Berkeley Is the Next Wine Route You Need to Visit
Courtesy Vinca Minor
Ditch wine country and head for the city. Berkeley is your next wine hot spot.
Jason Edward Charles had been happy to commute to Sonoma.
The Oakland-based winemaker for years headed north to produce wines under his Vinca Minor label, making old-vine Mendocino carignan. But he and his wife, Emily O’Hara Charles, dreamed of having a small urban winery.
Then a space opened up in Berkeley. “We moved fast,” Jason said.
The Charles family now welcomes visitors to an art-filled tasting room on Fourth Street, complete with exposed wood ceilings, where you can sip carignan rosé right next to the barrels holding Vinca Minor wine. Or you can taste one of the limited bottles from Jason’s new project, Moonland, focusing on hybrid fermentations of apples, pears, and grapes from older orchards in Northern California.
But there’s plenty more wine to go around.
Myriad winemakers have flocked to this industrial part of southwest Berkeley. Newcomers like Maître de Chai and Hammerling Wines offer small-production California wines alongside old favorites like Donkey & Goat and Broc Cellars, longtime natural wine producers. And they’re all just a short drive from north Oakland’s bars and restaurants, nestled in the East Bay.
Josh Hammerling, for one, will make you wonder why you haven’t always been drinking domestic bubbles. Hammerling Wines’ 2019 Sunflower Sutra, made with grapes from several cool climate vineyards, is a classic example of California sparkling wine—and exactly what you want to be sipping with freshly shucked oysters.
Hammerling set up shop in Berkeley because it’s “surrounded by wine country.”
“We’ll never have an estate vineyard of our own, so I wanted to position us to source fruit from distinctive sites in Mendocino Ridge, Russian River, Monterey, San Benito, and the Sierra Foothills,” Hammerling said. “It gives us a wonderful palette to work with in the cellar.”
For the winemakers behind Maître de Chai, Berkeley offered the opportunity to have their own space to create zinfandel, chenin blanc, and more. Alex Pitts, a former French Laundry chef, and Marty Winters, sommelier at the now-shuttered Restaurant at Meadowood, cook wood-fired pizzas on the weekends at their Fourth Street winery—each pie tossed into a Stefano Ferrara oven shipped over from Italy. Previously, the duo made wine in the corner of friends’ Napa facilities.
“Napa has become a place where small producers like ourselves struggle with the cost as well as miles of red tape with permitting and licensing from the county with opening a winery and tasting room operation,” the pair added. “The other option is to work through a custom crush facility where, in essence, the physical winemaking is done through emails and work orders.
“We feel that by having our own space, the soul of our wines are truly crafted with the hands that touch the grapes in the vineyard and winery.”
Ready to sip and savor in Berkeley and the surrounding area? We asked Jason and Emily for their can’t-miss spots. Head out on this wine route for pizza, pasta, and natural wine:
Claremont Club & Spa, a Fairmont Hotel
For lodging, the Charles family keeps it old-school and suggests you stay in this “historic hotel in the Berkeley Hills with amazing views and a couple of pools to enjoy.”
Jason and Emily have worked with carignan from Mendocino for nearly a decade—they also produce a bit of chardonnay—and it’s available to sip at their Berkeley tasting room.
Stop by Josh Hammerling’s Berkeley location to check out the weekend wine shop, or sip wines by the glass on Saturdays and Sundays. “I think he is producing some of the most exciting sparkling wines right now in California,” Jason said.
Maître de Chai
Alex Pitts and Marty Winters opened a Berkeley tasting room earlier this year. On the weekends, they cook wood-fired pizzas in a Stefano Ferrara oven shipped over from Italy. “We make a limited amount of dough by hand and typically offer a classic Margherita and a rotating special,” the duo said. Be sure to check with the winery ahead of time for its pizza schedule, which is subject to change during the harvest season.
Chef-owner Andres Florez is behind this “ambitious” Oakland bottle shop and bar. Formerly of Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50 and San Francisco’s Saison, Florez is now “serving up small plates and natural wines.” Two staples include Florez’s version of escargot and a signature ham and cheese sandwich, according to general manager Peter Larue.
This Oakland restaurant is a “great spot for wood-fired pizzas and fresh pastas” with a “large outdoor patio to hang until well into the evening,” Jason and Emily said.
Redfield Cider Bar & Bottle Shop
Enjoy the outdoor patio at this Oakland bar “serving natural wines, beers and small-production ciders.” The space is kid-friendly, and the menu features small bites like marinated goat cheese, and hummus and crackers.