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In a little over a decade, a humble Gilman District block — specifically, the area bounded by Gilman, Camelia, Fourth Street, and Fifth Streets — has transformed into California’s unofficial hub of natural wines. Donkey & Goat Winery popped the cork in 2004, and moved to its current location in 2011; founded in 2008, Broc Cellars moved into its nearby venue in 2013. Since then, eight more wineries have bubbled up in the area, which has been christened (depending on who you ask) the “West Berkeley Wine Block” or The Gilman Wine Block.
Come sunny weekends, oenophiles swarm this radius to check out the bevy of natural wines offered inside the onetime industrial warehouses turned urban wineries. With so many options, it’s hard to know where to start. Enter Edible Excursions, the local food-focused walking tour company, which has just launched a new look at locally produced libations.
Guiding you on your journey is Joshua Clever, a certified chef who has led tours for 15 years at gastronomic epicenters in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley. His brand new West Berkeley wine block tour, which runs on Saturdays from 12-3 p.m., teaches novice and erudite wine aficionados alike about each winery’s philosophies, while detailing the history and change of this formerly industrial area of the Gilman District. The tour makes pit stops at four to five wineries, with regular drop-ins at Broc Cellars, Hammerling, Donkey & Goat and Vinca Minor.
Visitors can expect such vino as chenin blancs and cab francs, as well as a smattering of orange wines (which, no, are not made from the citrus fruit) — one of Clever’s favorite genres. Orange wines, named after their often amber hue, come from white varietals where the grape skin is allowed to ferment with the pressed juice, resulting in a texture and tannins similar to red wines. “It creates more of a funkiness, which I love,” Clever said.
One thing all of the selections will have in common is their adherence to natural wine ethos — which is more of a concept than anything in the U.S., a term with highly prized social capital within the admittedly bourgeois world of wine making and fandom, not an exacting category with concrete characteristics. (France, however, attempted to create a legal designation in 2020.)
While some sources claim the low-intervention movement started in France in the 1960s as a response to the mass-producing technology of food and wine following World War II, the “natural wines” moniker also appeared in early 20th century texts (including, ironically enough, in the 1939 recovery tome Alcoholics Anonymous). In fact, natural wine production has been with us for thousands of years.
Regardless of the time of conception, natural wines differ from their counterparts by, ideally, being made with organic grapes and minimal chemical intervention, like pesticides and little to no sulfates. This, in turn, argues Clever, makes for a better tasting experience.
“If you look at a traditional bottle of rosé, for example, most producers filter it to be crystal clear and white,” he explained. “But a lot of people making natural wine believe that not filtering allows those natural imperfections to shine.” This, he says, leads to more complexity and funkiness. (Notes of funk, and all that it encompasses, is a major appeal to natural wine fans.)
In addition to loading up on wines, tour-takers will have the chance to soak up some of the booze with help from Japanese street food purveyor Daruma Kiosk (which has a regular residency at Broc Cellars). Expect menu items like ham and cheese katsu, egg sandwiches and mentai mochi spring rolls. Another food option is at Hammerling, where Booli Huerta will serve up Fish and Bonez savory fare.
If you take the tour or not, Clever wants everyone to know that buying bottles from these urban wineries will be a less costly affair than the bigwig estates a couple hours north. “What we’re doing breaks away from the conventional approach you find in Napa Valley,” Clever said of Berkeley’s wineries. “You won’t spend $100 on an overpriced bottle from Wine Country. The price point found along West Berkeley Wine Block is between $25 to $50 per bottle.”
Another very important advantage for sticking close to Berkeley for sipping, aside from missing out on weekend bridge traffic: This tour is dog-friendly. Just be sure to let them know in advance if you plan on bringing your “small and well-behaved furry friend.”
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