Barrel Fever 

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

Brendan Eliason, owner and winemaker of Periscope Cellars — its only employee, truth be told — is bottling his 2005 rosé. He has blended Petite Verdot and Syrah, with a little Chardonnay for good luck, to make a casual, fruity summer wine. Sporting a polo shirt, jeans, and waterproof boots, he's busy wiping bottles while two friends siphon pink fluid from a stainless-steel carboy into 175-millimeter bottles — just over one wineglass worth — while a reporter pitches in by squeezing beer caps onto the bottles. Eliason is still trying to source little silver straws to tape to them, but he's got a few weeks before the rosé has settled enough to sell.

Beer caps? Wine through a straw? That's not the half of it. Check out the scenery: a rented bay in a WWII-era factory a stone's throw from I-80 in Emeryville with cement walls and flaking white paint. A few dozen oak barrels occupy the center of the floor, and boxes of last season's vintages are stacked to one side. There's winemaking apparatus scattered everywhere. Ovens and fridges are lined up for what's to be an events room and tasting room, which Eliason plans to decorate with reproductions of 1940s propaganda posters — his final building and use permits are taking an eternity.

Eliason's peers call him crazy, but always admiringly. He looks like a farmhand and speaks in quickfire bursts. When he starts on a favorite topic — rosé with straws; the sheer idiocy of 750-milliliter bottles and corks — it doesn't take but a few seconds for his contagious enthusiasm to border on the manic. He'll happily admit that some of his ideas are pretty fringe. But the fifteen-year winemaking veteran, who moonlights as the guy behind Va de Vi Restaurant's innovative and highly publicized wine program, is no Don Quixote.

Young Turk is more like it: Eliason is helping to propel a regional trend that flies in the face of traditional wine culture. A smattering of wineries have occupied warehouses in Alameda, Berkeley, Emeryville, and Oakland since the 1970s, but even devoted wine geeks would be amazed to know just how many wineries are now located in the urban East Bay.

Over the past eighteen months, more than a dozen of them have converged to create the East Bay Vintners Association, which may well be the nation's first winemaking association tied to an urban region rather than an agricultural one. These winemakers, some of whom have garnered national acclaim, are basically arguing that they needn't settle in the sticks, or have a vast inheritance, to make really great wines. Leave the $100,000-an-acre vineyards for the millionaires, they say; we'll make wine from whatever growing regions we like, with whatever grapes we want, and still get to live in the city.

This is a wholesale shift in mindset: locating your winery near your customers, not your grapes. And what that could soon mean for local drinkers is the ability to eschew the Napa Valley Wine Train in favor of tasting tours via BART, bike, or AC Transit.

Building wineries in the middle of the city may sound suspect, but it was the norm a century ago — San Francisco, not Napa, was California's wine center from the 1850s through Prohibition. The standard practice was to truck grapes or freshly fermented wine from all over Northern California and the Central Valley into the city, where they would be crushed or blended, bottled, and then shipped wherever. After the 1906 earthquake and fire, which together destroyed millions of gallons of wine, the California Wine Association, the nation's largest producer, relocated its main facility to Winehaven in Richmond. Much of the CWA wine was cheap, sweet, and fortified (think Wild Irish Rose), but at least it was locally made. Even during Prohibition, delivery trucks would drive door to door around the Bay Area, crushing grapes into whatever vat or barrel a customer provided. Winehaven also would ship blocks of pressed grapes cross-country, which customers would reconstitute with water. What people did with the juice was nobody's business.

The first generation of commercial winemakers in the urban East Bay post-Prohibition started up during the 1970s. Among them were Travis Fretter, Rick Dove (Montclair Winery), Davis Bynum, and Channing Rudd. Then, in 1978, after the Alameda City Council refused to let him set up a winery near his house, a veterinarian and enthusiastic home winemaker named Kent Rosenblum took over the Dead End Bar in West Oakland and converted it into a winery. "We had some dairy tanks shipped out from Minnesota, and we'd go at night and make wine," he recalls. "Everyone in the neighborhood thought we were bootleggers."

Rosenblum would become a muse of sorts for the urban wine scene. He and his partners began throwing open houses where people would gather for the music and wine. The crowds followed the vintner to an old particle accelerator in Emeryville in 1982, then in 1987 to its current home in an Alameda Point warehouse. Rosenblum says he and his partners decided not to locate in wine country because they wanted to keep their day jobs. "You need to be real close to wines to tend them," he says. "The grape harvest is once a year — even as it nears, if you look at the grapes once or twice a week, that's fine. But if a barrel is leaking or a bung [plug] pops off, and you don't get to it for a week, then you've lost a barrel of wine."

His winery, Rosenblum Cellars, has become the biggest success story in East Bay wine. Over the past two decades, the winemaker has gone from producing 6,000 cases annually to 170,000 — a figure Rosenblum hopes to expand to 240,000. He estimates his company's wine club has 5,000 members, and its mailing list four times that. He credits some of this success to his early focus on Zinfandels when everyone else had eyes for Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. Indeed, the winemaker made his name by scouting out pre-Prohibition vineyards with old Zinfandel vines, a quest that has taken him all over Northern California.

Jeff Cohn, who became Rosenblum's associate winemaker a decade ago, and recently split off to run his own label, JC Cellars, helped add to the mystique. He experimented with different yeast strains and barrels, selecting each type to match the grapes from specific vineyards.


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