When it comes to wine tasting in the San Francisco Bay Area, people automatically think of Napa and Sonoma. While these regions are the most well-known grape growing areas in California, they aren’t the only places to taste excellent wine near The City by the Bay. If you’re looking for a truly unique wine experience, plan a tasting at one of these alternative areas:
You might not think of Oakland as a wine tasting region, but the area is a hotspot for urban wineries. The East Bay neighborhood is the closest wine tasting area to the city, so if you’re pressed for time, this is the best place to taste. Hop on a Ferry or BART train from the city to Jack London Square (this will take you less than 30 minutes) and you’ll find yourself at an urban winery. We love the fact that there are six tasting rooms within walking distance of the popular waterfront area. Start your day at Urban Legend Cellars. Their tasting room (Friday through Sunday, 1 to 6 p.m.) is über urban (it’s located across the street from the railway tracks and a busy freeway) but the inside is airy, bright (one of the walls is neon green) and peaceful. Sip your way through organically produced, sustainable Italian varietals that are harvested from across the state such as the 2010 Barbera, a subtle, well-balanced and very smooth choice.
Next, head to JC Cellars, a large warehouse tasting room that is home to esteemed winemaker Jeff Cohn. Known for his red blends, Zinfandels and Syrahs, Cohn is an adventurous winemaker who enjoys using ancient techniques such as concrete barreling instead of wooden or stainless steel containers. Notable wines to taste are the 2011 Imposter (a blend of seven red grapes) and anything on his high-end Rockpile Vineyard Syrah label (Thursday through Sunday, 12 to 6 p.m.). For the final tasting of the day, take a less-than-15 minute cab ride to the old military base in Alameda. There you’ll find Rock Wall Wine Company, an urban winery started by the daughter of Kent Rosenblum (formerly of Rosenblum Winery), Shauna. The tasting room boasts amazing views of the city and a lovely bistro, so this is an ideal spot to relax and enjoy a bottle (Wednesday through Sunday, 12 to 6 p.m.). Rock Wall produces a massive collection of wine and there’s something for everyone, from a fruity Fiano to a bold Zinfandel.
About an hour east of San Francisco is the Livermore Valley, one of the oldest grape growing regions in the state. There are two well-known family wineries here and both are worth a visit. The first is Wente Vineyards. Wente offers more than just a wine tasting experience; their picturesque estate is also home to wine caves, an 18-hole golf course and a restaurant (with lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch service). If you get the chance to taste an Nth Degree wine, do so. These are the label’s handcrafted, limited-production wines that aren’t sold to the general public. Each reflects the heritage of a certain varietal and the distinctive terroir of the winery.
Next stop: Concannon Vineyard, which has been making Cabernet Sauvignon for 130 years. Take a tour of the beautiful property (featuring a charming brick-façade building and sweeping vistas of the California countryside) and you’ll learn that the winery has just finished a 10-year revitalization process. The vineyard is now Napa Green Certified with solar power fueling the latest grape-crushing technology. Concannon offers five tiers of wine to taste. But instead of selecting wines that are widely available in supermarkets across the U.S., opt for the ones that are harder to find such as their Reserve and Heritage labels. One memorable pour is the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Mother Vine, named after the Concannon clones 7 and 8 (introduced to grape growers in 1966), which much of the Napa Valley is a descendent of.
If you want to spend the weekend away, drive two hours northeast to the Sierra Foothill town of Murphys. An old mining area, this small town today is what Napa was 30 years ago: an up-and-coming wine region with lots of interesting blends. There is one main street, appropriately called Main Street, that stretches only a few blocks long, but it’s home to more than 15 tasting rooms and packs a big varietal punch.
Start at Val Du Vino, which is on the West end of Main Street. Its charming owners, a couple, are friendly and knowledgeable and operate their tasting room out of a restored barn that dates back to the early 1920s. The easy-to-sip Grenache is wonderful slightly chilled and has an enticing scent of fresh berries. Next, stop by the Allégorie Tasting Room and Gallery, an art-gallery-esque location where you can sip a variety of blends including the Petite Coquette sparkling wine. There’s also Newsome Harlow,a little farther up Main, which is not to be missed. This powerhouse is known for its big Zinfandels and crisp Sauvignon Blancs, and its large patio with plush orange lounges makes it a great place to relax and sip a bottle.
Photo Courtesy of Concannon Vineyard