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The Urban Wine Trail

Discover a new way to taste in the East Bay.


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Photography by Nico Oved

 

 

 

 

Often dubbed guerilla winemakers for their makeshift facilities and relentless commitment to quality, the East Bay’s urban vintners offer a different way to appreciate wine. With experienced palates and sound wine-making techniques, these winemakers not only crush grapes and ferment in warehouses and garages, they often open their facilities—fermentation tanks, forklifts, and all—to the public for tastings. With more than 20 wineries scattered throughout Alameda, Berkeley, and Oakland, there’s never been a better time to appreciate the wines in our own backyard. It’s time to get tasting.


 

An Outlier in Alameda

The island’s lone public winery provides plenty of diversions for a day of tasting and relaxing.

Make a Day: Discover Hidden Alameda

Where to try something new: Longstanding distillery St. George Spirits offers tours and tastings Wednesday through Sunday. stgeorgespirits.com.

Where to crack a cold one: Craft brewery Faction Brewing Company is located between St. George and Rock Wall.
factionbrewing.com.

Where to shop ’til you drop: Get ready to browse at Alameda Point Antiques Faire, the first Sunday of the month gathering of more than 800 booths. alamedapointantiquesfaire.com.

 

The Lone Wolf: Rock Wall Wine Company

Drive into Alameda. Keep driving, past abandoned buildings. Keep going, deep into the former naval base. Think you’re lost yet? Just when you’re tempted to chuck Siri out the window and retrace your steps, the road reveals Rock Wall Wine Company.

Unlike most urban wineries, Rock Wall welcomes visitors seven days a week into its tasting room. The handsome main indoor sampling area features bamboo flooring and marble countertops, but the real stunner is the custom-designed barn door, which opens onto the outside deck and vistas of San Francisco across the water.  

Start your visit with a five-wine flight, which begins with a splash of sparkling brut, followed by your choice of 13 wines, ranging from a Russian River Estate Chardonnay to a Zinfandel made with grapes sourced from more than 60 vineyards. While you sip, pourers are more than happy to give you the dirt on the inner workings of the winery, the origins of some of the more creative wine names, and what goes on inside the domed area attached to the tasting room.

After tasting, purchase a glass of your favorite wine, and bring it outside, where you can try your hand at lawn games; or order hush puppies from on-site restaurant Scolari’s at the Point. With a glass of wine in hand, it’s easy to forget trying to find Rock Wall and instead just focus on when you’re coming back. $15 tasting (waived with purchase of $25 or more), Mon.–Fri. 12–8 p.m., Sat.–Sun. 12–6 p.m., 2301 Monarch St., Ste. 300, (510) 522-5700, rockwallwines.com —Kristen Haney

 

Shauna Rosenblum 

Profile: Wine Warrior Shauna

Rosenblum of Rock Wall Wine Company
Two hundred tons of deep purple grapes have arrived at the warehouse. Shauna Rosenblum is firing off orders to “cellar rats” in hip-length boots dripping with red juice, who drag hoses from tank to tank. Clearly in her element, the head winemaker at Rock Wall Wine Company appears to thrive on this frantic harvest ritual called crush.

Maybe that’s what comes from being born into the wine business or from having your dad, Kent Rosenblum—the veterinarian-turned-winemaker who sold Rosenblum Cellars in 2008 for $105 million—run the show with you. Following the sale of Rosenblum, they started Rock Wall, where Kent serves as CEO.

Previously a student at Oakland’s California College of the Arts (see her whimsical sculptures at the tasting bar), Shauna believes “wine is ephemeral art,” so the transition from art to winemaking was easy for her. For Rock Wall’s 2008 vintage, she and her dad created wines with 60 tons of grapes. This year, they’ll do close to 400. But Shauna doesn’t always follow precisely in her dad’s footsteps.

“Dad was all Zin, all the time,” Shauna says. “We still do lots of Zin, but I’m having fun with other varietals, too.”

This year, the can-do Shauna Rosenblum and her team will produce more than 20,000 cases of wine, ranging from a buttery Chardonnay to several effervescent sparkling wines (one of them dark pink) to a full portfolio of solid Zinfandels.  —Sara Hare


 

Berkeley: Off the Beaten Path

Steps from Fourth Street, wineries produce top-notch natural wines behind an urban facade.

Broc Cellars

Against the Grain: Broc Cellars

You may not know how to pronounce many of Broc Cellars’ bottles, but stop by for a tasting, and you’ll swirl obscure varietals in the light-filled winery. There, a dark-wood tasting area shares the stage with barrels, equipment, and other winemaking materials.

Winemaker Chris Brockway isn’t concerned with doing things the easy way. After time at Rosenblum, where he learned to source grapes from unexpected regions, he started Broc Cellars with roughly 25 cases of Zin.

Now producing upward of 7,000 cases at his winery on Fifth Street, Brockway focuses on site-specific wines, sourcing from vineyards that grow grapes that work particularly well in that environment. He lets those flavors develop with minimal intervention: Grapes are pitchforked into fermenters, and fermentation happens spontaneously. $10 tasting (waived with purchase), Sat.–Sun. 1–5 p.m., 1300 Fifth St., (510) 542-9463, broccellars.com.
 

Donkey and Goat Winery

Natural Beauty: Donkey and Goat Winery

Located down the street from Broc Cellars, Donkey and Goat attracts Rhône enthusiasts as well as passersby who join wine club members and other urban explorers at the winery’s neatly appointed tasting area. Plush leather seating, framed photos, and plenty of metal sheeting mask the working winery side of the location, but the winemakers are more than happy to reveal their process.

Owned and operated by husband-and-wife team Jared and Tracey Brandt, Donkey and Goat produces natural wines, with an emphasis on Rhône varietals. The Brandts describe their process as “do-nothing” winemaking because it’s easier to explain what they don’t do: no plastic fermentation bins, no enzymes to enhance color and extraction, and no stabilization. Grapes are stomped by foot and punched by hand. Stop by to sample four of the recently released wines, which taste especially nice next to the winery’s backyard bocce court. $10 tasting (waived with purchase of $25 or more), Fri.–Sun. 2–6 p.m., 1340 Fifth St., donkeyandgoat.com.   
 

Inside Look: Lusu Cellars and Eno Wines

Around the corner from Donkey and Goat and through a vine-covered entryway, you’re likely to find purple-splashed winemakers hauling equipment through the door. Like many urban wineries, the high-ceilinged space Lusu Cellars and Eno Wines share functions first as a working winery, but David Teixeira of Lusu and Sasha Verhage of Eno always welcome newcomers to enjoy their work.

At the small tasting area tucked into the corner, it’s not uncommon to run into Teixeira, who grew up making wine on the Delta. He takes a natural approach to winemaking, sourcing grapes from older vineyards that are dry-farmed and sustainably grown to produce his food-friendly Zinfandels and Carignanes. Don’t be surprised if Teixeira recommends a dish to pair with his Zin.

Verhage has been making Eno’s small-batch wines—with an emphasis on Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah, and Grenache—for more than 15 years. When he’s not busy expanding his portfolio of wines or working as a design lead at Google (his day job), Verhage collaborates with a graphic design studio to produce Eno’s labels, which feature colorful maps and other striking visuals. $5 tasting (waived with purchase), Sat. 1–5 p.m., 805 Camelia St., enowines.com, lusucellars.com.    
 

Everyone Welcome: Urbano Cellars

Chat with an East Bay winemaker, and you’ll likely hear a story about Fred Dick and Bob Rawson of Urbano Cellars. Dick and Rawson, former garage winemakers, have been supporting and advising other urban wineries since 2011. Before moving into the former Donkey and Goat space, Dick (who helped a friend at Rosenblum during crush season) and Rawson used Periscope Cellars’ facilities to make their wine. They’ve paid that kindness forward by welcoming Carica Wines, The Mead Kitchen, and Paradox Wines to produce goods in their location.

Urbano specializes in small-batch Italian and Mediterranean varietals, and one or both winemakers are typically on hand to pour samples and trade stories alongside the barrels and occasional vats of grapes inside the working winery. Ask nicely, and Urbano may crack into that blend you’ve been eyeing. The vibe is all about inclusion, down to the visitors. $5 tasting (waived with purchase), Fri.–Sun. 1–5 p.m. (Carica and Paradox by appointment), 2323-B Fourth St., urbano cellars.com, caricawines.com, themeadkitchen.com, paradoxwine.com.  —Kristen Haney
 

Make a Day: Discover Hidden Berkeley

Where to get a strong start: Try Bette’s Oceanview Diner for some fluffy soufflé pancakes. bettesdiner.com.

Where to drop some cash: Fourth Street shops offer everything from whimsical stationery to carved wooden toys.
fourthstreet.com.

Where to refuel: Visit Café Rouge for Kumamoto oysters on the half shell or Chocolatier Blue for bites of almost too pretty to eat chocolates. caferouge.net, chocolatierblue.com.
 

Daniel Cook

Profile: Mead Master

Daniel Cook of The Mead Kitchen
If hearing the word mead leaves you puzzled, Daniel Cook is the first to admit you’re not alone.

“The common phrase I heard is, ‘I don’t know anything about mead,’ ” says Cook, co-owner of The Mead Kitchen. “But I also heard, ‘there’s no reason why you can’t make it work.’ ”  

Cook, who started home brewing mead more than a decade ago, was encouraged to produce it commercially by friends in the beverage industry. But it was the possibility of working in Urbano Cellars, which rents space to Cook and his partner, Paul O’Leary, that made The Mead Kitchen a reality.

“The process went from being, ‘We need half a million dollars to get started,’ to ‘we need a fermenter,’ ” says Cook. “All of the sudden, it became doable.”

Since brewing the first commercial batch in December 2012, Cook and O’Leary have been introducing the Bay Area to the honey-based beverage, which is now available on draft at Albany Taproom, East Bay Spice Company, and Lanesplitter Pub.

Unlike wine and beer, the brewing process for mead—which dates back to 10,000 BCE—involves fermenting honey and flavoring it. While many commercial meads are sweetened after brewing, The Mead Kitchen produces a drier, easy-drinking beverage using local honey and additions such as cherries and hops. Thanks to Cook and O’Leary, mead may finally get the respect—and name recognition—it deserves.  —Kristen Haney


 

Irish Monkey Cellars

Oakland’s Secret Industry

With wineries throughout the city, tasting means discovering wines in hidden locations.

Party People: Irish Monkey Cellars

Walk into Irish Monkey Cellars, and you may be a) wrapped in the back-cracking hug of winemaker Bob Lynch, b) put to work bottling and corking wines, c) invited to try a Billbera blend so fresh off the line, it doesn’t have a label, or d) all of the above. Definitely not for wine snobs or visitors lacking a sense of adventure, the tasting experience at Irish Monkey includes 1970s funk blasting from the stereo and plenty of monkey artwork and figurines, including one at the end of the tasting table dressed like a butler.

Speaking of tasting, it’s best if you don’t take things too seriously. Trade jokes with tasting associates across heavy pours of Irish Monkey’s fruit-forward wines, and help keep track of Lynch’s trusty silver signing pen. He just might sign a bottle of a yet-to-be-labeled varietal to thank you for finding the wayward writing device.

While Lynch and the rest of the team at Irish Monkey have a playful air at the tastings, the wine-making process is a different matter. In a span of less than four hours, the team can bottle more than 220 cases of wine. Lynch doesn’t believe in shortcuts. Whether it’s bottling or greeting visitors, he fully embraces every aspect of winemaking. $5 tasting (waived with purchase and for first time visitors), Sat.–Sun. 12–5:30 p.m., 1017 22nd Ave., Ste. 300, (510) 915-5463, irishmonkeycellars.com.
 

Dashe Cellars 

Early Adopters: Dashe Cellars

When Michael and Anne Dashe first founded their winery in 1996, you could count the number of other urban wineries on one hand. But even with the explosion of urban winemaking in the last 18 years, the name Dashe Cellars remains connected to exceptional wines.

Drawing from their combined 40-plus years of experience, Michael and Anne focus on single-vineyard grapes to produce Dashe’s 10,000 cases of wine, a process that takes place in a bright red building near Jack London Square. Tastings tend to be less flash and more substance, with pours of the Zinfandels and blends the winery makes right around the corner. And although the winery now produces roughly 10,000 cases, it’s not uncommon to find Michael or Anne tending the bar. $10 (waived with purchase), Thurs.–Sun. 12–5 p.m., 55 Fourth St., (510) 452-1800, dashecellars.com.
 

Fit for Foodies: Urban Legend Cellars

Asking, “What do you get when an electrical engineer and a molecular biologist walk into a winery?” may sound like the beginning of a joke, but to husband-and-wife team Steve (the engineer) and Marilee (the biologist) Shaffer, winemaking isn’t just for laughs. The two self-described serial entrepreneurs began making Urban Legend Cellars’ food-focused wines in 2008, taking special care to balance their technical backgrounds with a less-is-more approach toward winemaking.

“We use a lot of science to make the decisions, but there’s a beautiful poetry in the way that grapes turn themselves into wine,” says Steve. “We’re just there to coach. We’re grape coaches.”

Their approach shines in the winery’s dozen-plus wines, which focus on Italian and Iberian varietals. Sample Urban Legends at its Jack London Square winery, where an industrial exterior gives way to a bright and friendly tasting area, complete with lime green walls. Steve and Marilee relish the opportunity to meet and interact with their visitors, and dispel a few urban legends about the city along the way. $5 tasting (waived with purchase), Fri.–Sun. 1–6 p.m., 621 Fourth St., (510) 545-4356, ulcellars.com.
 

Hidden Gem: Two Mile

If you’ve sampled in expansive urban wine facilities, it can be a little jarring to walk into Oakland’s 25th Street Collective and be greeted with what looks like a wine bar mixed with a craft collective. But get to talking with Two Mile’s staff, and you’ll quickly realize that just because the winemaking goes in an untraditional setting doesn’t mean Two Mile is any less willing to share what goes into its process.

What started as a 15-person project more than a decade ago is now a two-man operation, and Two Mile’s winemakers Bill Bedsworth and Adam Nelson develop close relationships with sustainable growers in Napa, Sonoma, and Livermore for their popular red blends. And the winery’s local pride runs deep. In addition to the “yes, we are in Oakland” declaration on its website, Two Mile opens for downtown Oakland’s First Friday Art Murmur events, where glasses are available for $5. First Fri. of the month and Sat. 2–6 p.m., 477 25th St., (510) 868-8713, twomilewines.com —Kristen Haney
 

Make a day: Discover Hidden Oakland

Where to taste near Irish Monkey Cellars: Stage Left Cellars offers tastings of handcrafted, small-lot wines and classic Rhône varietals by appointment and on the first Saturday of the month. stageleftcellars.com.

Where to taste near Dashe Cellars: Jeff Cohn Cellars’ new solo location will welcome visitors Thursday through Sunday for tastes of its award-winning wines. It’s slated to open in the beginning of December. jeffcohncellars.com.

Where to taste near Urban Legend Cellars: Visit Deep Roots (run by the team behind Periscope Cellars), where you can still sample Periscope wines, along with specialty cocktails and a menu of light bites. deeprootswinebar.com.
 

Brendan Eliason 

Profile: Zin Czar

Periscope Cellars’ Brendan Eliason
Just because your license plate reads, ZIN CZAR, it’s not easy delivering wine out of your pickup truck. Not even if you are widely known “guerilla winemaker” Brendan Eliason, owner of Periscope Cellars, and you’re just acting as delivery guy to keep up with demand for your wines.

After years as a winemaker and a stint as wine director at Walnut Creek’s Va de Vi, Eliason doesn’t look the part of most winemakers, or delivery guys for that matter. With a pressed oxford shirt and wire-rim glasses, he looks more like a French wine merchant than a scrappy winemaker who produced wines in a WWII submarine repair facility in Emeryville for close to seven years.

Over the last decade, Periscope Cellars has developed a huge East Bay following for bright, restrained wines that require little aging. Eliason originally decided to sell his wine in kegs, not bottles, to have more contact with the people who were enjoying his wines.

“Before Prohibition, customers would go to wineries to fill up their jugs,” Eliason says. “Periscope was probably the first winery in California to sell this way, in its modern iteration.”

Today, Eliason is taking a step back from winemaking—and delivering—to open a new Oakland tasting venue that includes other East Bay winemakers, his long-time colleagues. His new concept, called Deep Roots, will offer sips paired with small plates. And if it’s like Eliason’s other undertakings, it will definitely be one to watch. periscopecellars.com—Sara Hare


 

Ten Bottles We Love

Our buying guide to some of the best vinos in urban wine country.

First, a word about wine: When the experts on our tasting panel dove in to more than 30 wines to select the best bottles from the East Bay urban wine scene, they began to notice a few things. First, red wines are dominant in the region, with far fewer whites produced. We swear it’s nothing personal, white wines. Second, while the wineries craft wines of superb quality, the judges noted some inconsistencies, with a few wines showing minor varietal flaws. All the more reason for a buying guide to help you explore this wine-making region. The wines below are listed by our tasting panel’s preferences in each category.
—Sara Hare

Tasting Panel Judges: Sara Hare, Diablo Dish columnist; Chris Pastena, owner of Chop Bar and Lungomare in Oakland; and Jim Telford, owner of Walnut Creek’s Residual Sugar Wine Bar.

Whites and Sparkling

Rock Wall Wine Company 2012 Chardonnay
Russian River Estate, $35
· A buttery, full-bodied Chardonnay. “A crème brûlée of a wine,” says one of our tasters.

Urbano Urbano Cellars
2013 Chenin Blanc Merwin Vineyards, Clarksburg, $17
· A crisp, well-balanced wine with a citrusy nose and floral notes, especially grapefruit and jasmine.

Dashe Cellars
2013 Dry Riesling McFadden Farm, $22
· Don’t let the name Riesling scare you. This is one terrific wine, crisp and round without any hint of sweetness.

Rock Wall Wine Company
2013 Sparkling Brut, $25
· A blend of (get ready): Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Torrontes, and Muscat Canelli. Effervescent bubbles fill the glass and bounce around in your mouth.
 

Reds

Two Mile Wines
2009 Sangiovese Dry Creek Valley, $32
· A classy wine, with lots of ripeness and floral notes. Good balance. The top wine in the tasting, unanimously chosen by the judges.

Eno Wines
2010 The Proposition Pinot Noir Anderson Valley, $30
· An elegant Pinot Noir nose contrasts well with the earthy tones on the palate. A well-made wine.

Carica Wines
2010 Rhône-Style Red Siren Kick Ranch Sonoma, $32
· An elegant Rhône-style blend made with GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvédre) in small lots. Soft and velvety, with notes of rose petals.

There by Urban Legend Cellars
2011 Pinot Noir Thomson Vineyard, Carneros, $45
· Luscious aromatics. A light-bodied wine with hints of raspberry and more red fruit than black.

Urbano Cellars
2012 Clements Hills Barbera Lewis Ranch Vineyards, $23
· With notes of earth and mushroom, this is a dead ringer for the best of the Old World–style Italian Barberas.

Rock Wall Wine Company
2012 Monte Rosso Reserve Zinfandel Sonoma County, $40
· Lovely, with a big nose and long, elegant finish. Just what you might expect from the Rosenblum family, with its background in Zin.


 

Perfect Pairs

Urban Wine and local food pairings take the guesswork out of your next night out.

1. The Stop: Bocanova.  

What to order: Liberty duck breast with tamarind glaze and mango salsa.
Pair it with: Carica Wines’ 2010 Rhône-Style Red Siren Kick Ranch Sonoma.

55 Webster St., Oakland, (510) 444-1233, bocanova.com.
 

Chop Bar

2. The Stop: Chop Bar.

What to order: Bus stop chicken, inspired by the food stands in Mexico. This roasted chicken is served with smoky roasted red pepper mojo made with cilantro, onions, garlic, and Aleppo chile spices.
Pair it with: Urban Legend Cellars’ 2011 Malbec.

247 Fourth St., Oakland, (510) 834-2467, oaklandchopbar.com.
 

3. The stop: Lungomare.

What to order: Ligurian seafood stew—a hearty stew of clams, mussels, octopus, prawns, cuttlefish, faro, and kale.
Pair it with: Dashe Cellars’ 2013 Dry Riesling, McFadden Farm.

One Broadway, Oakland, (510) 444-7171, lungomareoakland.com. —Sara Hare

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