The first time I heard the term "East Bay Wineries" I immediately thought of Livermore Valley home to dozens of wineries including Wente and Concannon. I wasn’t aware of the nearly twenty urban wineries that dot the industrial west side of Berkeley and Oakland. As it turns out, one of the best ways to explore the growing East Bay wine scene is by bike. So, one recent hot summer Saturday, I met up with some friends in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland. We pumped up our tires, donned backpacks to carry our bounty of wine bottles and set off on a twenty mile ride through Oakland.
Our first stop: Urban Legend Cellars, one of three wineries in the Jack London Square area. Steve and Marilee Shaffer own and make the wine at this mom and pop cellar and it all happens in the company of their pit bull, Sunshine.
We bellied up to the tasting bar just as they were opening their doors. For five dollars you can run through at least a half dozen tastings and the fee is waived if you make a purchase. I loved these wines -- crisp, acidic, good food wines with not a lot of barrel overtones. Some of my favorites included: a 2010 Rosato di Barbera from Clarksburg ($18); a 2009 Rhone style blend of reds called Lolapalooza from Amador County ($26) and a 2009 Uptown from Mendocino County ($20/liter).
Now there are a couple of cool things about this last wine. First, it's sold by the liter in a refillable bottle and second, it's named after a neighborhood in Oakland. Each harvest, Steve and Marilee pick a local Oakland 'hood to feature. Next year visitors can expect a West Oakland Wine. "What will that taste like?" I asked. "The wine will likely be a spicy blend of Petite Syrah and Zinfandel, sort of capturing that Brown Sugar Kitchen food renaissance of the neighborhood," Marilee told me over the wail of a passing Amtrak train. A scientist by training, she explained her wine making philosophy and answered my friends' many questions which included "how do you spit properly" since we were all two-wheeled designated drivers that day. Needless to say, we could have stayed at Urban Legend all day but we had other city cellars to discover. We bought a couple bottles and headed off to the farmers market a few blocks away.
After fueling up on ceviche and tamales from a food truck, we peddled off along the Oakland harbor between the estuary and I-880 freeway down towards the High Street Bridge. We were looking for Irish Monkey Cellars which is easy to miss as it’s located in an industrial park tucked back behind Embarcadero Cove. A banner hanging from a chain link fence gave us a clue we were near. We parked our bikes against the warehouse wall and went into the rather small, but elegant, darkened tasting room where we found the winemaker, Bob Lynch. He was quite chatty and shared the story behind the winery's name. Six years ago he and his wife Loreta coined the name "Irish Monkey." Bob's background is Irish and he wields a unique sense of humor. We started out with a 2008 Torrontes ($12), the grapes sourced from Lodi. That was followed up with a Contra Costa Viognier and then we moved on to their reds, many award winning. My favorite was a 2009 one hundred percent Napa Merlot ($24). I liked the diversity of varietals and local vineyards from which Irish Monkey sources. We were eager to get back into the sun so we thanked our host and headed out over the High Street Bridge to Alameda.
We peddled across Alameda over to Shoreline Drive where we hung a right and rode up past Crown Beach and the throng of sunbathers. If we were on an organized East Bay winery bike tour, this is where we would stop to eat our specially prepared picnic lunch. Owner Jon Zalon’s trips, and his wife's lunches, get rave reviews. But we were a motley crew, armed only with fruit bars and a curiosity for the upcoming wineries housed at the decommissioned naval air station at the tip of Alameda.
Rock Wall Wine Company
It was hard to believe we were going to find a winery somewhere in this vast old military base full of old airplane hangars, barracks and officer's clubs. But we had been finding wineries all day tucked behind chain link fences and graffiti strewn walls. We eventually found the Rock Wall Wine Company which provides production space and a tasting bar for more than a half dozen wineries. This is a top of the line tasting bar with expansive views of the Bay Bridge and two city skylines. Rock Wall has a little outdoor patio where on nice days customers can sit at tables and enjoy drinking wine accompanied by small plates cuisine. For our tasting they started us off with a Rock Wall sparkling which was one of my favorites. I also enjoyed the 2009 Rock Wall Zinfandel Reserve from Sonoma. This spicy Zin, which goes for $30 a bottle, was a gold medal winner at the California State Fair this year. Unfortunately, none of my wines included tastings of the other wineries that use the space.
The celebratory mood of our Rock Wall visit was probably enhanced by the fact that it was getting later in the afternoon and we were swallowing most of our tastings now. We tried to squeeze in one more stop, Rosenblum Cellars, one of the largest wineries in the East Bay. But as we approached the winery, we heard "all aboard" coming from the ferry dock below. Rosenblum would have to wait for another time. On the five minute ferry ride back to Jack London Square we agreed to visit the winery one warm Sunday afternoon for their "Music on the Deck" series. I did come back, the next week, to check out Dasche Cellars on 6th Street in the Jack London Square neighborhood. If you like bone dry wines, this urban cellar is for you. I bought a bottle of excellent 2008 Todd Brothers Ranch Zinfandel ($32). If you are curious about East Bay wines and you want to experience as many as possible in just one trip, you're in luck. On Saturday, August 6, The East Bay Vintners Alliance is hosting the 6th Annual Urban Wine Experience. Over twenty cellars will be pouring their wines along with local food purveyors serving food. Come forth and taste urban wines! And for those that won't be spitting, BART is just a few blocks away.
6th Annual Urban Wine Experience
Saturday, August 6, 2011
Jack London Pavilion
Oakland, CA 94607
Early Bird Rate (until 8/1): $40, After Aug 1: $60, $10 designated driver
Advance tickets: East Bay Vintners
Facebook: East Bay Vintners