delicious food. It should also be noted that a complimentary wine tasting at the front tasting bar kicks off any dining experience at Urban Press from 6 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 6 to 9 p.m. Sundays.
D’Andrea recruited Roman-trained chef Emidio Tidu in 2021 to help command a trailer with a wood-burning oven that D’Andrea had built and placed in the open back patio. Initially limited to pizzas and pastas, Tidu was promised a full kitchen, the buildout of which was delayed until January of last year.
In May, Urban Press opened its dining rooms, presenting Tidu’s full menu of masterfully sophisticated, elevated takes on Italian cuisine. Each dish provides an ideal medium for sampling and pairing the subtly cultivated notes of the wines here.
A survey of the menu begins with oysters, available by the half or full dozen ($21/$34). They arrive in a fresh combination of Kushu and Kumai, from British Columbia and Baja, respectively.
Depending on appetite and party size, there are two charcuterie boards ($32/$50) amply arrayed with a spectrum of Italian cheeses and cured meat, garnished with fig jam, olives, dried fruit and nuts. “Antipasti” choices include a house-favorite grilled octopus with fingerling potatoes and olives ($21) as well as beef tartare served with black truffle and caviar ($22).
There are steaks including a 9-ounce filet mignon ($41), a 14-ounce Angus ribeye ($40), or a massive 32-ounce tomahawk ($130) for two. Seafood entrees include grilled calamari with sauteed spinach ($25) and the obligatory cioppino, the Italian seafood stew of mussels, clams, shrimp and calamari ($31).
Pasta, risotto and individual pizzas come with the territory inevitably here, and all can find aptly delicious pairings with any of the winery’s bottles. Mushroom and truffle fettuccine ($33), lobster squid-ink ravioli ($25) and cacio e pepe ($18) all stand out as intriguing pasta options. The risotto Piemontese ($21) is highlighted as a signature dish and is prepared with arborio rice simmered slowly in Urban Press cabernet. Notable pizza preps: the garlic shrimp ($21) and the “Miss Italia,” also a house favorite with fresh prosciutto, arugula and Parmesan ($25).
Thirst and hunger will always be sated in an elegant and complementary fashion at Urban Press Winery. Brunch is offered on the weekends, and there is an attractive happy hour menu offered from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Select Urban Press wines, $6, are available, as are five discounted menu options ($6 to $11).
In the winery’s tasting room, a flight of five selections can be sampled for $25. The fee is waived on with the purchase of two bottles. Or, if the charm and quality of Urban Press Winery bottles have thoroughly seduced a guest, an exclusive Wine Club membership program may also be considered for a waiver of the tasting fee.
The club offers three levels of engagement: The “Starter” is premised on the purchase of two bottles per month and includes a 15% discount on bottles to go and two tastings for two per month; the “Club” level — based on a three-bottle monthly purchase — offers a 25% discount on bottles as well as 5% off the food menu and three tastings for two per month; and the “VIP” membership includes a 35% discount on to-go bottles, a 10% discount off the menu, and four tastings for two each month. The memberships can be specified for red or white exclusively or for white and rose or “mixed” accordingly. Current pricing for memberships is available on its website.
The experience of Urban Press Winery is fully immersive in the sense that once you have settled at your table with food and wine, live music will also always be part of the fun. A rotating cast of combos and musicians plays near the tasting room. The jazz combo appearing for the weekend brunch service is particularly popular.
There are also periodic evening dinner package specials featuring coursed menus with wine pairings and live entertainment.
“We have a super staff now,” D’Andrea enthuses. Ably led by general manager Caryn Adams, Urban Press is expected to be serving lunch soon. “By the middle of the summer latest,” D’Andrea promises.
Musing on his surroundings and the placid oasis he has created in the middle of the city, D’Andrea notes, “Burbank has an unknown charm to it. What city has its own airport and its own Ikea? We have not just opened a winery; we have opened a destination.”
Looking out over the patio from the expansive porch, breeze lilting with soft jazz in the air, D’Andrea concludes, “The experience here is I’m trying to put the fun back into going out. (We have) affordable wines, great wines and probably one of the best Italian restaurants in our city today. People are looking for value. Great service. Great wine. Great food. I think we have it all covered.”