I remember my first sip of wine; the elixir that would ultimately open my eyes, my mind and my imagination to a world so vast as to stagger my comprehension of what was possible. It was god-awful! It was also made in my grandfather’s basement from Concord grapes grown in his vineyard in the backyard of a modest house on Boyd Avenue in Jersey City…and I was six.A few years and several decades have transpired since that day and it’s safe to say that thousands of sips have been consumed. “The Chief” was not too far off the mark, for what he created was art, and given the right grapes, and a little more know how, he may have turned into a fine urban vintner.
Was winemaking really that simple? Yes, and no. It’s really a very simple formula to ferment grapes or sugar found in other fruits: Sugar plus yeast equals Ethanol plus Carbon Dioxide plus Heat.So why does one need to be on a rolling hill in Sonoma or Napa or Mendocino or Paso Roblas to create a Storybook wine? Is proximity a factor in making great wine? And why has the San Francisco Bay Area been front runners in California winemaking for over 125 years?
Urban wineries are nothing new to San Francisco and the East Bay. Since the 1880’s, the Bay Area, New York and Los Angeles produced about 85% of wine in the United States. Grapes were grown near and transported to these port cities and produced in warehouses. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and subsequently Prohibition put an end to a thriving wine economy, but you can bet your bottom dollar that wine was still being made in garages and basements throughout America. World War II created a booming economic industry of wartime manufacturing and the creation of larger warehouses and hangars in the Bay Area.
The Alameda Naval Air Station even so much as built a rock wall penetrating 50 feet into the bay to guard against Japanese torpedo attacks. But when our troops came home, something odd had occurred. Over the next 25 years, palates became more sophisticated and the desire to live amongst big industry and city life diminished. A mass exodus from city life to the suburbs became more fashionable, wine made in basements gave way to whisky and spirit and the three martini lunch. Wine took a back seat in the U.S. until the 1970’s when the world took note of several Napa Valley winemakers at the Judgment of Paris when the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and the 1973 Stags Leap Cellars SLV Cabernet Sauvignon, both from Napa Valley, were pitted against the top Bordeaux of France and won. America proved that it produced world class wines and everybody wanted in. The suburbs gave way to the rolling hills of the vineyard. The cities and it’s warehouses became dilapidated, crime infested, and economically sour. But amongst the disenfranchised, the gangs and slumlords thrived a community of authentics, artists, students and visionaries who, like the Phoenix, would rise from the rubble.
Living out in the vineyards created its own set of challenges. Sure, it’s a great place to grow top quality grapes but access to water, electricity, water waste management, the size of the roads for trucking and politics are a real turnoff. In addition, there are miles in between great authentic culinary experiences, art experiences, music venues, and in some cases pretentious and exclusionary tourism…and it’s expensive. Urban wineries offer the opportunity to source many different varietals from many different vineyards, and produce excellent wines while leaving a much smaller carbon footprint.When the Naval Air Station was decommissioned in 1997 it left a trail of abandoned buildings and hangars overlooking a million dollar view of the San Francisco skyline. So it should be no surprise to anyone that the hottest ticket in town is popping up in the post-apocalyptic-like neighborhood of Alameda Point’s Monarch Street, fondly known as “Alcohol Alley”.
In 1978 Rosenblum Cellars was one of the first urban wineries in the Bay Area, opened by the incomparable “King of Zin” himself, Kent Rosenblum. His big, jammy, in-your-face Zinfandels produced from old vines and sourced from mountainsides, valley floors and everything in between, became some of the most highly rated California Zinfandels in the world. Kent believed in doing things differently. He sourced his grapes from different growers, establishing relationships that would last over 35 years, while staying devoted to his family and the Alameda community. Kent’s two daughter grew up in the winery, and like many children, they really had no desire to go into the family business. Shauna, the oldest daughter, holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from San Francisco Art Institute. While taking a glaze chemistry class, she had an epiphany: The chemistry seemed oddly familiar and she felt the strong nudge towards winemaking. After all, winemaking is not just science, it is art.
Diagio Chateau and Estate Wines bought Rosenblum Cellars in 2008 and moved its winery to Napa. Although Kent stayed involved in Rosenblum for the next several years, his visionary spirit and deep roots in the community was the driving force behind the next big thing. So in 2008, with Shauna’s brilliance and passion, an incredible palate and a lifetime of knowledge, Shauna became the Master Winemaker of the next big thing…Rock Wall Wine Company.
We met with the charming and gregarious Chelsea Blackburn, Director of PR at Rock Wall and it felt like meeting an old friend. The vibe is family, as the modest staff engages in producing some of the best wines in California, and not just one or two varietal. There are over 40 different varietals sourced from over 60 sustainable vineyards, as well as an Estate wine in Healdsburg producing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, playing to just about every type and taste sensation. A few noteworthy favorites to try include their Baydeux Blend which is an homage to Cabernet Sauvignon blends, with Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon, often blended together in Uruguay; Zin Nymph from Lodi’s Clancy Ranch, made of 100% White Zinfandel and 100% delicious; and the Super Alamedan, a California twist on the Super Tuscans of Italy.
The magic happens before your eyes in the 40,000 sq. ft. retrofitted Hanger 24, the newest of the once active Naval Air Stations property. This is not your average winery or tasting room. This is space, wide open space suitable for a lot more than fermenting grapes. That million dollar view shines in the backdrop of what could best be described as a blank canvas for events, festivals, weddings, team building seminars, music venues, the list goes on as wide as the imagination. With the collaboration of local foodie Mike Boyd, you can enjoy cheese plates, hand-crafted sandwiches, Charcuterie, smoked meats and other daily specialties from the Scolari’s Good Eats just across the way.
Rock Wall Wine Company is one of the star attraction for the East Bay Vintners Alliance Urban Wine Experience in August, and the East Bay Passport in the Spring. On February 12, 2016 as Rock Wall Wine Company hosted “Viva Amore” and this fabulous evening was the debut release of three new wines crafted by the incomparable Shauna Rosenblum.
2014 Romancer – A blend of Malbec, Mourvèdre and Petit Verdot.
The 2014 vintage sourced from Heringer Vineyard in Clarksburg, sings with aromatic notes of blackberry pie, graham cracker, sage, black pipe tobacco and flavors of cocoa puff cereal, plum, cherry, with a lavender and raspberry finish.
2015 Sparkling Grenache Rose – Grenache.
The 2015 vintage sourced from Glasear Vineyards in Yolo County is absolutely refreshing showing bright strawberry rhubarb pie notes along with crisp flavors of raspberry, watermelon and a nice mineral feel. Fermentation is done on the premises and bottled under pressure off-premise on a special bottling line made for sparkling
2015 Sparkling Blanc de Blanc – Chardonnay
The 2015 is an elegant dry, yet fruit forward effervescent wine showing notes of crisp Granny Smith apples with a touch of honeysuckle and orange blossom.
We can only guess at the exact tasting notes at this time but past releases have been highly rated and have won countless awards. It should also be noted that the sparkling wines currently use the Charmat Method which is basically a double tank fermentation. The first fermentation takes place to make the base still wine and the second to create carbonation. Once the secondary fermentation is completed, the wine is bottled under pressure to maintain its carbonation. Since the wine does not spend extended time on the spent yeast, a more pure expression of fruit shines through.
Left Magazine just so happened to be on the premises while Shauna was off in another section of the hangar passionately involved in bottling her magic potions in beautifully designed silk screened bottles which are works of art unto themselves. Her passion for life shines through each bottle clinking down the line. Shauna shared her personality and applied feminine nuances to her winemaking techniques. Her style is lighter and refined. It appears the student has become the teacher. At the end of the bottling line was a creation that could only be achieved by a skilled artisan…Uncle Roget’s Grenache Rose still wine. “Would you like to try one?” Yes, Please!
Whether you’re a Millennial or a Legacy visitor to Rock Wall Wine Company, they have a wine that will transpose you. So grab a glass and sit on the “Rock of the Bay, watching the tides roll away”. For more information and to get your tickets to Viva Amore visit www.rockwallwines.com
For a completely new brewery experience, Faction Brewing is sure to pop up on your radar. The 20-tap direct draw system in their tasting room, complete with a 30 foot California redwood bar and patio seating, features a wide variety of pale ales, IPA’s, Belgians, porters and stouts, they push the boundaries of beer. The Java World Stout is infused with cold-pressed coffee from Jewel Box Coffee in Oakland, and the A-Town Pale Ale is only available on the island (how’s that for staying local)! When the barrels say it’s so – it’s barrel-aged beer time.
Just across the street is Building 43 Winery, an artisan winery owned by winemaker Tod Hickman and Meredith Coghlan specializes in hand crafted varietals from the Contra Costa and Sierra Foothills regions. The tasting room is reminiscent of the Naval Air Station’s glory days adorning WWII pin-up girl posters like “Bomber Red 43″ named after their red blend. Open Friday through Sunday during the winter.
Tastings are just not the same without green fairies, monkeys and an animatronic shark named “Cordelia”. St. George Spirits has been an artisan distillery in the Bay Area since 1982. Originally located in a small shack in Emeryville before finally landing inside the 65,000 square foot airplane hangar on Monarch Street, Jorg Rupture brought his skills and talent (and a 65 gallon Holstein pot still) as an Eau de Vie distiller from Germany where he was the youngest judge for the Ministry of Culture. We met with the “very fancy” Ms. Sam Shireman, Assistant Tasting Room Manager, to learn more about this “booze oasis” and toured the distillery with the knowledgeable and interesting Zack. We then put this knowledge to good use in the very chic tasting room separated from the distillery by an encased window wall…Willy Wonka for adults.
Eau de Vie by definition is a whole fruit, unaged brandy. The essence of this “water of life” is to immortalize the raw material, in this instance, dry-farmed Bartlett pears, intensely ripe raspberries, or locally sourced California apples. Master Distiller Lance Winters and Distiller/Blender Dave Smith have created an array of spirits that would dazzle any sommelier. Their All Purpose Vodka is distilled from, yes, pears and non-GMO corn. Also delicious is their California Valencia Citrus Vodka and the spicy Green Chile Vodka, perfect for that Bloody Mary! As a gin drinker, the Terroir Gin is an “ode to the wild beauty of the Golden State” meanwhile, Botanivor Gin is a meadow of 19 different botanicals. Rums, whiskies and grappa – Oh my! Distilled oysters, Dungeness crabs, Komby seaweed, even their own Christmas tree…Check out www.stgeorgespirits.com for all of their amazing creations.
Now about those green fairies. For 95 years, the sale of Absinthe was banned in the United States. The number of theories outweigh the number of years it was banished. Some say it contained opiates, or thujone (a derivative of wormwood) which is believed to trigger hallucinations as well as clarity of thought. Others thought it was a victim of a smear campaign triggered by the French wine world since the sale of wine declined during absinthe’s hayday. Still others thought the changing of the times, and the temperance movement was behind its ill reputation. Edgar Degas’s painting L’Absinthe depicts a young actress in a reflective moment, who was declared “a slut” by British art critic George Moore.
Oh, how I could go on. The ban was lifted in 2007 and St. George Spirits was the first kid on the block with this beguiling herbal elixir. Hundreds of books of betrayals have been centered around its use and misuse. Although it was illegal to sell absinthe, it was not illegal to distill it. So Lance Winters spent tireless amounts of time crafting this infused brandy with wormwood, fennel and star anise. Then infusing a second time with mint, tarragon, opal basil, lemon balm, hyssop, meadowsweet and stinging nettles so that the perfect concoction would be absolutely perfect upon release, complete with a monkey on the bottle. “You won’t hallucinate when you drink our absinthe, but you might fall in love”.
So what about Cordelia the shark? Guess you’ll have to take the tour…no spoiler alert here! Suffice to say that St. George Spirits was once home to several other “roommates”. Rosenblum Cellars was once housed at their current location as was Hangar One Vodka, a creation of Jorg Rupf. That is until 2010 when Proximo Spirits of Jersey City (getting a grandfather theme going here) bought the brand and moved it within stumbling distance of St. George Spirits.
Master Distiller Caley Shoemaker began her career as an artist/photographer and entered the world of distilling at Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey through passion. She learned everything she could before coming to Alameda and is excited to push the boundaries of this high-end sipping spirit with its farm fresh tastes and flavors. Hangar One “Straight” is a blend of Viognier grape eau de vie distilled in pot stills and Midwestern wheat from column stills, blended to create a most perfect small batch vodka. Her uncomparable natural talent is multifaceted with the already distributed Buddha’s Hand Citron Vodka showing notes of jasmine, basil and apricot; Mandarin Blossom Vodka displaying honey, rose water, and satsuma; and Makrut Lime Vodka coupled with wood, white pepper and cucumber. We can’t wait for the new visitor’s center and tasting room, with exclusive flavors for Hangar One imbibers only to open within the next few months. Who needs a blimp when you’ve got a great vodka! So what happened to the Hangar One blimp? The New York Daily news headline on August 15, 2011 read “Giant blimp crashes into 94 year old woman’s yard in Ohio; ‘I looked out and said WOW!”
The Oakland Urban Wine Trail is a great way to round out your local vibe of libations with currently about ten urban wineries participating in bike, BART and stumbling/walking tours mostly around Jack London Square. Take a short ferry ride from Alameda Main Street to Jack London Square and keep the East Bay Love going.Urban Ledgend Cellars – 621 4th Street, Oakland (510) 545-4356 www.ulcellars.com
Approachable wines and a friendly, knowledgeable staff. This small boutique winery produces over a dozen different California grown old and new world varietals. Child and dog friendly.
Dashe Cellars – 55 4th Street, Oakland (510) 452-1800 www.dashecellars.com
Impressive wines from one of the world’s top winemakers. Generous pours and superb customer service. Produces old-vine Zins, Cabs, Petit Sirah and Dry Riesling from small family vineyards in Sonoma and Mendocino. Available for events.
Jeff Cohn Cellars – 160 Franklin Street, Oakland (510) 465-5900 www.jeffcohncellars.com
Gorgeous, intimate tasting room withe amazing staff. Jeff’s passion shines through with his high-quality Rhone and Zinfandels varietals sourced from Sonoma, Alexander Valley, Napa, Paso Roblas, Amador and Rockpile AVAs.
Rosenblum Cellars – 10 Clay Street, Oakland (877) 478-9467 www.rosenblumcellars.com
Beautiful tasting room and patio with breathtaking views overlooking the water. Gracious hosts and fat pours of famed Rosenblum Zins. Cheeses and Charcuterie available as well as a private event space.
Cerritos Cellars – 100 Webster Street, Suite 100, Oakland (510) 550-2900 www.cerruticellars.com
Super cool venue with stellar staff that loves what they do. The Tudal Family knows how to make you feel welcome – they’ve been here for four generations. California classics sourced from vineyards in Napa, Alexander Valley and Russian River. Local foods and Charcuterie and very dog friendly. Event space available.
Campovida Taste of Place – 103 Linden St, West Oakland. (510) 550-7273 www.campovida.com
Rustic casual is the vibe here featuring wines from organic and biodynamic (YAY) wineries in Mendocino with top-notch service. Fresh breads and olive oils and This is not your hipster hangout, Fido is welcome.
Stage Left Cellars – 2102 Dennison St. Suite A, East Oakland (510) 434-9930 www.stageleftcellars.com
Chill Lounge off the beaten path. Personalized staff who you’ll sure to become friends with. Rhone varietals handcrafted that will create lasting memories. This is for true wine aficionados who want to try amazing wines. Sourced from California and Oregon.
Two Mile Wines – 477 25th Street, Oakland.(510) 868-8713 www.twomilewines.com
Unpretentious open space that you just want to hang out all day in. Great local wines, some biodynamics, and really interesting wines sourced from Sonoma, Napa, and Livermore. Handcrafted. Event space available.
Irish Monkey – 1017 22nd Ave., Suite 300, Oakland (510) 915-5463. www.irishmonkeycellars.com
Quaint inside with lots of outdoor space and a friendly and positive attitude by staff and owner. A true hidden gem with unique blends and generous pours. A place where everybody knows your name. Mostly reds.