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Wine Tasting in the East Bay

New Urban Wine Trails

An Illustrated Guide to Some of Berkeley and Oakland’s Hot New Wineries

Story and illustrations by Nikki Goddard

 

One of the great perks of living in the Bay Area is the ease of launching a weekend wine country getaway. But if you have only an afternoon and want to spend it tasting rather than driving, you have options. Due to a boom in new urban wineries popping up in some walkable parts of Oakland and Berkeley, you can stroll right into an uber-hip wine-tasting experience. Trailblazers like Broc Cellars and Donkey & Goat paved the way over a decade ago, and you might start with a ramble around their West Berkeley block to taste the latest efforts they have inspired.

Blue Ox Wine Co.
Blue Ox Wine Co.

BLUE OX
The Overachievers

Nothing seems to have come easily for the Blue Ox team, but they are clearly the sort who thrive in the face of challenge. One of the newest additions to Berkeley’s Fifth Street block that houses Broc Cellars and Donkey & Goat, Blue Ox specializes in dry-farmed, sustainably grown, traditional-method sparkling wine—something of a rarity for a California operation of such small size. Partners Josh Hammerling and Noah Kenoyer met in 2017 while working at Broc and had to move at astounding speed when they learned of a new winery space opening up in the neighborhood. With the help of supportive friends, they pulled it together in just a few short months.

The feats of winemaking they’ve pulled off have been equally impressive. Traditional-method sparkling wine is extremely labor-intensive to make, and a new winery has the added challenge of finding great fruit sources. Blue Ox managed to secure contracts with all of the growers they wanted to work with, and they have undeniably done justice to the grapes, most of which come from between Mendocino and the greater Monterey area. The sparkling wines are made in a clean, fresh, and vibrant style from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier (the classic Champagne varieties) while the reds are primarily focused on the grapes of the Rhône Valley. Most of the wines are named for old, obscure art house movies—a nod to Josh’s erstwhile career in film.

What to try: For a serious rosé, try the 2018 In the Mood for Love Rosé of Carignan. The focus here is on the lively notes of ripe stone fruit, lemon zest, wet stone, and rose petal. Fermentation in neutral barrels adds beautiful texture without imparting any oak flavors. The 2018 Sunflower Sutra is a bright, sunny sparkling wine that uses all three traditional Champenoise varieties in equal measure and showcases classic cool-climate fruit redolent of red apple, marzipan, citrus, and oyster shell.

Friday–Sunday 1–6pm
1350 5th Street, Berkeley
blueoxwineco.com

Windchaser Wine Co.
Windchaser Wine Co.

WINDCHASER WINE CO.
The Purists

If you visit any of Berkeley’s Fifth Street block wineries, sooner or later you’ll begin to notice the distinct sense of community here. Everyone knows everyone, everyone supports everyone, and it seems as though everyone has worked at one of the block’s original wineries at some point or another. Dave Gifford of Windchaser was Donkey & Goat’s first intern back in 2005, and a decade later he used their facilities to make his first couple of vintages. Like the Blue Ox team, he heard of a space opening up and jumped at the chance to become an official fixture in the neighborhood. Since moving in, Dave has proudly worked as a one-man team. He does everything from making the wine to running the tasting room and hosting events in the rustic, spacious winery. Accordingly, don’t expect any frills here, just great wine and a great time.

Windchaser offers a diverse lineup of wines, but perhaps what the winery does best is aromatic varieties from the Anderson Valley. The unfined, unfiltered wines are made using native yeast, with barrel fermentation for the whites and whole-cluster fermentation for the reds. The style is straightforward and pure—nothing is added or manipulated. The true character of each variety is really allowed to shine.

What to try: The richly textured 2017 Anderson Valley Pinot Gris benefits from time in neutral oak, which adds palate interest to a variety that is often rather simple. It’s not heavy at all, though, as bright, zippy acidity keeps it lifted. The 2016 El Dorado Grenache Noir has the perfect balance of fruit and earthiness—a bit of juicy purple berries here, a bit of smoky cured meat there—all tied together by a hint of black tea.

Saturday & Sunday 1–6 pm
1375 4th Street, Berkeley
windchaserwine.com

■  Ready to crawl off to Oakland? You might make this next tour a one-winery-stop and take the rest of the time to explore all the other neat little shops around Temescal Alley.

Prima Materia Winery
Prima Materia Winery

PRIMA MATERIA
The Traditionalists

Bigger is not always better, as the folks at Prima Materia can attest. Visit this tiny Temescal Alley tasting room to sample meticulously crafted, Iberian-inspired Lake County wines from mostly estate fruit, made in criminally small batches. This is proprietor and winemaker Pietro Buttitta’s labor of love, and he doesn’t cut any corners. His unfined, unfiltered wines, made through organic practices and spontaneous fermentation, are traditional in style and showcase distinctly earthy, saline character.

Prima Materia is a haven for wine nerds and history buffs. Pietro prefers relatively uncommon varieties like Sagrantino and Aglianico (both native to Southern Italy). He also has an unorthodox approach to his wine club. Each shipment includes a bottle from an Old-World wine region—like an orange wine from Georgia—selected by a group of archeologists dedicated to preserving wine history. He’s not there just to sell you his own wine; he truly wants you to have an enlightening experience. Pietro also hosts educational events in the alley, like a dinner featuring wines inspired by Homer’s Odyssey.

What to try: With its beautiful pale salmon hue and savory, mineral-driven notes of tart strawberries and dried herbs, the 2017 Sangiovese Bianco is not your average rosé. The 2016 Barbera has bright, welcoming blueberry and blackberry fruit, accented by a hint of kalamata olive and plenty of refreshing acidity.

Friday–Sunday 1–6 pm (sometimes later)
482B 49th Street, Oakland
prima-materia.com

■  Travel west in Oakland and you’ll land in the Bay, but just shy of the water, you’ll be in a formerly industrial area much revived through artistic entrepreneurship. Breweries and wineries are part of the mix. Here are two recent additions to visit for an afternoon wine exploration.

Côte West Winery Painting by Nikki Goddard
Côte West Winery Painting by Nikki Goddard

CÔTE WEST
The Crowd-pleasers

Located in Oakland’s Embarcadero Cove neighborhood, Côte West is well worth the detour on an East Bay urban wine crawl, and the breezy, inviting tasting room decor might even make you forget you’re still in the city. But of course, what’s truly special here is the wine. Cofounder and winemaker Bret Hogan uses winemaking techniques inspired by the Old World, but the flavors are distinctly Californian in a way that shows elegance and restraint. A family operation, Côte West is owned and managed by Bret and his wife Kerrie.

The lineup at Côte West is small, but it does an outstanding job of covering all the bases. There truly is something for every wine drinker here: a zesty Sauvignon Blanc and a dry, aromatic rosé appeal to one end of the spectrum, while an inky, chocolatey Cabernet Sauvignon anchors the other end. The points in between include a delightful, medium-bodied Chardonnay and a couple of light, vivacious reds. Everything here is remarkably likable, but don’t be surprised if you and each of your friends leave with an entirely different bottle.

What to try: If crisp whites are your style, the 2017 Gianquinto Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc is perfect for the East Bay’s warm autumn evenings. The nose brims with passionfruit, peach, and lime, accented by a perfume of white flowers. Red wine drinkers should not miss the 2016 La Cruz Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, with its supple texture and juicy, spicy strawberry fruit.

Saturday & Sunday 2-6 pm
2102 Dennison Street, Suite A, Oakland
cotewestwine.com

Brooklyn West Winery
Brooklyn West Winery

BROOKLYN WEST
The Friendly Neighbors

If you’re making a day of it, we suggest making Brooklyn West the end of your urban winery crawl. Why? Because it’s likely you won’t want to leave. The fun, friendly tasting room is welcoming and unpretentious, and the staff are more than happy to chat as you taste through the wines. You may even get a history lesson from Jeffrey Fiegel and Stew Epstein on your present location in Brooklyn, California, a city founded in 1856 by Mormon settlers who came from New York on a ship bearing the same name. Brooklyn was eventually annexed by the city of Oakland, and the winery’s name honors that slice of the past as well as Jeffery and Stew’s shared family roots in Brooklyn, New York.

The wines, too, are unpretentious, and the owners pride themselves on the lack of constraint that comes with running an urban winery. Because they do not own vineyards, they have no limits. They can source the fruit they want for making the wines they want, and because their production is so limited, they can pay meticulous attention to every batch. The prevailing style is fruit-forward and approachable, perfect for an enjoyable flight or a few glasses while playing board games in the tasting room or lounging with friends.

What to try: The 2014 Tempranillo epitomizes the Brooklyn West style, with dark berries, spice, and a judicious kiss of oak (both French and American). Inspired by a Rioja Reserva, the wine also sees three years of barrel aging prior to bottling. For something completely different, ask about the 2008 ICE (Cabernet Icewine). A happy accident of nature, it resembles a port and likely will never be made again.

Tuesday–Friday 5–9pm,
Saturday noon–9pm, and Sunday noon–6pm
201 3rd Street, Oakland
brooklynwestwinery.com

 

■ The best things are always worth waiting for, and the last winery in our list is one of them. You can’t just drop in at Free Range Flower Winery for a tasting, but check out the pop-up events.

Free Range Flower Winery
Free Range Flower Winery

FREE RANGE FLOWER WINERY
The Mavericks

When biologist and herbalist Aaliyah Nitoto first learned about the ancient tradition of crafting wines from flowers and herbs, her interest was piqued, and she could not understand why these “garden wines” had disappeared from modern tables. She decided to try her hand at making them, initially to share with friends. She soon realized the results were too good not to share with the world, and the world is better off for it. Today, Aaliyah and her partner Sam Prestianni are bringing their delightful flower wines—made with local, organic, and sustainable ingredients—to the public, creating a brand new niche in the market. Unlike previously existing beverages made with flower infusions, Free Range Flower wines are made by actually fermenting the flowers along with minimal additional ingredients (citrus and a sugar source).

Free Range Flower Winery does not have a tasting room, but opportunities to taste come along weekly in Berkeley at Revival Bar & Kitchen’s Saturday Flower Wine Brunch (more info on page 53) and monthly at Wine & Design in Oakland. The wines can also be purchased at a few East Bay restaurants and retail locations or directly through the winery’s website. And most assuredly, they are worth tracking down. For fans of floral flavors, these wines are simply heavenly. Enjoy them as aperitifs, mixed into cocktails, or with food.

What to try: The lightly effervescent “L” Lavender Wine is surprisingly dry, with a pleasingly herbal bitterness, a hint of juniper, and bright acidity supplied by lemons. The show-stopping RoseHybiscus is gorgeously hued, stunningly textured, and brilliantly perfumed, with aromas of rose petal, raspberry, and sage. The citrus here (orange) is so subtle you might not know it’s there.

freerangeflowerwinery.com

 

Nikki Goddard is an Oakland-based wine writer, educator, illustrator, and consultant. A world-traveling wine enthusiast, she particularly enjoys finding exciting new wine discoveries in her own backyard. Twitter: @nicklesg

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