Did you know that there are wineries in Berkeley? There used to be vineyards in Berkeley until the late 1970’s. The wineries in Berkeley are part of the growing urban winery movement. Wine makers in urban areas have access to top quality grapes grown throughout Northern California. They choose to make their wines in urban areas.
This past weekend, a friend and I went wine tasting in Berkeley and Alameda. In preparation for the afternoon of tasting, I prepared a list of 9 wineries in Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda with open tasting rooms. The list was by no means complete. We could have tasted for several weekends if we had tried to taste at every open winery in these three cities.
The wineries on our list were:
- Eno Wines
- Lusu Cellars
- Donkey and Goat
- Urbano Cellars
- Urban Legend Cellars
- Dashe Cellars
- JC Cellars
- Rockwall Wines
It was an ambitious list, and I had no realisticexpectation of actually tasting at all of them in one day. I know from experience that if you are tasting 3 to 5 wines at each winery, your palate will be shot after 4 wineries. We elected to start at the three wineries we had never tried before: Eno, Lusu, and Donkey and Goat.
Eno Wines and Lusu Cellars
These two wineries share a production/tasting facility at 805 Camilia Street between 5th and 6th Streets. The facility is small, and it is clearly a working winery. The tasting facility, is a jerry-rigged assortment of barrels doubling as table tops and a couple of shelves crammed into a corner, out of the way of the real business of making wine.
Eno Wines‘ owner and wine maker is Sasha Verhage. He is a non-interventionist wine maker. He makes wines primarily from Pinot Noir, Granache, and Syrah. We tasted the 2010 Pinot Noir, “The Beginning”. It is a nice light bodied Pinot charged with cherry flavor. We also tasted the 2010, Rhone blend of Granache, Syrah and Counoise, “The Outcome”. This was my favorite of the two. I like the complexity that comes from a blend of grapes. I enjoyed both wines. They both had character and nuance and lovely long finishes.
The Lusu Cellars‘ owner and wine maker is David Teixeira. He is a non-interventionist wine maker relying on native yeasts for fermentation. We tasted three wines: the 2013 Valdiguie, the 2010 El Dorado Zinfandel, and the 2011 Lodi Petit Verdot. The Valdiguie, a grape varietal I had never tasted before, was a wonderul light bodied red just packed with blackberry flavor. The Zinfandel had a little bit of Carignan blended it. It had a nice smokey, gamey flavor that I enjoyed. It wasn’t a BIG BOLD Zin, like many El Dorado zin’s. It was a medium bodied wine with some subtlety. The Petit Verdot had only just been bottled. In my opinion, it seemed like it was bottle shocked, and needed at least three more months in the bottle before serving. It did seem to have promise, however. That promise will bring me back to taste it again.
Donkey and Goat
We walked around the corner to Donkey and Goat at 1340 5th Street. This is a much more plush tasting experience, with a spacious, light filled tasting room space at the front of their wine making facility. It is a bigger wine making operation that the previous two wineries. Tasting costs $10 for a flight of 5 wines. The tasting fee is waived if you buy $25 or more of wine.
Tracy and Jared Brandt, the owner winemakers at Donkey and Goat, are making a longer list of wines. They are also largely making non-interventionist wines, with minimal if any additives to aid in the process or manipulate the flavors. Their wines are challenging. I’ll explain what I mean. The 5 wines they were pouring last Saturday were:
2013 Improbable Chardonnay (El Dorado)
2013 Sluice Box White (Blend of Vermentino, Marsanne, Granache Blanc and Picpoul)
2013 Helluva Pinot Noir
2013 Stone Crusher (an Orange Roussanne)
The man behind the counter was pouring very generous tasting pours. In most cases, it was way more wine than I needed to taste the wine, but I suppose if I weren’t an experienced wine taster, I would expect a big splash of wine for my $10 tasting fee.
The Brandt’s are among the rare group of local wine makers experimenting with Orange wine making on a large scale. Orange wines are white wines made keeping the juice in contact with the skins for a longer time, much as is done when making red wines. This gives the resulting wines a darker color and more tannin.
The Improbable Chardonnay, so called because the grapes come from El Dorado county, not a renowned location for Chardonnay, was a nice fresh Chard, not overly oaked, with a slight effervescence.
The Sluice Box is a kind of orange wine, having half of it’s fermentation performed with the skins in the mix. The white blend has a nice structure and a more formidable flavor profile than many whites. The structure it gains from the tannins, means that the wine would pair well with more aggressively flavored foods. The tannins were nicely balanced, however, but the fruit flavors.
The Helluva Pinot Noir was a very light bodied wine. It was young and will taste better in a year or two. It was light enough to pass for a rose. I would have served this wine slightly chilled. At room temperature it seemed flat and showed very little fruit.
The Carignan was another light bodied wine. This, though had a nice plush fruitiness with a nice structure and a delightfully long finish..
The Stone Crusher, a full orange wine, was less successful, in my opinion. Although it had a big, aromatic nose, the flavor didn’t live up to the nose. It seemed as it the wine was all structure with fruit. By this I mean there was a lot of tannin and acid, but no fruit. It may have been that my palate was shot after having tasted 9 different wines, or it could be that the wine was too young; perhaps a combination of both.
Although not all the wines in the flight suited my palate, I think I’ll be coming back here to taste more of their wines. The wine makers are adventurous and making interesting, challenging wines, something that is sorely lacking in California. Many Napa/Sonoma wines, as well as wines made in other regions of California, taste fine, but they are boring. They all taste the same and don’t show any personality. Often even the terroir qualities are erased. That is not true with Donkey and Goat wines. I would rather have an interesting wine that challenged my palate and expectations than another boring wine any day. I applaud their efforts. Even if a specific wine isn’t my favorite, your mileage may vary.
Rockwall wines is the largest producer we visited on Saturday. Their location, out at the old air station in Alameda, can be hard to find, but it is usually worth it. Saturday they had rented out their tasting room for a wedding reception and had moved their tasting into their aging facility, in an adjacent old air craft hanger.
This was a problem. The staff person was not clear about where the non-wedding reception guests should go and, frankly, the temporary tasting room was hard to find. The walk down the concrete corridor was like entering into a post apocalyptic movie and did not set the stage for their wines appropriately. The temporary tasting set up looked it. While we were facing in the direction of the stunning bay view, it was blocked by the huge doors. The staff did their best to make the experience a pleasant one, but it is really difficult to overcome a bad first impression.
I will be honest and say that previously, I have enjoyed Rockwall’s wines. But Saturday’s flight, which cost $15 (waived if you bought $25 or more of wine), consisting of a sparkling wine and 5 wines I selected from a list of about 15 options, did not impress. This may have been because I had been tasting wines for 2-1/2 hours, it may have been the bad first impression made by the setting, or it may have been the wines I selected to taste, but they all seemed bitter and tasted overly of alcohol. The only wine I did like on Saturday was the 2013 Obsideana, a 50/50 blend of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. It was a very big red. It wasn’t a sipping wine and needed to be paired with a robust beef dish.
Given Saturday’s out of character experience at Rockwall, I would say that I need to go back, when the tasting room is open, and taste some different wines.
I came home with a bottle of Eno’s 2010 Outcome, Lusu Cellars 2013 Valdiguie, and Donkey and Goat’s 2013 Sluice Box white. The urban wine world in the East Bay is a vibrant and growing community. The range of wine varietals and wine making styles runs the gamut. Take some time to visit the East Bay Vintners Alliance website and find the winery near you. These wineries tend to be smaller, but they are making good, interesting, and challenging wines. Go taste!