Barrel Fever 

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

Page 3 of 6

That's where Turrentine comes in, connecting growers with winemakers. Sometimes it's a one-time buy of, say, a few tons of Merlot grapes to blend with someone's Cabernet; sometimes a long-term relationship where the vintner can specify exactly how vines should be pruned and the Brix (sugar) level at which the grapes should be picked. "Winemaking is a hugely capital-intensive business," the broker notes. "Land and the development of vineyards are expensive. Production facilities for fermenting and aging wines are expensive. Marketing has become very expensive, too. Unless someone has made his first billion elsewhere — and the industry attracts lots of those — it's a more manageable proposition to build your brand and manage your facility, and buy grapes from someone else."

And there, says Brendan Eliason, lies the irony of the old winemaking paradigm: You could work in the wine business, but you couldn't afford to enter it.

Eliason should know. He's setting up Periscope Cellars without the benefit of a dot-com windfall or dozens of investors. What he does have are smarts and energy to a fault.

The winemaker grew up in Humboldt County — his parents worked at Humboldt State — and attended Cal Poly, majoring in industrial technology with an emphasis on plastics and packaging and a minor in graphic design. After a couple of years, he took a wine appreciation course, and became smitten. "Wine is an incredible blend of art and science," Eliason says. "It's just technical enough to keep me interested in it, and yet artistic enough that it's not just engineering, plugging in numbers and formulas."

He quickly switched over to viticulture, alternating two semesters at school with two semesters interning in Sonoma until he received his degree. He then took a job at the David Coffaro Vineyard and Winery in the Dry Creek region of Sonoma. Starting out mixing vineyard management and winemaking, he eventually moved into winemaking full-time, and stayed on as Coffaro's co-winemaker for ten years. He also did a stint as education director for Wine Brats, the wine appreciation-demystification organization aimed at young drinkers, and contributed to Wine X, the flip Gen-X wine magazine. He ran into his high school sweetheart, and the two fell in love all over again. To support her career he followed her to the Bay Area, commuting ninety minutes each way to Sonoma.

Somewhere along the way, Eliason came across a Craigslist ad for a part-time wine director position at Va de Vi, a then soon-to-open wine bar and restaurant in Walnut Creek. He charmed and impressed its owners enough to land the gig, and has since compiled a list that ranges from buttery, well-oaked Chardonnays to obscure and oh-so-hip Austrian reds, which he revises constantly to incorporate some of the thousands of wines he tastes each year. The experience has proved formative. "One of the hardest things to protect against as a winemaker is getting tunnel vision," he says. "If you're not drinking your own wine, you're drinking the wines of your friends."

In 2003, Eliason got his hands on some Syrah grapes grown by a friend, who let him pay back most of the debt in wine. Dave Coffaro let his assistant use the winery facilities, slowly taking the crush fee out of Eliason's wages. For year two, he pitched Va de Vi on making a Napa Chardonnay and a red blend — some for his own label, some as the restaurant's house wine.

He also began looking for his own space. A friend came up with the idea of a gallery-nightclub with a tasting room, and before long Eliason was scouting out warehouses around Oakland and Emeryville. Ten months ago, he found it: thousands of dirt-cheap square feet in a former WWII submarine factory. He moved in just in time for the 2005 crush, aptly named his label "Periscope," and began selling off his 2003 Syrah to cover rent and startup costs. "It's been a way of slowly putting money aside over the last three years in the structure of bottled wine," Eliason says. "So I get the savings benefit and the value-added benefit."

His story is emblematic of the creative ways that wine-biz professionals with modest incomes — assistant winemakers at small facilities make $44,000 to $70,000 a year, according to a 2005 Wine Business Monthly survey — can springboard off their employers to start their own labels. First Jeff Cohn did it with JC Cellars. Now his own assistant, Chris Brockway, is housing his three-year-old Broc Cellars at the JC-Dashe facility. For that matter, so is Dashe assistant winemaker Matt Smith with his Blacksmith Cellars. All four are growing, so Smith and Brockway are scouring the area for a new warehouse winery space to share.

For startup vintners, an urban location also lets them draw a salary by day and tend their barrels by night. Sasha Verhage, who learned his craft at Grapeleaf Cellars before launching Eno Wines in Berkeley, is a senior design manager at Yahoo. Jack States and Randy Keyworth, winemakers at Lost Canyon Winery, run a nonprofit foundation. Tracey Brandt, of Berkeley's A Donkey and Goat, helped her friend start Crushpad, a San Francisco custom-crush facility for home winemakers, which also served as a place where she and her husband Jared could make their first vintage. Now Tracey oversees day-to-day winery operations while Jared pulls down a stable income from his job at Kodak. "Nirvana for us might be the Anderson Valley," she says. "But while we need a lucrative day job, there's not a lot out there."


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