Isabel Cutin and Annie Rosenthal stood at the bar at the recently opened Blue Ox Wine Co. on Fifth Street in Berkeley, pondering their choices. There were two types of sparkling wine listed on the $15 tasting menu, as well as a rare Cabernet Pfeffer and a Rosé of Carignan.

As the two women sipped their pink wine, four men in their late 20s walked into the tasting room, which is just steps away from stainless steel fermentation tanks and oak barrels stacked five high. They had come from Oakland and Emeryville to check out Blue Ox, as well as the growing cluster of wineries nearby.

These days, going wine tasting doesn’t need to involve a trip to Napa and Sonoma counties. The recent addition of Blue Ox, and a winery slated to open in July, Vinca Minor, means there are now eight wineries in a two-block area in West Berkeley, with four other wineries just a short distance away. It’s one of the densest concentrations of wineries in the Bay Area, which means wine lovers can visit more wineries in Berkeley in a day than they can comfortably visit in wine country, according to Jared Brandt, the co-founder of Donkey & Goat, the first winery to move into the refurbished Flint Ink building on Fifth Street.

“Since there are so many wineries popping up in this area, it’s become a real destination,” said Cutin, who works at Broc Cellars just a few hundred feet north of Blue Ox. “It’s a place you can go to if you don’t feel like going to Napa. We have great wine in Berkeley. This is like a destination wine corridor.”

On Saturday and Sunday afternoons (and, increasingly, Friday afternoon), from around 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., the sidewalks around the intersection of Fifth and Camelia streets are filled with friends and families flocking to the various wineries. They go there to taste traditionally made sparkling wine, or to try pétillant naturel, or pét nat for short, a fizzy wine made in the ancestral method. They can try reds made in the Rhône style or sample wines made from grapes grown in 100-year-old vineyards in the Sierra foothills. They can listen to music and look at art.

While each winery has its own philosophy, many of the wines made in West Berkeley are on the “natural” spectrum — made with organic grapes, lower in alcohol than Napa and Sonoma wines, and made with minimal intervention.

Five wineries sit in the old Flint Ink building that straddles Fourth and Fifth streets: Donkey & Goat (which moved there in 2011), Broc Cellars (2013), Windchaser Wine Co. (2017), Blue Ox Wine Co. (2019) and Vinca Minor (coming in July).

Around the corner, at 805 Camelia St., are Lusu Cellars, Whistler Vineyards and Cary Q Wines. Urbano Cellars is at 2323 B Fourth St., about a mile away, and Covenant Wines,Hadju Wines and Camuna Cellars are at 1102 Sixth St., a third of a mile away from that group.

The rise of urban wineries is not a new phenomenon. But the recent growth in the number of wineries in Berkeley has made it a leader in the Bay Area. Federal records show 13 registered wineries in Berkeley compared to 10 in Oakland. (Check out the Oakland Wine Trail to see a list of those places). Alameda has seven wineries.

Camaraderie between wineries

The cluster of wineries is not entirely happenstance, but it wasn’t exactly intentional either.

In 1976, Travis Fretter, whose father had long made Gamay rosé at home, wanted to start a commercial winery. At the time, there was only one other commercial winery in Berkeley, Wine and the People on University Avenue. When a Berkeley building inspector told Fretter he could not make wine out of his basement at 804 Camelia St. because the ceilings weren’t high enough and it was less than 20 feet from neighboring structures (at the time wine was considered combustible), Fretter rented a space across the street at 805 Camelia.

In 1977, Fretter released his first vintage, which was made from Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. He stopped operations in 1984 and, over the years, a number of other wineries have used that space, including Edmunds St. John, Eno Wines, Grapeleaf Cellars, and Broc Cellars. Fretter bought the building around 2000. Lusu Cellars, Whistler Vineyards and Cary Q Wines are now there.

In 2011, Donkey & Goat moved from its space on Fourth Street to 1340 Fifth St. Orton Development had refurbished the building, and every time space became available, Tracey and Jared Brandt would talk to their winemaking friends about moving in, said James Madsen, one of the firm’s partners.

At the Donkey & Goat tasting room on Fifth Street. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
Blue Ox owners Josh Hammerling (left) and Noah Kenoyer met while working at Broc Cellars. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
Lusu Cellars and Whistler Vineyards share a tasting room on Camelia Street. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

“Anytime space comes up they let me know and I try to grow the block,” said Tracey Brandt.

Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars was the first to make the move. Dave Gifford, who had worked as Donkey & Goat’s first intern in San Francisco in 2005, and who returned to work in the cellar in 2015 and 2016, opened Windchaser behind Donkey & Goat in 2017. Josh Hammerling and Noah Kenoyer had bonded over their mutual love of sparkling wine while working together at Broc Cellars. They formed a business and had intended to proceed slowly — until they learned that space next door to Donkey & Goat was available. They opened in March. Jason Charles of Vinca Minor had been looking for a winery space for years and heard through Jared Brandt (they share the same distributors) that there was room in his building.

The fact that so many of the winemakers are friends or have worked together has created camaraderie between the wineries. They assist one another out at harvest and when a piece of machinery breaks down.

“We share equipment,” said Hammerling. “We help each other out. Broc just came over to borrow our capper. It definitely feels like a supportive community that’s been developing out here and is growing fast. It’s a really fun thing to be part of.”

Years before the tasting rooms became destinations

While many of the wineries opened with tasting rooms, the explosion of visitors didn’t happen immediately, according to Jared Brandt. For a time, visitors were sparse.

“The day we opened (in July 2011) not a soul came in,” he recalled.

But as the Gilman District became more closely associated with food, with Whole Foods Market opening on Gilman Street in 2014, Fieldworks Brewing Company opening in 2015, and a number of restaurants, coming, going and lingering, the number of visitors has been increasing.

When Erin Callahan came to work for Donkey & Goat in April 2016, only the front part of the winery’s space was used for a tasting room. The cellar and large backyard, which has a bocce ball court, picnic tables and an industrial chic feel, were only used occasionally.

Callahan set out to make the wine tastings more of an event, patterning Donkey & Goat on Oakland’s First Fridays, she said. The question was, “how do we show people we have more to offer and a place to hang out?” said Callahan.

So that summer Callahan booked regular bands to play on the weekends, brought in food trucks or other pop-up kitchens, and held small art shows. Newspapers and magazines started writing about Donkey & Goat and Broc Cellars and their accomplished wines, so their reputations grew.

“Those are world-renowned brands,” said Callahan. “People from all around the world come because those are known names.”

As word spread, more people started showing up, said Callahan. Now about 200 to 300 people can stop by during a weekend. Donkey & Goat has even started selling packaged food, like cheese and salami, to enhance the experience.

“On a beautiful sunny day we will have a full backyard and a full cellar,” she said. “It’s lots of fun and there is lots of energy.”

Broc Cellars just added Friday tasting room hours in recognition of the growing foot traffic, said Brockway. It joins Donkey & Goat, Blue Ox and, soon, Vinca Minor. The other wineries are open Saturdays and Sundays, with the wineries in the Covenant building and Cary Q open by appointment.

“Now we have a cluster of wineries that kind of follow the same paths,” said Brockway. “Different wineries, different results but similar philosophies — minimal intervention, native fermentation. You don’t have these opposite styles of wines that people are trying to wrap their minds around. There are not a lot of wineries in Berkeley but a high percentage of them follow this path.”

The West Berkeley wineries are seeing a lot of locals, as well as people coming from San Francisco to try the wines. They like the convenience and the fact that most of the tastings cost around $15 to $20, as opposed to $45. Appointments aren’t necessary like they are in many Napa wineries.

“If you are in San Francisco and you don’t have a full day and going up to Napa and Sonoma isn’t worth it, you can easily ride BART to North Berkeley,” said Jared Brandt. “It’s not a very far walk to visit five to seven wineries. That’s actually a big day in Napa.”

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...