Hey, this is Edible East Bay editor Cheryl Koehler telling you about our December 10, 2011 treasure hunt!
I took a whole lot of friends (even some I didn’t know i knew) out to search at a select group of East Bay urban wineries rumored to have some gems at their tasting bars. Here’s a map (drawn by Mark Middlebrook) showing where these wineries, all members of the East Bay Vintners Alliance, can be found.
“But where are the vineyards,” you ask?
Well, as far as I know, there are no commercial vineyards located in the region shown on this map. Most urban winemakers purchase their grapes from growers in our surrounding wine-regions and they do the work of creating their wines in the city.
So let’s head to the island of Alameda in search of an abandoned airplane hangar.
“Oh, that’s easy,” you say! “It would be at the decommissioned naval air station at Alameda Point!”
And yes, if you get a chance to look inside the hangar at 2301 Monarch Street, you’ll discover that the planes have been replaced by grape crushing equipment, huge steel tanks, oak barrels, and . . . what’s that?
A big concrete egg?
“We call it ‘Petit Poulet’ or ‘Chicken Little’,” says Kevin Brown, who with his wife Barbara Brown makes wine here under the R & B label. Standing about six feet tall, that egg would have been laid by some mighty big chicken, so it’s a relief to learn that it’s filled with immature chardonnay wine.
“The egg breathes, causing convection currents that circulate the lees,” Kevin says, as he offers tastes from the egg as well as from two different oak barrels. The three wines-in-progress are made using chardonnay grapes all picked from the same vineyard block but with three different yeasts strains applied to them. My friend Melissa Schilling describes the tastes as “like Mexican jumping beans in my mouth with notes of pine needles and lemon curd.” We’ll have to go to the tasting room next year to see how these wines turn out in the bottle.
R & B shares the hangar winemaking facility with nine other vintners—“or is it ten now,” Kevin wonders, as he explains that they are set up for legal purposes as “alternating proprietors.”
“This is a rocky piece of real estate during the crush,” Kevin adds, as he explains how they all share the big equipment and then move off to their own corners of the cavernous space to craft their wines. Tasting takes place in a new, low-slung building next door, where the sweeping view takes in San Francisco, the Port of Oakland and the picturesque weeds and ruins of the former air station.
Bellying up to the bar, we learn that Kent and Shana Rosenblum of Rock Wall Wine Company built the tasting bar as a way to extend the sharing arrangement here at the former air base to accommodate the general public. The bar is staffed with several knowledgeable wine professionals who can discuss any of the wines offered by the participating wineries. On a post-Thanksgiving visit, we learn from pourer Laura Munoz that Rock Wall’s 2010 Montepulciano was a big hit as an alternative to the usual pinot noir with her turkey-day gathering of all wine industry people. It’s a lovely, food-friendly wine, and much lighter than any of the Rock Wall lineup of zins, such as the luxurious 2009 Jesse’s Vineyard Zinfandel that winemaker Shana Rosenblum calls their “Big Bad Ass Zin” made with fruit sourced in the East Bay from century-old vines.
Another winemaker we meet in the tasting room is Charlie Dollbaum, who with his wife Barbara (and help from their kids) makes wine here under the Carica Wines label. My buddies Melissa Schilling and Chad Arnold are immediately lured by Charlie’s favorite of his Carica Rhone-style blends: The Siren ‘08. Chad, a wine educator and poet, is moved to create verse to describe it:
“It called to me like a siren. And it called back, and then it left a message. O, be sure, I was home, just dazzled into temporary silence by the layers of complexity of the fruit and the lacey acids and the tissue-thin tannins. I found myself drawn to the whole, the siren song entire. My Siren had a juicy center surrounded in circles and billowing ovals by perfectly delineated, dusty earth-based-and-bound grenache. And given the cepage of 70 percent syrah and equal parts of mourvedre and grenache, I was further dazzled by the vitality and elegant force of the grenache. So cleanly wrought, it functioned as a dramatic foil for the dominant syrah and as such, allowed the syrah to add the desired blood and iodine. The Siren has the finesse of the Rhone and the power and drive of California. A real pleasure.”
Whew! I liked it too, but I’m a little more with Chad on his description of Carica’s 2008 Petite Sirah, made with fruit sourced from the Kick Ranch Vineyard in Sonoma County, which he calls a “sturdy and delicious bull of a wine.”
With the treasure map in hand, Chad and I head now for Oakland.
“We drove under the water and popped out somewhat magically at the 15, 000 square foot aroma-therapy cavern that JC Cellars and Dashe Cellars share,” he says. “The rows of oak barrels and machinery are a stunning backdrop to the modestly elegant tasting bar, partitioned off by a wall reminiscent of a stage set. The casual atmosphere is very appealing to wine sippers from novice to expert.”
Greeted by the JC Cellars wine bar manager Kerry Black, we learn that the condo-dwelling residents of the neighborhood have been gradually discovering the wineries here while walking their dogs, so don’t be surprised if your shoes get sniffed while you’re going in for a taste.
However, it’s Chad who is sniffing hungrily as we lean into the bar, tasting the JC Cellars 2010 rosé that winemaker Jeff Cohn creates from that same trinity of Rhone grapes. I found it as perfectly dry and delicious as a good Rhone-style rosé can possibly be, and even though it’s offered at an affordable $16, it stands proudly beside Cohn’s handsome Rhone-style reds, such as “First date” and “The Imposter.”
As I purchase a bottle of the JC rosé, Chad is carried off in ecstasy by JC’s 2006 Late Harvest Viognier from the Ripken Vineyard in Lodi.
“It is, in a word, spectacular; honeyed yet lively, layered and thick and yet its taut spine of acid is the continuous focal point. Initially (if briefly) I was fooled by the unctuous palette, but quickly realized that this is not merely the key to a hedonistic pleasure garden, but a serious wine that rivals many from the northern Rhone.”
Leaning over a bit to the right, we’re now in front of Sally Gordon, a long time wine and restaurant professional who pours at Anne and Mike Dashe’s half of the bar. She starts us off with a dry riesling, which Chad describes using the tongue of the German’s who invented riesling as “uber-trocken.” Sally convinces us that we must try it for brunch on a weekend morning with pumpkin pancakes.
“You take two cups of whole-wheat flour, a cup of all-purpose flour, a teaspoon of baking powder, and a half-teaspoon salt. Mix that up with a cup of pumpkin purée and one-to-two cups of buttermilk,” she says off the top of her head.
As Sally pours the Dashe Cellars “afternoon” wine, a sturdy rosé, she says, “I’ve been drinking this all summer long and I’m not stopping now.” And as she pours the Dashe 2009 “Les Enfants Terrible” Grenache from the Dry Creek Valley, Chad, having temporarily lost his way with words says simply, “OMG delicious.”
A few days later . . .
Having recovered from the T-Day meal, I take my esteemed houseguests, Candace Byrne and Earl Bloor, publishers of my sister publication, Edible Shasta-Butte, out to show off our local treasure trove, which I suspect rivals what they find near their home in Chico. And so it’s more than appropriate that we find ourselves at an establishment with the clever name of Urban Legend at 621 4th Street in Oakland. Here, Steve and Marilee Shaffer bring their backgrounds in high-tech engineering and molecular biology (respectively) into the craft of winemaking. Steve says that as avid food lovers, the opportunity to be making wine smack dab in the middle of one of the country’s most exciting food scenes is a dream come true, and they can’t imagine wanting to be out in some far off vineyard.
“We’re completely free of terroir,” he says, explaining that they never need to go more than three hours away to source excellent fruit. The grapes of choice for the Shaffers are often Italian varieties. “Italians have spent centuries creating food and wine together,” Steve says.
The Urban Legend list includes several wines made with barbera, a grape variety from the northern Piedmont region of Italy that can be especially food-friendly as wine. So don’t be surprised if you run into Steve and Merilee opening a bottle of their 2008 Clarksburg or 2009 Amador barberas, or their 2010 Rosato di Barbera at nearby restaurants such as Chop Bar, Encuentro, Bucci’s (Berkeley), or Pappo (Alameda).
There is one more local vintner pouring for our December 10 tour: Aubin Cellars. Jerome Aubin used to maintain his winery on Adeline Street in Oakland.
“Unfortunately, we had to move a couple of years ago,” says Aubin office manager Marie Bourdillas, who grew up in Bordeaux in a wine-growing, wine-loving family. “We now make our wine in Sonoma, at Talisman Wines. We share the facility and equipment with several small pinot noir producers.”
On December 10, Marie was at Urban Legend pouring a group of wines from Aubin’s Verve collection. She explains that these wines are all made in small lots (around 100 cases each) and exhibit Jerome’s interest in experimentation. For instance, they work with pinot nor grapes from many different regions.
“We are able to try our different barrels, on different wines, from different appellations. This is very useful for our other business, Artisan Barrels,” says Marie.
Edible East Bay readers may remember learning about vintner Jerome Aubin’s work representing French, Hungarian, and American wine barrel coopers as discussed by writer Kirsten Jackson in “From Forest to Barrel to Bottle,” published in our Fall/Winter 2009 issue.
On December 10, Marie was pouring Aubin’s Pinot Noir 2007 Carneros (pictured here) plus their 2009 French Colombard, a very fresh and crisp, food-friendly white wine that they make in France, as well as a syrah from either Sonoma Mountain of Columbia Valley, plus their sweet Gewurztraminer from Oregon.
Here are the wineries:
At 2301 Monarch St, Bldg 24, Alameda
(Tasting room open Wed–Sun 12–6pm)
Carica Wines: 510.729.0376 CaricaWines.com
R&B Cellars: 510.749.8477 rbcellars.com
Rock Wall Wine Company: 510.522.5700 rockwallwines.com
At 55 4th St, Oakland
(Tasting room open Thu–Sun 12–5pm)
JC Cellars: 510.465.5900 jccellars.com
Dashe Cellars: 510.452.1800 dashecellars.com
At 621 4th St, Oakland (Tasting room open Fri–Sun 1–6pm)
Urban Legend: 510.545.4356 ulcellars.com
Aubin Cellars: 510.339.0170 aubincellars.com