Lure of the Urban (Wine) Road

Periscope Cellars Tasting Room, Emeryville, CA

Recently, we went up to Northern California to visit Adam’s mom and go wine tasting. However, rather than hit any of the nine wine regions in that half of the state, we toodled ’round Oakland, on the eastern shores of the San Francisco Bay.

But what’s it like to go wine tasting in an industrial city full of warehouses?

Delicious, fun — and surprisingly inspiring.

About a month before our trip, my friend Julie Brosterman of Women & Wine (a Los Angeles-based community for those mildly obsessed by wine) suggested that Adam and I skip a trip to Napa in favor of checking out the East Bay Vintner’s Alliance. Julie knows more about wine than most folks forget in a lifetime, so we chose to take her advice.

The Alliance is a collection of micro-winery tasting rooms dotted around Berkeley and Oakland, along a path called the Urban Wine Road. The big star in town is Kent Rosenblum of Rosenblum Cellars, whose Zinfandels are easily found in our local Whole Foods in L.A; his output dwarfs the rest of the Alliance’s put together.

Most of the wineries are labors of love for longtime couples or friends who purchase their grapes from all over California, especially Sonoma, Paso Robles and the Sacramento wine counties. Their tasting and production rooms are set in gussied-up warehouses, piled high with barrels and full of locals happy to support commerce that’s both independent and close to home.

The interactive map on the Alliance’s site is comprehensive, but was pretty glitchy on our iPhones; to simplify your adventure, I’d suggest you get to one tasting room and pick up a paper version of the Urban Wine Road Map.

With only a few hours on our hands, we chose a small section of Oakland, taking advice from each vintner on where to go next.

Periscope Cellars & Urbano Cellars

1410 62nd Street, Suite B – Periscope: (510) 655-7827/Urbano: (510) 806-7155

Fri-Sun, 1pm-6pm

This former submarine repair shop is a production space, tasting room and art gallery. We didn’t have an opportunity to taste Periscope’s wines while we were here (no rep was in residence that day), but their über-cool labels of a wine-hoarding octopus, mermaid and deep sea diver began as paintings by local artist J.B. Lowe, and adorn the walls.

We were greeted by Urbano’s friendly, comfortably-middle-aged Bob Rawson, who along with his neighbor, Fred Dick, started making wine a few years ago in his garage; by early 2011, their operation will be moving to bigger tasting room digs in Oakland’s Jack London Square. Urbano’s wines rely heavily on French and Italian grapes; while their Vin Rosé did nothing to sway us to the Gamay side of the street, their 2008 Sangiovese and 2006 Petiti Verdot are smooth and quiet pleasures.

Artist J.B. Lowe's original paintings for Persicope Cellars' labels

Stage Left Cellars

2102 Dennison Street – (510) 434-9930

First Saturday of the month, 11am-5pm

The first child of married couple Melinda Doty and Rich Williams (their actual daughter was born in 2009), Stage Left was devised as an exit plan from high-pressure tech industry jobs. There was a four-year stint at Paso Robles’ Zenaida Cellars and nearly insane amounts of work before making their recent move to Oakland.

Their labels read “Shoulda Woulda Coulda,” a reference to the agonized obsessing they did while gearing up for their big (and so far, quite successful) leap. Their passion’s been poured into their gorgeous Breadwinner blend, which at about $40 was the most expensive wine we tasted all afternoon…but left us with no regrets.

Stage Left's labels reflect their process from second-guessing to leaping into a new life

Irish Monkey Cellars

1017 22nd Avenue, Suite 300 – (510) 915-5463

Sat & Sun, 12pm-5pm

Melinda Doty of Stage Left pointed us here, with one disclaimer: “Those guys are kinda crazy. In a good way.”

Crazy, I don’t know, but there was a big, happy crowd, a wreath made of wine corks over the bar, and a semi-salty, half-drunk Irish guy — team vintner Bill McFerren — to greet us.

Oenologist/part-time beer enthusiast/gifted painter Bob Lynch, the twinkly creator of Irish Monkey, was also in the house; when we purchased his rich, delicious, French-inspired Primitivo, Lynch whipped out a silver pen and signed the label-less bottle with a flourish. (We drank his tart, crisp Fumé Blanc just last week, and it was plum lovely.)

Irish Monkey's cheery tasting room is in an anonymous warehouse complex

Urban Legend Cellars

621 4th Street – (510) 545-4356

Fri-Sun, 1pm-6pm

Urban Legend’s 50-something husband/wife team, Steve and Marilee, welcomed us with crackers and news of their local charity grape stomp on October 23rd, 2010. Rooted in the hip foodie/design culture of the East Bay, their tasting room features big stainless-steel barrels, acid-green walls and a beautiful table of culinary products for sale (hellooo, black truffle salt).

The winery’s 2008 Ironworks Red Blend features the Italian grapes Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, with just a hint of smokiness from ’08’s forest fires in the Sierras. We’re not normally big fans of dry Italian wines, but as a blend? Yes, please.

Urban Legend's space has both acid green walls and European-style grapes

JC Cellars & Dashe Cellars

55 4th Street – Dashe: (510) 452-1800/JC: (510) 465-5900

Thurs-Sun, 12pm-5pm

This great big raucous space felt, above all the rest, like the de facto hub of the Vintner’s Alliance. Both wineries focus on biodynamic production and use organic grapes, and conversation around the bar is all about gardening and local politics.

Michael and Anne Dashe started their winery as newlyweds back in the mid-90s, combining their enology educations (Michael’s at UC Davis, Anne’s at the University of Bordeaux). Their wines, largely sourced from Napa and Sonoma grapes, are delicate, sophisticated and designed for pairing with food. Their ’08 Riesling was too dry for our taste, but the 2008 L’Enfant Terrible Grenache was just right…in a French/Goldilocks sort of way.

Jeff Cohn, the vintner behind JC Cellars, learned his trade at Rosenblum. Dedicated to both the environment and his local audience, he offers his Daily Ration red blend in a ½-gallon screw-cap jug; once you’ve polished it off, you can bring it back for a refill ($25). His flowery 2008 Rousanne is called The First Date, and it feels pretty darn romantic.

The big, friendly shared tasting room/production space for JC Cellars & Dashe Cellars

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Read more about the Urban Wine Road on the East Bay Vintner’s Alliance site

For restaurant suggestions in the area, pick up a map at one of the tasting rooms or check out the site for Oakland Grown

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See also

A Bay Area Weekend
San Francisco: California Academy of of Sciences
San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace
A Dream Drive Through Marin County
TWT Travel Binder: California

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Comments

  1. I recommend signing up for the East Bay Vintner’s Alliance’s newsletter. They throw events a few times a year that — for the price of perhaps two tastings at Napa wineries — allow you to taste from all their wineries, and often there are food pairings, as well. And the cab ride home is cheaper than a Napa hotel!

  2. Jennifer, thank you — this is really helpful information!

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