Barrel Fever 

A burgeoning East Bay winemaking scene separates the vin from the vineyard.

Page 4 of 6

On May 20, the Brandts threw a "winery warming" to fete their new Fourth Street digs. They didn't advertise — just sent out notices to their mailing lists, hired a band and some caterers, and crossed their fingers. Close to three hundred people showed up. Across the estuary, more than a thousand people were paying $25 a glass to swill wines at one of Rosenblum's quarterly parties, which have become a staple of the Alameda social scene.

Public interest, in other words, is high. But until very recently, Rosenblum Cellars was the only local winery open to the public. Most have relied on distributors, brokers, and direct contact with restaurants and wine shops to sell their product. It takes a whole lot of permitting to get bonded as a commercial winery, and even more to host tastings and events. These boutique operations largely lack the sales volume to justify hiring tasting-room staff. Many are so small they share space and equipment with another winery, operating as what the feds call "alternating proprietors."

All over wine country, boutique vintners, idolized by the cognoscenti and invisible to casual drinkers, operate this way. Wineries such as Edmunds St. John and Rubissow-Sargent have established themselves nationally, albeit quietly, over the course of twenty years. They've never hidden their Berkeley location — in fact, Steve Edmunds says it's allowed him to develop longstanding relationships with local restaurants — but they've never had cause to trumpet it.

Attitudes are changing, though. Lost Canyon's Jack States and Randy Keyworth went pro only after they brought on a third partner, Bob Riskin, who'd retired in 1999 after decades in marketing and product development. Looking across the estuary at what the Alameda winemakers were doing, the three saw the potential of an Oakland winery from the get-go. Soon enough, their Pinots Noirs and Syrahs began receiving high marks from the wine press, and when the landlord sold out from under them four years after they'd moved in, the three decided that their new winery would include a full tasting room.

Located a few blocks from its previous space in the shadow of I-880 south of Jack London Square, the new space still feels far from the bustle. But Riskin claims the attractive tasting room gets three to five dozen visitors a day on Saturdays and that people are renting it for events. They're all praying the Jack London Square developers will come through with the Ferry Plaza-style food hall they've promised Oakland.

In the meantime, Dashe and JC Cellars are putting finishing touches to their shared tasting room, which they expect will open to the public sometime next month. The wineries already cohost events, and although they share space, they don't feel like direct rivals. "Our clientele is very different," Cohn says. "Zinnies aren't always Rhonies, though sometimes they meet and talk."

After it fragmented, the group that shared the Rosenblum space agreed to find ways to market themselves together, but startup vintners with young kids don't tend to have much free time. Lost Canyon's founders also chatted up colleagues about joint marketing, but were distracted with the move and the renovations. Almost everyone credits Brendan Eliason as the force who finally brought everyone together. Back when he was checking out warehouse space, he also started checking out local wineries. "I knew a couple of them from before, but not others," he says. "How I met most people is that I just showed up at their front porch and said hi."

As the gregarious winemaker gathered names and numbers, he found that many of the long-timers didn't know one another. Introductions were made. Then, at some point, the idea arose for a formal organization, which led to the East Bay Vintners Association. The group has held three meetings so far, all at Berkeley's Albatross pub, where the winemakers drink — beer, naturally — pick over barbecue from Everett & Jones across the street, and talk shop.

Topping their agenda is a "passport" event in which all of the wineries would open their doors to the public for a day, followed by a more permanent "urban wine route." The former will require a marketing push and a date — the harvest is looming, so it'll have to happen either before the winemakers disappear for three months, or early next year.

The second idea: Well, that might be easier to promote. Eliason sees it as something you might do on a Saturday when you wake up and call a few friends. Hey, you say groggily, want to have brunch and go wine tasting? You drive down the street or across the bridge, and you're back in time for supper — no wading through packs of tourists or dodging CHP officers on the lookout for cars swerving home from Napa. The Dashes note that they're just a few blocks from BART — you'll soon be able to hit Dashe and JC Cellars in one go, then take a sobering two-mile walk to Lost Canyon. Bring a bike and you can ride over to Rosenblum and St. George Spirits, too. Heck, with those distances, you might as well split a cab. And buses run up and down San Pablo Avenue, passing close to several wineries.

If the vintners can snag all the right permits, wine tasters may also be able to roll from Periscope in Emeryville down to A Donkey and Goat and then to Edmunds St. John, which will soon share a space with Rubissow-Sargent. A one-mile stagger north along Fourth Street puts you near Eno/Harrington Cellars, where Bryan Harrington already likes to hang out on Saturday afternoons and chat with anyone who stops by.

Eno's Verhage hopes association members can share resources as well as marketing. "If we wanted to buy a screwcap machine or an ozone machine, those things are tens of thousands of dollars," he says. "It doesn't make sense to have a bottling machine if you only use it once a year. But if I drop a thousand and you drop a thousand, and we just rotate it, it's affordable." Tracey Brandt, meanwhile, is happy to have sympathetic winemakers close by in case critical machinery breaks midharvest, or some tiny part gets lost right when she needs it. Eliason relishes the sense of community. "It's nice to go grab a beer with a friend and bitch because you've got a stuck fermentation on your Petite Sirah," he says. "The guilty aside part of this was that I just wanted friends to hang out with."

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