Winemakers pouring into the East Bay

Robert Selna, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2010

Marilee Drawing from barrel

Lacy Atkins / The Chronicle

Instead of buying a vineyard, Marilee Shaffer and her husband got a lease on a West Oakland warehouse.

When Bay Area city dwellers want the quintessential wine-tasting experience, they go north to Napa or Sonoma for good weather and upscale restaurants. Those who want those things and a shorter drive increasingly are heading to Oakland.

No, seriously.

Three tasting rooms are scheduled to open in the city in the next few weeks, adding to its 10 known wineries. Approximately 15 other wineries are just biking distance away in Berkeley, Emeryville and Alameda – making the East Bay the most densely concentrated urban wine region in the nation, experts say.

The city vintners have more than doubled in number in the past few years, as fledgling winemakers wised up to facts about the East Bay that a handful of pioneers have known since the late 1970s: It’s an hour from the best grapes in the United States, space is cheap, infrastructure is solid, and there is an endless supply of people who like wine.

“It took awhile for people to see that this place is in the middle of 2 or 3 million wine drinkers and that they don’t need to go a long way to get their wine,” said Kent Rosenblum, who is widely considered the catalyst for the East Bay’s urban wine industry. “The grapes are important, but they don’t care where they are made into wine.”

While working as an Alameda veterinarian in 1978, Rosenblum started a small winery in a former West Oakland bar called the Dead End, making about 400 cases a year. In 1987, he moved the business to Alameda and, by 2008, Rosenblum Cellars was producing 210,000 cases annually.

He sold the business that year for $105 million but continues to make new wines, along with other small companies, in a warehouse on the former Alameda Naval Air Station.

Those who have followed Rosenblum into the field have winery experience or are first-timers. They want control over their products, and most aren’t out to make millions, said wine historian and writer Tim Patterson.

Their efforts also happen to follow a little known, but important, pre-Prohibition Bay Area wine history in which most of the wine production in the United States occurred in large facilities in San Francisco and then Richmond. Most of the new vintners tend to spend $75,000 to $100,000 a year on grapes and processing and are making wines that sell in the $20 to $25 range. They produce anywhere from 700 to 10,000 cases annually.

Aiming for a higher volume of cheaper wine doesn’t work as a business model because it’s hard for unknown wineries to interest distributors. It also doesn’t seem to suit the personality profile of the new urban wine entrepreneurs, Patterson said.

Instead, they’re using the Internet and tasting rooms to market their labels and sponsoring art shows and other events to cultivate a following. And this is no bathtub vino.

“They are making some seriously good wine, and people like the fact that they are making it in the city,” Patterson said. “Some of them have earned some very high scores from hotshot critics. At the same time, they may be content with breaking even and having a great time.”

Profits are indeed still a future goal for many of the new wineries. Up-front equipment costs are high, and it takes time to become a known quantity.

Marilee and Steve Shaffer, who had worked in the high-tech and medical research fields, got a five-year lease on a long-empty warehouse in West Oakland and made about 700 cases of reds and whites in 2009. They opened a tasting room in April and expect to break even in about three years. Even though their business faces an uncertain future, it beats their original and unrealistic goal of buying a vineyard in the foothills.

“The big cost saver in the urban model is not having to buy the land,” Steve Shaffer said.

Rather than perceiving the growth of local wineries as a threat, Shaffer sees them as essential to survival. The more wineries a potential consumer can visit in one day, the better, he said. Another local winery, Urbano Cellars, hopes to open a tasting room next door soon.

Brendan Eliason worked at wineries in Healdsburg for several years before opening Periscope Cellars on 62nd Street in Emeryville in what he believes is a former submarine parts and repair facility. He estimates that he sells 70 to 80 percent of his 2,000 cases on-site, which includes a tasting room and event space.

Eliason is working to open a taproom at the home of West Oakland beer company Linden Street Brewery, where both beer and wine would be offered five days a week.

The new locale would put Periscope wine within biking distance from Urban Legend, Urbano and several other wineries near Oakland’s Jack London Square.

Eliason half-jokingly compared the area to the Silverado Trail, which features more than 40 wineries on the east side of Napa Valley’s Wine Country.

“Napa and Sonoma are great for growing grapes, but we’re centrally located and have way better roads and infrastructure for electricity and wastewater,” Eliason said.

Cerruti Cellars and its sister company, the Tudal Winery, have made wine in the Napa Valley for years, but Cerruti recently decided to convert an office space into a tasting room just blocks away from Urban Legend.

Part of the motivation for opening the room was to be part of the neighborhood’s burgeoning wine and food scene, including several new restaurants and plans to open a fresh food market in a new building at Jack London Square.

While city warehouse winemaking is a recent trend, it also harks back to a role the Bay Area played in the U.S. wine economy before Prohibition.

Most U.S. wine was produced out of the Los Angeles area in the first half of the 19th century then shifted to downtown San Francisco, where enormous warehouses owned by the California Wine Association stored millions of gallons.

The 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed those facilities, but they were rebuilt in a 47-acre plant in Richmond dubbed Wine Haven, according to Patterson.

Prohibition ended commercial winemaking, and the plant shut down. While the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ended Prohibition in 1933, the industry took a long time to recover in a country where wine was never as popular as beer.

Families that traditionally had grown grapes reinvigorated rural wineries that were further popularized by the “back to the land” movement in the 1960s and ’70s.

But small vintners and craft wineries weren’t relegated to the agricultural areas. Longtime Bay Area wine drinkers will remember Berkeley’s Wine and the People, an incubator for home winemaking, which sold equipment and grapes. Oak Barrel, which started around the same time, is still in business.

While recent efforts have further established the East Bay’s winemaking reputation, the price of urban land is one thing that might eventually slow it down.

“There is almost unlimited opportunity right now,” Rosenblum said. “Urban renewal is still happening in many places, and prices are still good, so it makes sense.”

Food & Wine: From Schiava to Gamay and beyond – light reds for summer sipping. K1

East Bay wineries and/or tasting rooms

Adams Point, 2413 Fourth St., Oakland

Andrew Lane Wines, 742 Sunnyside Road, St. Helena

Aubin Cellars, 6050 Colton Blvd., Oakland

Blacksmith Cellars, 218 Haight Ave., Alameda

Cerruti Cellars, 130 Webster St., Suite 100, Oakland

Dashe Cellars, 55 Fourth St., Oakland*

Eno Wines, 805 Camelia St., Berkeley

Ehrenberg Cellars, 2301 Monarch St., Alameda

Irish Monkey, 1017 22nd Ave. No. 300, Oakland*

JC Cellars, 55 Fourth St., Oakland*

Periscope Cellars, 1410 62nd St., Suite B, Emeryville*

Prospect 772 Wine Co., 15 Berneves Court, Oakland*

R&B Cellars, 1835 San Jose St., Alameda*

Rock Wall Wines, 2301 Monarch St., Suite 300, Alameda*

Rosenblum Cellars, 2900 Main St., Suite 1100, Alameda*

Stage Left Cellars, 2102 Dennison St., Oakland*

Tayerle, 2311 Magnolia St., Oakland

Two Mile Wines, 2816 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley

Urbano Cellars, 1410 62nd St., Suite B, Emeryville

Urban Legend Cellars, 621 Fourth St., Oakland*

* And tasting room

Source: East Bay Vintners Alliance (

E-mail Robert Selna at

This article appeared on page A – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
© 2010 Hearst Communications Inc.

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