Kent and Shauna
Shauna Rosenblum and her father Ken Rosenblum at Rock Wall Wine Company in Alameda. Photo: courtesy Rock Wall Wine Co.

As a young winemaker in the East Bay, Shauna Rosenblum held no Champagne envy and didn’t aspire to crafting award winning bubbly. But when she and her girlfriends downed several bottles of sparkling wine during an “America’s Top Model” watch party, she declared that she could create bubbles as drinkable as the empties on the table.

Spontaneity is a way of life at the Rock Wall Wine Company, which is housed a former hangar at the Alameda Naval Air Station. In 2009, Rosenblum made 100 cases of sparkling Blanc de Blanc on the island. Now she makes 2,000 cases annually and warns everyone to buy early before it sells out. Ever the iconoclast, she added a dash of muscat canelli to the chardonnay in the 2014 vintage.

“That blend was an accident. We received some under-ripe muscat canelli grapes, so I co-fermented them with chardonnay, not a normal practice,” said Rosenblum.

Photo: courtesy Rock Wall Wine Co.
The Rock Wall winery is housed a former hangar of the Alameda Naval Air Station. Photo: courtesy Rock Wall Wine Co.

Doing things differently appeals to the winemaker. Unlike her peers who studied enology, Rosenblum pursued art. At Rock Wall Winery she conjoins her creative, artistic side with the technical rigors of making over 30 wines from Sparkling Grenache Rosé and Zinfandel to underdog varietal tannat.

“I can make a damned good Napa cabernet sauvignon. But I make wine from 60 other lots of California grapes. I can create something very exciting beyond cab, something very exciting,” she said recently at the Alameda winery.

A winery and tasting room in a unique setting

In Napa winery entrances are often abloom with picturesque rosemary. But the greenery growing in dirt-filled, white bins outside Rock Wall are the tops of white onions. Rosenblum’s godparents brought the onions as a gift of Midwest nostalgia from the family’s home state of Minnesota. Tickling Rosenblum’s aesthetic fancy, the onions melded into the welcome scenery at the 40,000 square foot winery and tasting room with adjoining event center dome.

The winery’s name evokes the rock walls built around the military site during World War II to guard against torpedo attacks. From the back patio of the tasting room, guests sip wine, nibble snacks from the on-site Scolari’s At the Point café and gaze at San Francisco’s skyline and the Bay Bridge.

Rosenblum grew up in a red wine household in Alameda while her father Kent gained fame for his Rosenblum Cellars Zinfandel. After her father sold the business to Diageo in 2008, he invited Shauna to help make wine at the new Rock Wall on the western edge of the island.

A wedding ceremony at Rock Wall whose tasting deck offers a view of the San Francisco skyline. Photo: courtesy Rock Wall co.
A wedding ceremony at Rock Wall whose tasting deck offers a view of the San Francisco skyline. Photo: courtesy Rock Wall co.

Growing up cellar-wise from a very early age

Rosenblum toddled around her father’s winery and by age three could read a refractometer to measure sugar levels. She thought it normal to see yeast jars in Dad’s refrigerator. By age 12 her father tasked her to experiment with the yeasts to determine which influenced the best lot of wine. Exhibiting strong tasting skills in her teens, she participated in blending exercises at Rosenblum Cellars and identified flavors the men would miss.

At Alameda High School Shauna excelled in sciences classes such as AP Biology-Environmental Science. But her heart was set on art. She received a B.F.A. in ceramics and art education at California College of Arts and Crafts. The chemistry she found fascinating in applying glaze to pottery reminded her of measuring temperature and acid levels during wine fermentation. But she pursued a master’s degree in sculpture from San Francisco Art Institute. Her major project, an intricate, mermaid-shaped vase, was deemed too “functional” on the value scale. But for Rosenblum, making something to enjoy on a practical level seemed the right approach.

Rosenblum excelled as an art teacher at community-oriented Oakland Fine Arts. Her method of leading students to collect found pieces and build sculptures was revelatory. “These kinesthetic learners found their niche. Suddenly they wanted to know more about math and the science of materials,” says Rosenblum.

Back to her roots: “A natural in the cellar”

In 2008 her father asked if she wanted to earn extra cash by working at the winery. Rosenblum jumped at the chance to experiment in the cellar. While traveling to transition the 400,000 case Rosenblum Cellars to Diageo, Kent sent Rosenblum to the vineyards to choose pick dates.  Kent then tasked her to finalize the blend on the first Zinfandel. Rosenblum left her selection in Kent’s mail slot. He tried his own hand at blending—and without seeing her notes—chose the same blend.

“I knew then,” said Kent Rosenblum, “that Shauna was a natural in the cellar.”

But winemakers beyond Alameda didn’t immediately embrace the skills of the 24-year-old at a new winery—even with Kent behind it. People said Kent was making the wine. When Rosenblum judged at a Lake County wine competition, the other judges didn’t believe she identified her wine in the blind tasting. “I proved them wrong,” recalls Rosenblum. “The equipment suppliers initially pissed me off, too. But now that we produce 25,000 cases a year and often sell out, they changed their tune.”

Rock Wall wines: From wide appeal to the appealingly oddball

Rock Wall wine sells in 25 states. Zinfandel is a stalwart in the portfolio. Kent Rosenblum’s winemaking heritage enabled Rock Wall to source from renowned vineyards Monte Rosso in Sonoma. But the winery also crafts Zinfandel from other sources such as Jesse’s Vineyard in Contra Costa County.

At Gather in Berkeley wine buyer and manager Kristen Gentilucci set Rock Wall zinfandel as her keg wine. “Guests like the price and fruitiness. Rock Wall wines are easy to drink and appeal to a wide range of people and food pairings. And the wines local,” says Gentilucci.

Rosenblum’s grew her fan-base for sparkling through a range of wines from the drier Blanc de Blancs to the fruitier Sparkling Grenache Rosé. She also crafts Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and several white and red blends.

But the oddball, relative unknowns captivate Rosenblum’s winemaking attention. She calls her tannat bottling, “Palindrome” for its similar spelling from left forward and backward. A rarely planted red wine grape, Rosenblum is one of the larger tannat producers in Calif.

Many Whole Foods Markets stock Palindrome, but not, said Rosenblum, for the newly discovered health aspects. Studies have shown that tannat and malbec, which she also makes, have ten times more resveratrol, the phenol responsible for the positive red wine effect of  the “French Paradox.” Known as a key tannat producer, Rosenblum spoke at the 2013 Taste of St. Croix conference about the wine’s health attributes.

Shauna Rosenblum with her partner Jack shortly before the birth of their daughter Skylark on April 8, 2015. Photo: courtesy Rock Wall Co.
Shauna Rosenblum with her partner Jack before the birth of their daughter Skylar on April 3, 2015. Photo: courtesy Rock Wall Co.

Rosenblum crafts many small lots designated for Club Viva wine members. The first year Rosenblum led the two dozen members on a camping trip in a vineyard. Now the 3,000 members enjoy exclusive or VIP access to events such as the pre-Mother’s Day “Food Truck Frenzy,” an event Rosenblum named, cheekily, “Mother Trucker.

The Mother’s Day event on May 8 holds special meaning for Rosenblum since the birth of her daughter Skylar Rose in April. When her father arrived to meet his granddaughter, he brought Champagne flutes; Rosenblum already had her Sparkling Grenache Rosé on ice.  “The nurses thought we were pretty fancy,” says Rosenblum.

With a strong maternal instinct already held for her dog and her 56 wines on the shelf and in barrel, Rosenblum waxes blissful on the joy she and partner Jack feel about Skylar Rose. “The milk is overflowing, and I’ll get some sleep before harvest,” adds Rosenblum.

Ever the artist, Rosenblum makes wines with names like The Sweetie and paints the description like a still life: “flavors of pear, mango, angel food cake and orange blossoms.” As in the blending of muscat canelli into the Blanc de Blanc, Rosenblum explores the wide spectrum of flavors that she finds in fermenting grapes.

“Making blends inspires me as a winemaker. I buy grapes from 63 vineyards. It’s like having 63 colors on the palette for experimentation.

And what did Rosenblum name her annual June food and wine tasting in Alameda with artists of all medium, live performances, live music and food trucks? Urban Palette, of course.

Tasting Notes: We tried three Rock Wall wines

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2014 Sparkling Grenache Rosé
This sparkling wine is sun and fun in a bottle. Some pink bubbles taste like alcoholic Cool-Aid, but this one reflects the elegant and fruity Rhone grape Grenache without cloying sweetness. With only 10.5% alcohol and barely 1% residual sugar, this bubbly calls for a second glass at the table, on the beach or front porch.
First impressions: With the color of summer rosy-ripe peaches, the nose is all red fruit—think raspberries and strawberries with no added sugar.
When to drink: Is it noon yet? If not, pop the cork for brunch. This wine is pleasant for lunch, Happy Hour or for the first courses of dinner.
What to eat: Oysters, shrimp ceviche, guacamole and chips, sushi, chicken wings, spicy food from many cuisines.
Cost: $22

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2013 Super Alamedan
As you sip this wine, you check the bottle because you may want dibs on the last glass. The name is Rosenblum’s spoof of Super Tuscan wine, the famous style from Tuscany which broke the tradition of bottling sangiovese on its own by adding cabernet sauvignon. Rosenblum added zinfandel, montepulciano and cabernet sauvignon to her sangiovese and calls this wine a “gateway drug” to red wine due its light, easy drinking nature. I tested her description on a white wine drinking friend, and it worked—she asked for a second glass.
First impressions: Classic Tuscan, deep burgundy color. Aroma is more fruit than oak and smoke.
When to drink: Picnic time, happy hour, burger time, pizza anyone?
What to eat: Appetizers from fried artichokes to a charcuterie platter with a broad selection of salumi and cheese from brie to aged gouda, pear and goat cheese salad, pasta primavera, chicken parmesan, sausage and peppers, lamb tikka marsala
Cost: $28

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2013 “Palindrome,” Tannat, California
Tannat may be relatively unknown in the U.S., but the varietal has gained fame as the national grape of Uruguay. By blending grapes from warm Solano County and cooler Russian River Valley and by minimizing the impact of oak barrels, Rosenblum created a smooth expression of tannat without the overpowering tannins. This wine is big, well-rounded and drinkable now or age-able.
First impressions: Deep purple-black color. Aromas of dark chocolate, dark berries and dark coffee.
When to drink: Lunches more substantial than a salad, dinner
What to eat: Meat, from short ribs to prime rib, grilled Portobello mushrooms, chicken mole, lamb cassoulet, blue cheese, aged cheeses, tofu in slow-cooked vegetable sauce, ragout
Cost: $30

Rock Wall Wine Company and its tasting room is at 2301 Monarch Street, Suite 300, Alameda, CA 94501. Visit their website for opening hours and directions, and connect with them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

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Deborah Grossman is a San Francisco Bay Area food, drink and travel journalist who writes about people and places with a special emphasis on life at the table. Deborah finds the behind the scenes stories...