Welcome to Wine Country
It’s right here!
By Tom Riley with photos by Stacy Ventura
Over the past several years, the New York Times and a host of national glossies have chronicled the East Bay’s emergence as a national tourism hot spot. Much of this reporting has focused on the area’s burgeoning urban food and wine scene. The attention is clueing in local residents that they no longer live just in the East Bay. They also live in Wine Country.
Winemaking in the East Bay began (as did so much of Bay Area culture) during the gold rush, but the recent era was launched in 1978, when Kent Rosenblum incorporated his eponymous operation and later set up shop on the docks of Alameda. Rosenblum’s Zinfandels soon became national best sellers, and East Bay locavores were among the many showing their appreciation. Meanwhile, a whole host of winemakers were honing their craft alongside Rosenblum and opening wineries of their own, but that number was growing faster than local awareness. Happily, that tide is starting to turn, and East Bay producers are hearing less and less the sad and startled refrain, “I never knew you were here.”
Why Drive to Napa?
The steady rise in the size of the local wine community has fostered awareness that a day of wine-tasting and touring doesn’t have to mean several hours and precious dollars wasted on the drive or exorbitant tasting fees. For a fraction of the cost of a trip to Napa or Sonoma, wine lovers and the wine curious can visit the East Bay’s 24 urban wineries and about a dozen tasting rooms. This count doesn’t include the nearly 50 exurban wineries in Contra Costa County or the Livermore Valley, where production is increasing along with the number of visitors eager to learn more about the wines being made in their own backyard.
“It’s a different experience, for some, a novel experience,” explains Mike Dashe, who, along with his wife Anne, has been operating Dashe Cellars locally since 1996. “It’s a little bit different from the classic wine country experience and, in a way, a little bit edgy. But the other thing is that it’s so dang easy.”
At left: Shauna Rosenblum in the Rock Wall winery. At right: Mike Dashe at Dashe Cellars.
As Kevin Brown, president of the East Bay Vintners’ Alliance, likes to point out, “the grapes don’t care where they’re crushed. They only care where they’re grown.” He and his wife, Barbara, are co-owners of R&B Cellars in Alameda. The Browns admit that “oak-paneled tasting rooms and guest cottages” are not part of their business model, nor is providing their guests with romantic views of rolling vineyards. “We do have a million-dollar view,” says Barbara Brown, referring to the San Francisco skyline.
At left: Kevin and Barbara Brown of R&B Cellars.
Dashe, who shares a winery on Oakland’s Fourth Street with Jeff Cohn’s JC Cellars, lists the location’s advantages: “We’re two blocks from BART, eight blocks from the ferry, four blocks from Amtrak. And, if you don’t have three days to go up to wine country, if you only have an afternoon, this spot makes it completely easy for people. Once folks learn that the quality of wine being produced in the East Bay is of the same magnitude as wines up north, they’re excited to visit an urban winery.”
Much of the excitement also stems from the great diversity in the grapes used and the styles incorporated in producing a vast array of quality wine. East Bay wineries are located equidistant from most major grape-growing areas of Central and Northern California, and the winemakers happily exercise their sourcing options. Charlie Dollbaum, owner and winemaker at Carica Wines in Alameda, says he sources grapes from Napa and Sonoma, Paso Robles, the Sierra foothills, El Dorado County, and a number of other areas. “You go to a winery in Sonoma, for example, and they’re pulling fruit from one or two vineyards right there. You need to visit many wineries over a relatively wide area to get any diversity. You come to the East Bay and in a very small, manageable area, you can cover a lot of California’s winemaking territory.”
At right: Charlie Dollbaum of Carica Wines
Jeff Cohn agrees. “Because we are so centrally located, I get fruit from all the way up in Mendocino to all the way down in Santa Barbara; also, a lot more now from Paso Robles. Being in the middle here is just perfect.”
Like most East Bay winemakers, Tracey and Jared Brandt (pictured at left), who own and operate Donkey & Goat Winery in Berkeley, are more concerned with the grapes, and not the name of the particular region they are sourced from. “As we went looking for terroir, that search took us to El Dorado, the Anderson Valley, and the Mendocino Ridge,” says Tracey.
As they discovered new vineyards, they developed relationships with like-minded growers, “. . . wonderful partners who understand and appreciate our natural winemaking. We don’t need to dictate farming practices, but, rather, we work together to ensure what happens in the vineyard supports our philosophy and objectives.”
Jerome Aubin, whose Verve line of Burgundian-styled wines is produced at his Aubin Cellars, says that not having to stick to fruit from a particular AVA (American Viticultural Area) is a great advantage for East Bay vintners. “Most East Bay wineries source grapes from all over, so the diversity of fruit and the AVAs of those wines we work with makes it very intriguing for consumers . . . Many wine lovers value the close relationships with winemakers that are possible here, and not always so possible in Napa or Sonoma.”
The Value of Face Time
These relationships are important not only to local consumers, but to the producers themselves. For Shauna Rosenblum, daughter of Kent Rosenblum and winemaker at Alameda’s Rock Wall Wine Company, time with the customer is what it’s all about.
“One of the great things about East Bay wineries is that you can actually spend time with your guests,” she explains. “I’m sure wineries in Napa and Sonoma used to be able to do that, to focus on education and building relationships, but the time for that, for many wineries up there, has come and gone.”
Rosenblum expresses an opinion, shared by most of the local wine community, that the East Bay is where Napa and Sonoma were 30 years ago in terms of development and, most importantly, attitude. And with the wide-open feeling that comes in the early days of any movement, opportunities in the East Bay for both winemakers and wine lovers are tremendous.
“I think face-time is so very important in the wine environment, and that’s something we can offer here in the East Bay that the more traditional and popular destinations just can’t do anymore,” says Rosenblum. “People want to learn about wine. You know, we get folks [visiting] who are very knowledgeable, and then we get complete beginners. Someone might come in and see tasting notes that say “flavors of strawberry” and they think they can’t have it because they’re allergic to strawberries. Well, that’s a perfect chance for us to teach that person about the aromas and flavors you find in different kinds of wine and why certain grapes taste the way they do. Our staff is great in those moments. We’re never condescending. You should be able to come in here with absolutely no wine knowledge or experience and still feel comfortable, still have a great time.”
Steve Shaffer, owner of Oakland’s Urban Legend Cellars, appreciates yet another advantage of the location. “We’re sitting in the middle of one of the nation’s most innovative food scenes,” he says.
“You won’t find a community more oriented toward sustainability and local sourcing than the Bay Area,” adds Marilee Shaffer, Steve’s wife and Urban Legend’s winemaker. “Shopping locally, taking advantage of what’s in your backyard, is something that really resonates with the local population. And if you’re crafting wines that are food-oriented, which we all are, what better place to tap into a local food scene than here.”
At right: Steve and Marilee Shaffer at Urban Legend.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Close observation of the budding local industry might lead some onlookers to think that competition will eventually spoil this era of good feelings. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to winery owners. In fact, when pressed, all offered stories of mutual support, a greater emphasis on community than competition, and the belief that promoting appreciation for the local riches is one of the surest paths to survival.
“We have competition, certainly, but it’s entirely friendly,” says Kevin Brown. “We are mutually inclusive and supportive, and always looking for ways to boost the local wine industry.”
This mutual support, according to Aubin, can entail the lending of equipment, sharing of expertise, or even helping another winery find additional sources of fruit.
“I think it’s a very convivial community,” Carica’s Dollbaum added. “We all make different kinds of wine, so right now it’s “the more the merrier.” If we were all making similar wines, that might not be the case.”
The Shaffers agree. “There is more than enough business to go around,” Steve says. “Lots of room here, lots of room for growth.” Marilee adds, “We’re not all that worried about our own slice of the pie. We just want a bigger pie for everyone to share.”
“This is not a very lucrative business,” Aubin adds. “But for most of the folks, if not all of them, it’s a labor of love. It’s an attempt to promote a lifestyle, one that includes handcrafted wines that you won’t necessarily or easily find in the grocery store. That’s why local shops, restaurants, and wine lovers support us. They know we are offering something unique, something they cannot find anywhere else.”
That sense of being a part of something special pervades the East Bay wine community. “We are not competing with the Mondavis and Silver Oaks of the world; we’re not in Napa or Sonoma, and that is something for us to champion,” Rosenblum asserts. “We are different. Here in the East Bay we have so many things that folks in the north don’t. And people are starting to embrace the special things that are happening in the local wine and food scene.
“Those of us here in the East Bay, we’re in a great place. I think it’s a very exciting time in the wine industry, and it’s a very exciting time to be making wine.”
It’s true not just for these urban winemakers, but for every wine lover living in the East Bay.
Tom Riley is a wine writer and educator living in Alameda. You can read his wine blog, The Grape Belt, at www.thegrapebelt.wordpress.com . A veteran freelance writer, this is his first article for Edible East Bay.