Some parts of Alameda definitely do not resemble Mayberry. The decommissioned Naval Air Base on the west side of the island is gradually being transformed with residential developments and commercial enterprises, an irenic reinvigoration of the local economy that parallels many of the tenets Sostevinobile embodies. Among the facilities that have been converted to civilian utilization, perhaps none offer a more dramatic environment than the former airplane hangars. Fans of St. George Spirits (Absinthe Verte!), including Your West Coast Oenophile, have long been quite familiar with the facility that lends its name to their Hangar One Vodka.
Finally, Alameda’s favorite artisanal spirits producer has company. Over at the next hangar, Rock Wall Wine Company has set up shop. Self-billed as a continuation of a “legacy of fine winemaking,” this grandiloquent venture constitutes the evolution of pioneering Alameda winemaker Kent Rosenblum and is daughter Shauna. The facility is massive, some 40,000 ft.², with a vaulted roof that is at least 35 ft. high. On a clear day, the open-air portion of the former hangar offers unsurpassed views across the Bay to downtown San Francisco and beyond, like an oversized Gottardo Piazzoni mural, only more vibrant.
Last Saturday presented a picture-perfect afternoon; a more enticing scenario for Rock Wall’s first Open House could not be imagined. Rocked by the Downwind Run’s authentic cover versions of classic rock anthems from the Sixties and Seventies (Allman Brothers, J.J. Cale) and fueled by an endless, carnivore’s delight from Angela’s Bistro, Rock Wall and five of its tenant wineries offered an array of new wines for one’s delectation.
I started off at the table for Carica Wines, fulfilling a long-overdue promise to join owner Dick Keenan for a tasting of his varietals and blends. I found the 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Kick Ranch to be an exceptionally clean expression of this grape, to the point it almost reminded me of an unoaked Chardonnay. Standout among the five wines they poured, though, was certainly the 2007 Temptation, again from Kick Ranch, a superb take on the classic GMS blend. I also found the futures tasting of their 2008 Petite Sirah displayed noteworthy potential.
Carica’s 2006 Syrah struck me as a tad on the sweet side. In contrast, fellow resident winery Blacksmith Cellars brought forth a 2005 Syrah from Alexander Valley, a wine rounded out with 7% Tannat, that utterly exploded the flavor of a well-done slice of Tri-Tip from one of the carving stations. I was pleased to sample Matt Smith’s 2008 Torrontés once again, but felt less enthusiastic about his 2008 Chenin Blanc, a once-popular varietal that has fallen into near oblivion in California. On the other hand, Blacksmith’s 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley offered tantalizing hints for the unreleased 2005 vintage, and their two dessert wines, a non-vintage Malvasia Bianca and the 2007 Late Harvest Syrah were almost perfect alongside the ice cream made from Rock Wall’s Late Harvest Zinfandel!
Readers know that I’ve cited R & B Cellars a number of times recently, including the Urban Wine Experience in Oakland; their wines were not so much a revelation this afternoon as a chance to revisit several outstanding vintages. Like the Blacksmith Syrah, R & B’s 2006 Counterpoint, a straight Cabernet Franc, made me cry out “bring on the steak!” Three vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon made an indelible impression, with the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Reserve begging to be drunk now, while the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Reserve demands another 5-7 years before hitting its peak. I personally preferred both R & B’s 2006 Swingville and 2007 Swingville, a zinfandel blended with ~10% Petite Sirah to their 100% Zinfandel, the 2007 Zydeco from Napa Valley. Unquestionably, however, the 2007 Minuet in Merlot completely outshone the 2005 Metronome, an unblended Merlot.
I wish I could be more encouraging about Ehrenberg Cellars, formerly known as Nectar Vineyards. Despite winning amateur winemaking awards, these wines seemed rather unfocused; perhaps, their move “out of the garage” into a community of well-seasoned wine producers, including the peripatetic Edmunds St. John, will enable them to achieve their potential.
Weighing in at the next viticultural tier, JRE Wines, the Rock Wall co-tenant from namesake John Robert Eppler, offered glimmers of his winemaking pedigree at Rosenblum and Robert Mondavi. Again, one sensed that this winemaker had yet to hit his stride, though I found his two blends, the 2007 Tradition (Zinfandel/Petite Sirah/Tempranillo) and the self-proclaimed “Rhôneaux”-style 2006 Petit Rouge (Syrah/Petite Sirah/Cabernet Sauvignon/Petit Verdot) eminently drinkable.
Even though Shauna Rosenblum did give me her last bottle of Rock Wall’s 2007 Tannat, I will not be compelled to say every single one of her wines were extraordinary; after all, the wine program at Sostevinobile has always been and must remain predicated on objectivity in our selection process. Still, Shauna is an enormously affable next-generation winemaker and her skills clearly show why it is far better that she has pursued this vocation rather than succeed her father in his veterinary practice. Their 2008 Chardonnay Russian River Valley was a pleasing revelation, as was the 2007 Rock Star Rouge, a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cinsault. Even stronger was the 2007 Zinfandel Sonoma County, to my taste a more approachable wine than its Reserve incarnation.
Lipitor be damned! I headed back to the food counter for another generous helping of Tri-Tip before downing Rock Wall’s 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, the veritable Grammy-winner from their lineup and another ideal pairing for this delectable meat. I also found their 2007 Late Harvest Riesling to be a worthy complement to the aforementioned Zinfandel ice cream, but had to beg off from marrying it with Blue Cheese, as one of my fellow attendees recommended.
I do look forward to great things from Rock Wall, both from its resident producers at its custom facility, as well as the winery itself. I have seen this same scenario played out so many times before. Successful winemaker sells his inextricably self-identified label to one of the handful of corporate megaliths devouring independent producers these days. Promises of autonomy are made initially, but slowly the eponymous brand is exploited to further the conglomerate‘s reach and by the time the attendant service contract has expired, the label feels like a vestige of its former grandeur. On the positive side, however, the original winemaker tends to go on to found a new label that does express the ideals of his vinification. Witness Carl Doumani’s Quixote, Richard Arrowood’s Amapola Creek or Tim Mondavi’s Continuum—by the time Diageo releases Rosenblum Coastal Cellars, I fully anticipate Rock Wall will be in this league.