Alameda’s Glass Is Half Empty

Rosenblum Cellars and their winemaking tenants are largely leaving Alameda Island for more spacious pastures.

In the seventeen years since Kent Rosenblum took over an old railroad-repair yard next to the Alameda Naval Air Station, the island’s citizens have come to regard the winery with pride. Its single-vineyard zinfandels have garnered enough medals to gild an elephant, and over the years its production of zinfandels, cabernets, merlots, petite sirahs, syrahs, chardonnays, and viogniers — with grapes trucked in from all over Northern California — has grown to 120,000 cases a year. Meanwhile, the winery’s quarterly open houses have become popular community events, attracting up to three thousand people to sip wine and dance to live music.

Then Brentwood came a-courting, offering Rosenblum the opportunity to build a working winery on 34 acres of a new 500-acre subdivision dubbed Vineyards at Marsh Creek. Located on the southwest edge of town, the development will also have 1,100 units of “active adult” senior housing, and one hundred “executive” homes, according to developer Steve Beinke.

The price was certainly right. “We are paying $100 for the land,” says Rosenblum CFO Tim Allen. “But it’s not a free deal. Operating a winery of our size, some of the benefits for the city could be inferred as taxes, employment, and notoriety.”

The offer gives Rosenblum the chance to design its own space, expand production, and be closer to the vineyards it works with. “In its first phase, the winery would have a production capability of about 150,000 cases,” Allen notes. Brentwood is also planning an adjacent outdoor amphitheater for public events, with the aim of integrating the winery into city life. Rosenblum also would get to plant several acres of grapevines at the front of the new building. Moreover, Beinke says, Blackhawk/Nunn intends to plant grapevines and olive trees throughout the development — some fifty to eighty acres of them — which Rosenblum will have the opportunity to cultivate.

Nothing is final, though. “We haven’t signed a contract among the players, but we have made a lot of progress toward a final agreement,” Allen says. “We have signed letters of intent that spell out the basic terms and responsibilities.”

The developers are less tentative. “As far as we’re concerned, we have a deal, we’re moving toward that,” Beinke says.

If all works out, Allen says, the winery will begin rough grading of the site in the spring. They’re hoping to complete construction before the 2006 crush, an “aggressive” schedule, Beinke notes.

When word of the Brentwood deal spread, Alamedans weren’t pleased. “We had a lot of upset people,” says Carol Garbez, Rosenblum’s events and promotions manager. “We have a lot of investors in Alameda, and they wanted to put together a petition, hold town meetings, and tell the city that it needed to keep us here.”

The winery won’t abandon Alameda altogether. In August it signed another five-year lease with the city for a storage warehouse, and Allen says Kent Rosenblum has every intention of maintaining a presence in the city where he has lived for thirty-plus years. Current plans are to build a small white-wine production facility and tasting room on the island. But those discussions are still preliminary.

Some of the rumors surrounding Rosenblum’s departure focused on the fact that the city had shut down the winery’s ability to host big events. According to Garbez, Alameda’s fire department got strict after the deadly infernos at Rhode Island and Chicago nightclubs. In order for Rosenblum to continue to host weddings and fund-raisers on site, Garbez says, the AFD declared it would have to install fire-crash doors, add bathrooms, and stack barrels in public areas two high instead of four. “They don’t want us to have more than 49 people in the building at any one time,” she says.

But Allen says Rosenblum’s move isn’t retaliatory. The winery was outgrowing its space. “We probably started talking with Brentwood at least three and more like five years ago,” he says.

While Rosenblum is keeping some operations in Alameda, it has asked the other wineries that share its Main Street facility and equipment to move out. The exodus seems to be amicable.

In June St. George Spirits, which shared Rosenblum’s building for seventeen years, moved about three-quarters of a mile to an airplane hangar on Monarch Avenue. It, too, had outgrown its space. Long known for its artisanal eaux-de-vie, St. George experienced a massive hit with its Hangar One vodkas. “Five years ago, we were producing between 1,500 and 2,000 cases per year,” partner Lance Winters says. “Now we’re going to finish this year at 24,000 cases, the bulk of which is vodka.” The larger space has allowed St. George to add another still, and the distillery plans to open a tasting room this month.

Dashe Cellars and JC Cellars, which is owned by Rosenblum winemaker Jeff Cohn, together took over a 15,000-square-foot warehouse in Jack London Square, sharing storage space and equipment. “We bought the press, they bought the crusher,” says Alexandra Cohn, Cohn’s wife and business partner. The two businesses are just finishing renovations of their new digs. By tripling their space they’ve been able to build their own tasting rooms. And the wineries will be ideally placed if Jack London becomes the culinary destination its developers hope for.

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