Most people rightly associate Wine Country – no matter which region you’re talking about — with the country. It’s hard not to think about with Wine Country experience and not think about the bucolic countryside. It’s the most common setting when one thinks about wineries and vineyards. But there is a growing trend in cities around the nation that is shaking that perception by its rootstock. The Urban Winery Phenomenon has recently been making more noise in the wine industry than a traffic jam in the heart of Market Street. And not only is it changing the way people taste wine, it’s changing the entire concept of what constitutes a winery.
One excellent example of the Urban Winery Phenomenon can be found in California’s East Bay. Here, where Oakland, Berkeley, and Alameda are anchors, urbanites are discovering that they can have a winery experience as fruitful as anything they would find in Napa, Sonoma, or Healdsburg. Here, all it takes is a BART train or ferry ride to find wineries of all variety. They can be found not nestled on a hillside among rolling vineyards but rather in such unassuming places as converted warehouses or in tasting rooms squeezed into the center of town.
Though it’s a far cry from the Silverado Trail, the urban winery experience is not so different for those who appreciate wine as much for its merits as for its aesthetic. That philosophy is part of what drives the East Bay Vintners Alliance (www.eastbayvintners.com), a collection of 15 members wineries united in spirit and in practice to promote not only awareness of East Bay wines, but also of the urban winery concept. EBVA member wineries provide a decidedly different wine-tasting encounter, one marked by unpretentiousness and an eagerness to educate. And above all, it’s fun.
One of the East Bay pioneers is Rosenblum Cellars, which has been in the area for two decades, and which has a stellar reputation for its zinfandel and Rhone-style varietals. With its roots making wine from the family home, Rosenblum moved its operation to Alameda in 1987 and began–however inadvertently–the urban wine experience in Northern California. Although Rosenblum continues to be the largest producer among the East Bay wineries, several others have now established themselves as serious wineries without the vineyards out back.
The list of wineries and tasting rooms in the East Bay includes labels that pride themselves on bucking trends in winemaking. In this part of the world you’ll encounter a decidedly laid-back approach, with a welcoming vibe that sets the visitor at ease. It’s as much a function of the eclectic warehouse aesthetic over the gracious Mediterranean manor as it is the prevailing urban hipness. It’s also because the EBVA wineries share a common bond the reaches past their association membership. For instance, JC Cellars and Dashe Cellars, share the same Jack London Square-area digs. Periscope Cellars and the relative newcomer Urbano Cellars are both in the same Emeryville Warehouse. The cozy neighborhood proximities make for great wine community bonding, but also for a convenient wine-tasting experience.
As it happens, the East Bay wine-tasting experience is made even more convenient during the Urban Wine Trail passport event, scheduled for April 5. For the $35 at-the-gate price ($30 in advance online), you can explore the whole of East Bay Vintner Alliance member inventory. From Oakland to Berkeley and Alameda to Emeryville, each winery will feature “open house”-style tastings paired with food from local restaurants. It promises to be an urban experience that once upon a time was only available in Wine Country.