- Arden Park resident and local winemaker Jon Affonso check the bouquet of a recently poured Rail Bridge Cellars “boutique wine” called “Lattice.” Boutique wines are wines that are created from blending a variety of grapes. Lattice is 73 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 23 percent Merlot, two percent Cabernet Franc, one percent Malbec and one percent Petit Verdot. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Stephen Crowley
Starting your own business and making it successful has risks. When the economy is in a slump it can seem even riskier – even if the business happens to be making a great wine.
Jon Affonso, who lives in Arden Park, started the Rail Bridge Cellars urban winery and crush facility in 2004. Located at 400 North 16th St. in Sacramento, he is proving success can happen in a down economy.
Chris Chenco, owner and winemaker of Driven Cellars in Plymouth, California, said he has known Affonso for four years.
“Jon is very confident and an extremely qualified winemaker,” Chenco said. “As winemakers we are always trying to improve our product and Jon likes to share ideas. He has a vast amount of knowledge in the wine industry.”
Affonso said he grew up with foreign exchange students and knew he wanted to study abroad. He attended Jesuit High School and graduated in 1988. He attributes much of his success being able to complete a fifth year of high school in France, which was supported by the members of Rotary District 5180. This international program, today known as Rotary Youth Exchange, annually sends some 8,000 students on exchange. The primary goal of the program is to foster world understanding by way of intercultural exchange.
In France, Affonso was given the opportunity to work as an intern helping make Bordeaux at Chateau Angelus, a stone’s throw from many prestigious wineries. He said working there gave him valuable insight to the winemaking business. He said it also opened doors to other wineries.
Rail Bridge Cellars founder Jon Affonso discusses wine with local oenophiles (wine lovers) at a recent wine tasting at his wine and crush facility that is located in the Old Sacramento Rail Yards. The Victorian brick building that houses Rail Bridge Cellars used to be a leather tanning facility. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Stephen Crowley
When Affonso came back from France, he attended Sacramento State University. He decided to get a degree in geology because he enjoyed the outdoors and loved science classes. He said his junior year he realized he wanted to become a winemaker but felt he had invested too much time in geology, so he filled in the holes with chemistry classes to finish school. He went on to get another degree in enology at Fresno state and an MBA in wine business at Sonoma State. He figured he needed to know the business end if he was going to own a winery.
Delving in chemistry wasn’t new to Affonso. Growing up he worked with his dad, Stan, who roasted and sold coffee beans wholesale.
“It was fun to work with my dad,” Affonso said. “We would experiment with the different coffee beans, coming up with new flavors.”
Affonso said while working on his MBA at Sonoma State, he worked as a research assistant at Sutter Home Winery. He explained this job was based more on the chemistry of winemaking than on how to tend the vineyards. He said it was a fantastic experience.
As part of his thesis, Affonso wrote a business plan developing an urban winery in Sacramento. His professor
Rail Bridge Cellars wines are both affordable and excellent. Both of these wines, Lattice and Sauvignon Blanc, are carried in local stores, including Corti Brothers. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Stephen Crowley
thought it was a great idea and Rail Bridge was born.
When Affonso was looking for a building in Sacramento to house his wine and crush facility, he found an old run-down, red brick building. The building was originally a tannery in the 1920’s. He chose to renovate it because of the thick walls (which helps the cooling system) and easy access to electricity.
During the planning stages of his winery, Affonso did some research on the wine market at local restaurants in Sacramento. He wanted to fill the gaps. At that time, Affonso said people were into Cabernets, but not so much the red blends. Chardonnay was the white wine of choice, but there was not a lot of Sauvignon Blanc. He decided to make a blend that could compare to the Cabs in taste, but not have the higher price tag. He saw an opportunity for making a Sauvignon Blanc that had structure and layers to enhance the food it would be paired with.
“I look for food-friendly wines,” Affonso said. “I want the wine to enhance the flavor of the food.”
Affonso said he likes a crisp, clean, citrus Sauvignon Blanc that integrates well with food. He likes a red with balanced fruit and spices. He said his reds have soft tannins.
Jon Affonso pours for the crowd assembled at Rail Bridge Cellars at a recent wine tasting. The Jesuit High School grad spent an additional year of high school in France as a Rotary Youth Exchange student. While in France, worked as an intern to make Bordeaux at Chateau Angelus. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Stephen Crowley
In this lean economy, Affonso said people are not buying the more expensive wines. He said there a larger variety of wines now being offered that are a good value.
James Balke, who owns a local Sacramento winery, uses Affonso’s crush facility.
“He is a joy to work with,” Blake said. “He makes great wine. To succeed in this economy is a testimony to the work he has done.”
Scott Lascher, a local auto dealership owner, said he enjoys making his own private label of wine. He said Affonso has given him helpful tips with winemaking. Lascher said Affonso brought a lot of wine knowledge back with him from France.
“Jon owns the right equipment, which makes winemaking a painless experience,” Lascher said. “I have used his facility for a couple of years and find it terrific to work with Jon.”
Affonso said for 2010 he produced 2,000 cases of wine and 1,000 cases of custom wine for his clients. He has around 350 wine club members and tastings are by appointment. He also hosts weddings and private parties.
The thick, brick walls at Rail Bridge Cellars provide a perfect working environment for crafting excellent wines. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Stephen Crowley