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The East Bay Vintners have a long way yet to go. They have no formal incorporation papers, and no joint checking account, although Eliason has set up a Web site at EastBayVintners.com. Lost Canyon's Riskin thinks it's time for a more formal structure. Even so, startup winemakers such as Brockway and Smith can't take advantage of the passport event because they don't yet have a proper space to display their wines, and Verhage lacks the proper permits. And it's unclear whether anyone will have the time to pull these events together, since all work double-overtime already.
Even so, their DIY spirit is infectious. The brave new winemakers, light on cash but heavy on skill, are adopting cooperative business models that seem poised to foster the spread of urban winemaking. And if the East Bay wine trail gets up and running, who knows how many more red-nosed locals will catch the fever?
Brendan Eliason has great hopes for Periscope and Emeryville. "In every town in Europe, you have your local cheesemaker, your local butcher, your local baker, and your local winemaker," he says. "Here we ghettoize all the wine production. Napa is the number-two draw for adults in California, next to Disneyland. And that's really the mentality of it."
In Napa, he continues, "You're not actually in the community with the people who are consuming your product. They have to drive an hour up to you to buy the wine, and then they drive an hour back away. You're not part of the social dynamic." Which is exactly what he wants to be, with regular after-hours tastings for locals; events that combine forces with Paulding & Company, the cooking instructor next door; and maybe even a fill-your-jug setup. Just show up at his front porch and say hi.
SWEET & SOUR GRAPES
For vintners, building an identity around an urban area has its pros and cons.
By Jonathan Kauffman
It makes sense for the East Bay Vintners to market their location to thousands of urban wine lovers who live just minutes away. But market nationally? Maybe not.
Robert Eyler, an economist in Sonoma State's Wine Business Program, thinks building a reputation as an urban vintners' association will be tough. "There are a lot of appellation-based winery associations that are trying to build appellations as brands," he says. "It's tough to imagine that it will be taken lying down."
The wine industry drops serious cash promoting states, counties, and microregions as wine-growing areas. In California, there are 95 approved American Viticultural Areas, the US government's formal name for appellations. AVAs can be as broad as "San Francisco Bay," which covers the Livermore Valley and Santa Cruz, or as specific as Anderson Valley, a section of Mendocino County that at last count had only a few thousand acres of vines.
A wine's AVA is prominently displayed on bottles and highlighted in critics' reviews and retail-store catalogues. "I think the more expensive the wine, the more important the appellation," says Bill Turrentine of Turrentine Brokerage. In other words, you may not know that Mount Veeder is a sub-appellation of Napa Valley, but the collector willing to spend $50 a bottle for a case of Mount Veeder Cabernet? You better believe she does. For a vintner outside Napa, and even inside it, owning a vineyard in an area that secures an AVA is like having your stock split: The land value skyrockets. Not to mention the boost that the region gets from increased wine tourism and tasting-room sales.
Wine marketing and education guru Tim Hanni thinks that an urban winemakers' association like the East Bay Vintners can be a great way to distinguish its members' wines to consumers. And building "story" is the critical struggle for wineries, all of which must entice people to select their products from shelves containing scores of similar ones. But Hanni cautions that appellation is still important for the link between distributors and consumers. "The wine buyer is disproportionately interested in appellation, so if you don't have the origin credentials, it's harder to get your wine placed," he says.
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