Meritage.Golden Gate View 2 Credit-Claremont
The Berkeley Wine Festival consists of a series of Friday night dinners at Meritage restaurant at the Claremont Hotel — which comes with a killer bay view. Photo: Claremont Hotel
The Berkeley Wine Festival consists of a series of Friday night dinners at Meritage restaurant at the Claremont Hotel — which comes with a killer bay view. Photo: Claremont Hotel

By Deborah Grossman

For the Grand Opening reception of the Berkeley Wine Festival Mike Wanless of TateDog Wines decorated his table with a canine statue resembling his former pet. While pouring his wines, he shared stories about TateDog, “a not particularly good, but a ‘great’ dog.”

A first-timer at the festival, which is held at The Claremont Hotel Club and Spa, Wanless lives in Oakland, and sources his grapes from Livermore where he also makes his small production wines. The vintner said he was pleased to participate in a major-league festival with big-name producers such as Joseph Phelps, ZD Wines and Michael David Winery.

More pragmatically, he was  thrilled that his table was sited right next to Rockridge restaurant Wood Tavern. “TateDog Cabernet Sauvignon pairs well with the restaurant’s lamb meatballs. After folk got their food, they came right over for more wine,” he said.

Frog's Leap vines
Grapes on the vine at Frog’s Leap winery, one of the many vineyards represented at the Berkeley Wine Festival. Photo: Frog’s Leap
Grapes on the vine at Frog’s Leap winery, one of the many vineyards represented at the Berkeley Wine Festival. Photo: Frog’s Leap

The Berkeley Wine Festival, held at The Claremont, showcases a mix of local, national and international wines, as well as appetizing food from nearby restaurants. The fourth annual festival kicked off with the Grand Opening Reception on March 16. A series of 11 Friday night winemaker dinners follows through this month and May at Meritage, the hotel’s fine dining restaurant. (See the schedule and buy tickets online at The Claremont’s website.)

Berkeley goes wine-crazy for an afternoon

The Berkeley Wine Festival has grown exponentially from 140 guests in 2009 to this year’s 1,300 attendees.  In the early years, while the property was being renovated and the menu at the Meritage was being restyled, the festival was not advertised. This year, however, the hotel broadly publicized its 2013 opening reception, the Meritage winemaker dinners and a new charitable giving component. The Alameda County Community Food Bank received a check for nearly $2,000 from a portion of the reception’s proceeds.

With two windowed rooms fronting the bay, and two inside ballrooms, the hotel provided ample space for 50 wine companies ready to pour 180 wines. Five local cafés, as well as the Claremont’s Meritage and Paragon Restaurant and Bar, presented diverse food options.

Delilah Feathers, a recent transplant to San Jose from Boston, was a first-time attendee and relished the ambiance of the Claremont ballroom with a jazz band playing in the background. “Rather than a big wine expo, I like both the cozy and grand rooms here,” she said. “But I wish I hadn’t eaten lunch beforehand,” she added.

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A grilling dinner with wine at Rosenblum Cellars in Alameda, one of the local wineries at the Berkeley Wine Festival. Photo: Rosenblum Cellars

The nibbles at the opening to the festival were sourced locally. Feathers noshed on bacon and leek mini-quiche from Starter Bakery of Oakland. Ariane Hogan of Berkeley savored the wild mushroom and truffle crostini at the booth of the Elmwood neighborhood’s Summer Kitchen Bake Shop. She segued to the crowded Wood Tavern table with Wanless wine in hand and shared her favorite wine festival maxim, “The best food tables have the longest wait — don’t forget to fill your glass before lining up.”

Berkeley-based Kirala Sushi Bar and the city’s Cheese Board Collective also boasted long queues. But the steadiest flow of traffic was headed to the Meritage booth, strategically located adjacent to guest check-in at the restaurant’s entrance. Late in the afternoon, Shannon Corey of Oakland reminisced about the blend of flavors of a duck confit rilette with vanilla parsnip mousseline, cara-cara orange, pickled huckleberry, endive marmalade, and arugula accompanied by a shot of pea and mint soup served by Meritage’s recently appointed Chef de Cuisine Scott Quinn.

Wines here, there and everywhere

With an eye on local sourcing, several East Bay wineries were invited to participate at the festival.

The Caravel Wine Group, headquartered in Fremont, is owned by three East Bay friends who sell directly to the public. Coming from non-winemaking backgrounds, and operating without their own winery or vineyards, the vintners label themselves as “outcasts.” Their Outcast label displays a cowboy overlaid onto a colorful photo of the San Francisco Bay. The company offers a unique marketing ploy: anyone who finds the five hidden wine symbols on the Outcast label receives a free bottle of the wine. Guests were too busy sampling the Outcast Merlot and Caravel Zinfandel to discover the disguised treasure.

Wines from Wente Vineyards: its Double Decker red blend proved popular at the Festival’s grand opening. Photo: Wente Vineyards
Wines from Wente Vineyards: its Double Decker red blend proved popular at the Festival’s grand opening. Photo: Wente Vineyards

After tasting $40 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Karen Davé of Fremont was impressed with Wente Vineyards’ Double Decker red blend selling for $10.99. Wente regional sales director Marc Gutierrez said Double Decker garnered the most attention at festivals for its price and for its provenance from the oldest, family-owned, continuously operating winery in the U.S.

Rosenblum Cellars, located in Alameda but no longer locally owned, poured Rosenblum Kontrabecki Livermore Zinfandel. Those who have driven by the Airway Blvd. exit of Highway 580 may have seen the hillside Kontracbecki vineyard.

To belie the serious nature of a wine festival, guests lined up at Belgian and specialty beer spot The Trappist Provisions’ booth expecting food from their café menu only to find beer poured into their glass. After tasting Trappist Saison, Delilah Feathers said she liked it but added, “I don’t like mixing beer with wine.”

There were many more wines for Feathers to sample. From Napa Valley’s Frank Family Vineyards to J. Lohr in Paso Robles, venerable wineries mingled among newcomers, including Sonoma’s Capture and new brands such as Green Lip New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from Cameron Hughes Wine. Charles Smith Wines from Walla Walla, Washington poured Kung Fu Riesling from the Ancient Lakes appellation and Secco brand sparkling wine from Italy.

Though many distributor reps and sales staff poured wine at the festival, Julie Johnson, owner of Tres Sabores Winery in Napa, greeted attendees and discussed the organic farming practices for her wines such as ¿Por Que No? red blend. More vineyard maven than winemaker at heart, Johnson grows organically certified grapes, olives, Meyer lemons and pomegranates. She also raises guinea hens at her ranch.

Tres sabores
Pouring a glass at Tres Sabores, a Napa Valley vineyard taking part in the Berkeley Wine Festival. Photo: Tres Sabores

Coming up: winemaker dinners galore

The Tres Sabores winemaker dinner on May 24 is the ultimate example of vineyard-to-table dining in the festival lineup.

“Since Tres Sabores is the last dinner in the series, Chef Scott and I plan to blow it out of the water. I’m bringing pomegranate juice from our fruit for the “Ginaritas” aperitifs, young grape leaves for dolmas for my fruitier wines, guinea hens for the main course, and for dessert, roasted walnuts from my kitchen,” said Johnson.

A sample of the fish course from the menus of upcoming dinners shows Quinn’s creative streak. The Robert Foley Vineyards dinner on April 19 lists a fish course labeled “B.L.T.,” Pan-seared Alaska halibut, gem lettuce, confit tomato and black truffle Pinot Bordelaise paired with Foley 2010 Pinot Noir. At the Elk Cove Vineyards dinner on May 3, diners will find goujonette (small strips) of calamari, grilled hearts of palm, pickled Brooks cherries and Pinot Noir emulsion paired with 2011 Elk Cove Pinot Noir Willamette Valley.

Other wineries slated for Meritage dinners include Benziger Family Winery, DeLille Cellars, Silver Oak Vineyards, Spring Mountain Vineyard and St. Supéry Vineyards and Winery.

Mike Wanless of TateDog Winery for one said he had been looking forward to the fifth annual event. “This festival has a mix of guests who are either knowledgeable or willing to learn about wine. Plus there is fine wine and food, all consumed for a good cause at a great venue.”

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