Try Before You Buy
Many East Bay wine shops are also perfect places to swirl, sniff, and sip
“In vino veritas,” the old saying goes. In wine there is truth—and these days, residents of the East Bay don’t need to drive to Napa or Sonoma to get the facts.
That’s because tasting opportunities are popping up at wine shops all over. Tastings run the gamut from simple drop-in-and-taste sessions to structured classes, and wine is poured by knowledgeable employees, visiting winemakers, or distributors eager to try out new offerings on both the management and potential consumers.
These affairs aren’t just for staunch oenophiles, either: While the scene on most weeknights and Saturdays tends to be comprised of a focused, thirtysomething-and-up crowd, Fridays often feature a younger, more relaxed group celebrating TGIF. At any rate, with the variety of programs available, there’s something in the mix for everyone from nouveau wine hound to established connoisseur.
Prima’s guided tastings reflect the breadth and quality of the wines stocked by this premier wine shop. Importers, visiting winemakers, and a savvy staff take participants through thematic selections of six to eight wines, and the kitchen turns out scrumptious antipasti. The restaurant bar has 40 wines available by the glass at all times, including weekly flights. 1520 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 945-1800, www.primawine.com. “Open house” tastings Sat. 3–5 p.m. on a drop-in basis, $8–$15; guided tastings with visiting experts, various times, $20–$30 with antipasti.
Free tastings from this restaurant and wine shop’s extensive collection of Italian and California wines focus on specific regions and producers. The tastings always include four or more wines, and the shop is also a great source for gourmet products such as pasta, olive oil, and candy. 360 Park St., Moraga, (925) 377-7662. Tastings Thurs. 5:30–7:30 p.m., free.
The mission here is to make good wine available at great prices and to educate customers in “wine speak.” In addition to Friday night tastings with distributors and winery representatives, bottles are open at the tiny bar all day every day. The staff is knowledgeable, the atmosphere is laid back, and the values are astonishing—more than half the selection is $10 or less per bottle. 3401 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 299-9070; 5443 Clayton Rd., Clayton, (925) 672-4003, www.winethieves.com. Tastings in Lafayette on Fri. 5:30–7 p.m. Tastings in Clayton Fri. 6–8 p.m. and Sat. 1–5 p.m; both stores charge a $1 tasting fee.
Jackson’s Wines & Spirits
Jackson’s has been selling a worldly array of wines for nearly 40 years, making its Saturday tastings—a mixed selection of 10 to 15 wines—something of a Lamorinda institution. Tasting regulars range from collectors stocking their cellars to locals eschewing the drive to Wine Country. 3524 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 284-4100. Tastings Sat. 1–4 p.m., about $20.
Structured, sit-down tastings here manage to be fun and serious at the same time, thanks to a good-natured, entertaining staff. Sessions focus on a broad range of international and domestic regions and varieties. Longtime attendees arrive with notebooks bulging with information acquired over the years. A four-class wine series is also available for $45 and up per class. 6040 Dougherty Rd., Dublin, (925) 829-3222, www.winecentives.com. Formal tastings Fri. 6:30 p.m., $10–$25.
The dramatic black granite wine bar is the perfect setting for Bella Vino’s selection of boutique Napa-focused Chardonnay and Cabernet, and selected imports. Evenings at the wine bar are largely social, although Thursdays feature wineries or distributors showing off their wares. 3450 Camino Tassajara Blvd., Danville, (925) 648-1300, www.bvino.com. Wine bar open Tues.–Wed. noon–7 p.m., Thurs.–Fri. noon–9 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m.–7 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.–5 p.m.; Thurs. winemaker tastings, about $8–$15.
The Wine Steward
Like the shop itself, the Wine Steward’s upstairs tasting bar offers one of the East Bay’s broadest international selections of wines—but by the glass, taste, or flight. Prices range from $4 a glass to $20 for a six-wine flight. The Wine Steward features a sharp staff, mind-broadening themes, and plenty of gourmet edibles to take home with the bottles you discover. 641 Main St., Pleasanton, (925) 600-9463, www.thewinesteward.com. Wine bar open Thurs.–Fri. 5–8 p.m., Sat. 1–8:30 p.m.; $4–$20.
First Street Wine Co.
First Street’s focus is on California, especially Napa and Sonoma, with an emphasis on high-end and hard-to-find bottles. Tastings (five wines, $5–$25) range from varietal themes to new arrivals. Friday and Saturday evenings can draw 30 to 60 of the curious and thirsty. 2211 First St., Livermore, (925) 294-5825, www.wineco.com. Focused tastings Fri. 6–9 p.m., wines open Sat. 11 a.m.–7 p.m., Sun. noon–5 p.m.; $5–$25.
Come to this restaurant and shop, located in the Epicurious Garden, for an intelligent selection of reds, whites, and dessert wines, either by the glass or from the spouts of a gleaming Enomatic dispenser. Purchase a “smart card,” put it in the slot, and a perfectly measured ounce tumbles into your glass. The advantage here is that you get to do the mixing and matching; the disadvantage is that you’re on your own. Full-service dining with a menu of California cuisine as well. 1513 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 540-7800, www.epicuriousgarden.com. Wine-dispensing machines pour Mon.–Sat. 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m., Sun. 11:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m.; cost of tasting varies according to wine, ranging from $1.25–$17 for a one-ounce pour.
Solano Cellars/Vintage Berkeley
Solano Cellars and Vintage Berkeley have the same owners, but each shop has its own personality. Solano Cellars, which has been a local magnet for decades, today boasts a diverse wine selection, including small producers and some wines you’ve probably never heard of. Comestibles include small plates of cheese, Fatted Calf charcuterie, and salads. Vintage Berkeley, which is loacted around the corner from Taste, specializes in bottles $25 and under and offers tastes from a bottle or two every afternoon. Saturdays, you can taste several wines from individual wineries. 1580 Solano Ave., Albany, (510) 525-9463, www.solanocellars.com . 2113 Vine St., Berkeley, (510) 665-8600, www.vintageberkeley.com. Solano Cellars wine bar open Tues.–Sat. 4–9 p.m., Sun. noon–6 p.m.; prices for tasting are $14–$16 per flight and $5–$12 per glass. Vintage Berkeley tastings Mon.–Fri. 4–7 p.m., Sat. 2–4 p.m.; free.