The San Francisco’s East Bay’s emergence as a national tourism hot spot has focused on the area’s burgeoning urban food and wine scene. Winemaking in the East Bay began during the gold rush, but the recent era was launched in 1978, when Kent Rosenblum incorporated his eponymous operation and later set up shop on the docks of Alameda.
The steady rise in the size of the local wine community has fostered awareness that a day of wine-tasting and touring doesn’t have to mean several hours and precious dollars wasted on the drive or exorbitant tasting fees. For a fraction of the cost of a trip to Napa or Sonoma, wine lovers and the wine curious can visit the East Bay’s 24 urban wineries and about a dozen tasting rooms. This count doesn’t include the nearly 50 exurban wineries in Contra Costa County or the Livermore Valley, where production is increasing along with the number of visitors eager to learn more about the wines being made in their own backyard.
“It’s a different experience, for some, a novel experience,” explains Mike Dashe, who, along with his wife Anne, has been operating Dashe Cellars locally since 1996. “It’s a little bit different from the classic wine country experience and, in a way, a little bit edgy. But the other thing is that it’s so dang easy.”
As Kevin Brown, president of the East Bay Vintners’ Alliance, likes to point out, “the grapes don’t care where they’re crushed. They only care where they’re grown.” He and his wife, Barbara, are co-owners of R&B Cellars in Alameda. The Browns admit that “oak-paneled tasting rooms and guest cottages” are not part of their business model, nor is providing their guests with romantic views of rolling vineyards. “We do have a million-dollar view,” says Barbara Brown, referring to the San Francisco skyline.
Close observation of the budding local industry might lead some onlookers to think that competition will eventually spoil this era of good feelings. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to winery owners. In fact, when pressed, all offered stories of mutual support, a greater emphasis on community than competition, and the belief that promoting appreciation for the local riches is one of the surest paths to survival.
“We have competition, certainly, but it’s entirely friendly,” says Kevin Brown. “We are mutually inclusive and supportive, and always looking for ways to boost the local wine industry.”
This mutual support, according to Aubin, can entail the lending of equipment, sharing of expertise, or even helping another winery find additional sources of fruit.
“I think it’s a very convivial community,” Carica’s Dollbaum added. “We all make different kinds of wine, so right now it’s “the more the merrier.” If we were all making similar wines, that might not be the case.”
The Shaffers agree. “There is more than enough business to go around,” Steve says. “Lots of room here, lots of room for growth.” Marilee adds, “We’re not all that worried about our own slice of the pie. We just want a bigger pie for everyone to share.”
“This is not a very lucrative business,” Aubin adds. “But for most of the folks, if not all of them, it’s a labor of love. It’s an attempt to promote a lifestyle, one that includes handcrafted wines that you won’t necessarily or easily find in the grocery store. That’s why local shops, restaurants, and wine lovers support us. They know we are offering something unique, something they cannot find anywhere else.”
That sense of being a part of something special pervades the East Bay wine community. “We are not competing with the Mondavis and Silver Oaks of the world; we’re not in Napa or Sonoma, and that is something for us to champion,” Rosenblum asserts. “We are different. Here in the East Bay we have so many things that folks in the north don’t. And people are starting to embrace the special things that are happening in the local wine and food scene.
“Those of us here in the East Bay, we’re in a great place. I think it’s a very exciting time in the wine industry, and it’s a very exciting time to be making wine.”
It’s true not just for these urban winemakers, but for every wine lover living in the East Bay.↑ Less