There’s no shortage of amazing places to drink alcohol in Northern California’s Bay Area. From craft cocktail bars like Trick Dog and Comstock Saloon in San Francisco to tasting rooms such as Quintessa and Inglenook in Napa Valley or Lagunitas and Henhouse breweries in Sonoma County, the region is an incubator for all things sipped. Even the most unexpected places are home to an exciting new crop of spirits. Take the East Bay’s old Alameda Naval Air Station, for example. You would never expect this to be the trendy new spot for trying unusual varietals of red wine or artisanal absinthe, but it is. Allow us to introduce you to Spirits Alley, a libation destination with stunning views of San Francisco, boutique wineries and 20 craft beers on tap.
The pioneer of Spirits Alley is St. George Spirits. Founded 33 years ago by German native Jörg Rupf, St. George is a craft distiller that makes about a dozen different spirits. St. George, which provides great views of the bay from the edge of the base, focuses on using local fruit to make top-quality vodka, rum, brandy and liqueurs in copper pots. The industrial-chic distillery and adjoining tasting room, which opened on the island in 2004, is modern with black metal walls, bars that are covered in copper plates and windows that overlook the pristine production facility. Interested parties can pop in for a tasting, which allows you try all of St. George’s recently released vodkas (All-Purpose, Citrus and Green Chile) as well as some other spirits. A tour or guided tasting requires an appointment, but the six spirits produced on site waiting on you at the finish make it worth it. On a recent visit, Sam, the bubbly tour guide, provided the group with plenty of fun facts (30 pounds of pears are used to make just one bottle of pear brandy) and anecdotes (the label for St. George’s absinthe was rejected 30 times before it was finally approved by the FDA).
Across the street from St. George is Faction, a two-year-old brewery from the husband-and-wife team of Rodger Davis and Claudia Pamparana. Davis has been making beer professionally for 17 years and was head brewer at several local spots (Pyramid, Drakes and Triple Rock), before he decided to start his own company. The small taproom has a long wooden bar running diagonally through the industrial space dotted with high circular bar tables. There is an intimate patio out front and a massive hanger behind the bar houses steel brewing tanks, barrels for aging, overflow seating and a gigantic black and white Simpsons-esque cartoon mural by artist Lauren Asta. A rotating selection of 20 beers is on tap. Guests are invited to take home growlers, too. Davis specializes in taking pours to the next level. He does this by following traditional beer-making methods but tweaking them ever so slightly. He might use unexpected hops in his pale ale or brew up a full range pilsner. These twists are what led Davis to having a cult following before Faction’s doors even opened. Today, Davis is on site daily, making beer and mingling with customers. With colorful graffiti-like labels and fun names like Big Day, Tiny Pale, the vibe is unpretentious and welcoming.
Walk a couple more blocks into the decommissioned naval base and you’ll find Building 43 Winery. Partners Meredith Coghlan and Tod Hickman started making wine in 2009, but only opened up the urban tasting room in November 2014. You’ll want to chat with Meredith or Tod, who are both highly entertaining and sometimes hysterical, so pull up a bar stool at the tasting counter and plan to stay awhile. In between stories, sample their chardonnay, riesling, petit ayrah and red blend. Building 43 sources its grapes from the Sierra Foothills, and Placer and Mendocino counties. Open for tastings Friday through Sunday, Building 43 was once the spot where the military stored explosives, so expect a raw feeling to the space. However, the spot still somehow has a homey vibe to it, with billowing black curtains, a cozy blue rug and images of the Bomber Red wine label. Barrels that don’t line the red garage doors have been transformed into tables that anchor the space. Although Building 43 closes at 7 p.m., Coghlan says that if it’s a busy day and people are having a good time, she won’t shut operations down.
The last stop on Spirits Alley is Rock Wall Wine Company. Founded by Kent Rosenblum and his winemaker daughter, Shauna, Rock Wall is a family business that focuses on making great wines while having a good time. From sparkling red to dry white Zinfandel and exotic Teroldego, Shauna makes a variety of interesting wines that often champion the oddball grape. The tasting room has spectacular views of San Francisco and the bay, an indoor tasting bar with shiny wooden floors and a huge outdoor patio. Rock Wall is the only place on Spirits Alley that offers a food component; Scolari’s at the Point is open every day, so if you want to grab a margherita pizza or grilled octopus appetizer while enjoying a glass of Rock Wall’s lush aromatic Viognier, you can do so. Since Shauna recently became a mother, the tasting room has become more kid-friendly. Though young children are not allowed inside the actual tasting facility, tykes can hang out with their parents on the deck, tarmac and adjoining dome. Rock Wall provides quiet activities such as chalk and bubbles to wine lovers who have brought little ones to the tasting, making it an exceptional place to pass a sunny Saturday. But do note that whole bottles are not served on site; instead, you have to order wine by the glass.