When you think of Oakland, the other city by the San Francisco Bay, you probably don't think of it as wine country. There aren't any vineyards, bucolic settings or palatial wine tasting rooms. Instead, you find a gritty, industrial vibe, one that dares to thumb its nose at traditional wine country. This is wine country in the city.
Twenty-three wineries now call Oakland and surrounding areas home. This is more than a trend, not only in Oakland, but around the country. City Winery is in New York City. Boedecker is in Portland and Henke is in Cincinnati. While the labels may have appellations from Napa Valley to Long Island to the Willamette Valley, the grapes are brought into a downtown setting to be made into wine.
Part of the attraction for vintners going urban is cost. They don't have vineyards, and downtown industrial space can be a lot less expensive than a small plot in Napa or Sonoma. What you do find is real passion and talent for winemaking. Most urban wineries make small lots, but it's the wine they want to make, and drink. The tasting rooms are accessible to a wider population too. Imagine taking the subway to a winery. You can in New York. Urban wineries are changing the landscape, so to speak, and definition of wine country.
The East Bay Vintners Alliance hosted a passport wine tasting on Saturday. Pay one fee, drink at all the tasting rooms. I've had many of these wines, but not in their urban setting. Since many vintners pour together, passport tastings are a good way to sample many wines under one roof. These are some of the wineries and wines worth seeking out.
It's not an urban legend, it's a winery. Urban Legend Cellars was my first stop, where about five wineries were pouring. Their labels are fun, showing the cranes in the Oakland port that look like something out of Star Wars. They source grapes and bring them here where they crush and make the wine. The Sauvignon Blanc is zippy and lively, the Grenache is soft and fruity.
Stomping Girl Wines makes three single vineyard Pinots; the best one to me is the Sonoma Coast bottling, rich and brooding. Asked about making wine in an urban setting, Stomping Girl Kathryn Cohen says, "We started in an urban environment, in our garage. We didn't think about going outside of Oakland."
At Dashe and JC Cellars, where these two wineries share a warehouse space for tasting rooms and winery, more vintners were pouring. I went straight to Stage Left Cellars, where a crowd was waiting to try their Viognier and red Rhone varietals. Their motto is "Everyone needs an exit strategy," and owner Melinda Doty left a career in sales and marketing to create Stage Left.
You had to be in the know to score Eno Wines "secret stash" of 2002 Zinfandel. "Caught red handed" is made from old vines in Dry Creek Valley and is full bodied, spicy and jammy.
These urban wineries are all close to each other, so you don't have to do a lot of driving between them. This tasting had a party bus to shuttle participants between wineries. I did see a police car sitting outside of one tasting room, ready to nab anyone who was under the influence. That's why you spit, and don't swallow.
Cerruti Cellars is right on the railroad tracks. It's an edgy and and industrial setting that feels modern, a perfect reflection of urban wine country. They put the finishing touches on this new tasting room this week. I love the light fixtures -- and found out that the folks at Cerruti made them. Oh yeah, the wines are pretty good too, made by Kirk Venge.
Andrew Lane Wines is also pouring at Cerruti. Adoring fans are lined up to taste what winemaker Andrew Dickson is pouring. I'm lucky enough to get the last drops of Boxing Girl Chardonnay. "It's my wife's wine," he says. "She's tough." It's a good, unoaked Chardonnay. David Dickson, Andrew's father, launched the winery, naming it for his two sons, Andrew and Lane. They like fruit-forward wines, which is evident when you taste both the Chardonnay and the Petite Sirah.
Last stop for me was at Rock Wall Wine Company, on the former Naval Air Base in Alameda. You can't beat the setting, with views of San Francisco across the bay. Rock Wall will be opening a new tasting room here, with a grand opening for the public on May 14 and 15. While Rock Wall is known for Zinfandel, they make a very nice late harvest Riesling. A perfect wine for sipping while sitting outside in the urban landscape that is now wine country.