Wine tasting in the East Bay

Believe it or not there are over a dozen wineries in the East Bay (see East Bay Vintners). Five of them even have tasting rooms in our backyard. I’ve been wanting to visit them for quite a while, but I don’t like the idea of going wine tasting with the kids on tow, so I had to wait until the kids were visiting the grandparents. Fortunately this was the case yesterday, so with not very much driving (by Mike, of course) I got to experience what the East Bay has to say about wine.

Our first stop was Rosemblum Cellars in Alameda. This is a HUGE winery, they produce 64 different wines and half-a-million cases a year. It’s pretty surprising, then, that I don’t recall ever having Rosemblum wine. It’s not that surprising that I won’t in the future either. I wasn’t impressed by the four complimentary wines that we were offered. I felt they all had very light-bodies (I like heavy wines myself), and very subdued flavors.

The 2007 Cote du Bone Blanc ($14), a white wine made out of several different grapes, had almost no flavor. There was somewhat of a fruity finish and some acidity, but little else. The 2006 Paso Robles Zinfandel ($18 – they have 26 different zinfs), had a heavier body (though still light) and some hints of oak. For that reason I liked it and so did Mike – but I doubt the wine is flavorful enough to stand up to food. The 2006 Rhodes Vineyard Grenache was grossly overpriced at $25. It had little flavor, with a slight tannin finish. Finally, the 2006 Maggie’s Reserve Zinfandel ($45) also had a very light body and some hints of tannins. Mike liked it for some reason, I thought it was a waste of grapes.

What I disliked the most, though, was the unbelievably hard sell the wine attendant gave us. They really want you to join their wine club (apparently wine clubs are the bread & butter of wineries), and as their wines are so widely available, the pitch is that you can go to the winery and have as many reserve tastings as you want (otherwise they are $8 for 5 wines). They also have special events for members only (as do most wineries). I guess if you liked their wines and had plenty of free time, that may make sense for you – but that’s definitely not our case. But they guy went on and on and on, on why we should join, even after we had firmly refused. It was pretty uncomfortable. Needless to say, we won’t be going back. For those who do, the winery offers different wines for tasting every week, other wines may be better.

Our second stop was Lost Canyon Winery in Oakland, which apparently has lost its tasting room. We did see a large door that suggested there was a tasting room in the building once upon a time, but no other indication of a winery in the premises. I’ll have to e-mail them and find out what the deal is.

Undeterred, we headed to our next stop, J.C. Cellars, which shares a tasting room with Dashe Cellars near Jack London Square in Oakland. The experience here was MUCH better. The wine attendants were very nice and pleasant, and there wasn’t any type of hard sell. These are also much smaller wineries, J.C. Cellars, for example, only produces 5500 cases annually. Both wineries have a $5 tasting fee – but we had gotten coupons for a free tasting at the Women of Taste fundraiser for Girls Inc.. Great way to save $20!

Our first tasting at Dashe was of the 2007 Dry Riesling from Mendocino county ($20). It’s an organic wine, very fruity and somewhat sweet. It’s very nice, good for sipping and would go well with my favorite salad. A little expensive for a white, though. We followed with a 2006 Florence Vineyard Zinfandel, from Dry Creek Valley ($32). It had a medium body, some oak and light acidity. For some reason, it reminded me of a Cab. I think it’d go well with pork or lamb – but again, I thought it was too expensive. At the same price point was the 2006 Todd Brother Ranch Zinfandel, from Alexander Valley. It tasted of darker fruit, it had more tannins and a medium body. It was a nice all around wine. I wasn’t too crazy about the 2006 Louvau Vineyard Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley ($32). It had a stronger start, a medium body and light tannins. Mike liked it, though. The 2004 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($38) is done in the Bordeaux style, with a little Merlot and Petit Bordeaux to compliment it. It had a medium to heavy body, with noticeable tannins and light fruit. There were some traces of oak in the finish. It’d go well with meat.

Finally, and after tasting at J.C. Cellars, we had the 2007 Late Harvest Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley ($24 for a 375 ml bottle). I really liked it, it was different from white dessert wines, almost with an essence of port to it (though clearly it’s not a fortified wine, which makes it more palatable for me). It was sweet, as you’d expect, but had levels of depth; it was very balanced. We tasted it with some dark chocolate, and it did compliment it very well. I would have bought a bottle if we ever actually drank the dessert wines we buy. Since we rarely entertain (or rather, have dinner parties) any more, we rarely have the occasion to drink them, we need to start doing it on our own.

The wines at J.C. Cellar are considerably cheaper than at Dashe – and I wasn’t cracy about many of them. I didn’t like the first one we tried, a 2006 Preston Vineyard Marsanne from Dry Creek Valley ($12). It was too light for my taste, with some hints of fruit and oak, but not enough. The 2007 Stagecoach Vineyard Rose from Napa Valley was only $7 but didn’t taste like a rose at all. There was no sweetness, it was too dry and had an earthy finish. Not my thing. I did like the 2004 Ventana Vineyard Syrah from Arroyo Seco ($30). I’m not a Syrah person, but this one had a nice body, notes of earth and chocolate and a nice finish. The 2005 Caldwell Vineyard Syrah from Napa Valley ($45) wasn’t that different form the previous wine. It also had hints of chocolate and tobacco, and it was easy to drink. I liked it. Our last red wine was the 2005 a la Cave Syrah ($40). It was drier and more tannic than the previous wines, and I also liked it.

We finished our tasting here with a 2005 Late Harvest Viognier from Lodi ($24 for 375 ml bottle). I liked it a lot, it had the right amount of sweetness (which means it wasn’t sickly sweet), with hints of honey and peach nectar. Again, I’d buy it if we ever drank dessert wines.

And that was it. No pressure whatsoever to buy or join their wine club; nice, friendly attendants and a very nice tasting experience.

After these wineries, we made our way to Periscope Cellars, which now share a tasting room with Urbano Cellars in Emeryville. We started tasting at Urbano, a tiny winery that only produces 600 cases a year. Our first wine was the 2007 Vin Rose from Solano County ($14). The wine was pleasant, but it lacked the sweetness and fruitiness I was expecting on a rose. Both were more evident in the 2008 Nouveau, also from Solano County ($14). The wine had a medium body and I think it would stand up to meat. The 2006 Dry Creek Syrah ($19) was nicely balanced, had easy tannins and a medium-full body. I really liked it, specially for a Syrah. I also liked the 2006 Petit Verdot from Lodi ($16). It was well balanced, with hints of chocolate and just nice. But what I ended up buying was the 2005 Zinfandel from Solano County ($18). It had a very concentrated, caramel-like taste, but wasn’t particularly alcoholic. It was nicely balanced with a concentrated fruit finish. I’d pair it with meats or bbq (though really, I don’t tend to drink wine in the middle of the day, when we usually have BBQ).

I was read to stop drinking at this time, but I was convinced by the guy at Periscope to give them a try – still, I wonder to what degree I was competent to really evaluate their wines by then. That said, I liked their 2006 Sangiovese ($22). It was light, with a mineral start and well balanced. The 2006 Pinot Noir ($24), was heavier in that fortified wine way. Not my thing. The 2006 Deep 6 ($24), a blend of cab, syrah and many other grapes, had a medium to full body, was deep and caramelish. I liked it as well.

The guys serving at both counters were very nice and clearly passionate about what they do. There was no pressure at all about buying, and no mention of a wine club. Tasting at both places was free.

In all, we had a great day of wine tasting. The pours at all the wineries were very generous, much more that in particular wine regions, and the conversation easier. I’d definitely go again next year, to sample the new offerings in wine. I’d skip Rosenblum, however.

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