LAFAYETTE -- Grapes may not care where they are made into wine, but increasingly, Bay Area wine drinkers do.
Even before the first glass of pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon was poured, a well-attended Commonwealth Club's conversation focused on "Celebrating the East Bay Wine Scene" at the Lafayette Library & Learning Center on Dec. 10 caused a buzz.
"Learning about wine tells you what you should be looking for and how to judge value," said Alamo resident Joan Wetherell. A lawyer and member of the Wine Thieves club, Wetherell welcomed the chance to sample wines and hear expert winemakers share insider stories about producing -- and savoring -- locally sourced wines.
Central Contra Costa is quickly developing its own wine culture; the Lamorinda WineGrowers Association lists nine member wineries and/or vineyards; Shadowbrook Winery in Walnut Creek and Viano Vineyards in Martinez are also key players.
"The flourishing wine scene is happening right at our doorstep; right here where we live and work, play and drink wine," said Jessica Yadegaran, a Times staff journalist who writes its "Corkheads" wine blog, and moderator of the event's panel discussion featuring four area winemakers. The proliferation of tasting rooms and suburban and urban vineyards, she suggested, reflects a sweeping interest in East Bay vintners, much like the allegiance diners have long demonstrated for favorite local chefs.
Marilee Shaffer, proprietor of Oakland's Urban Legend Cellars, said her winery's vintages are developed to go with "the mother church" of food. She sources her grapes according to the cuisine the wine will accompany. There are no grapes growing in Oakland, she said, but her winery's food-centric focus liberates them from the idea that what grows in your backyard is best.
In contrast, Sal Captain of Moraga's Captain Vineyards & Winery harvests all of his fruit from the 2 1/2 acres cascading down the steep hill just steps outside of his home. After consulting with soil professors from UC Davis, he and his wife and partner Susan discovered their land was perfect for the dry farm system they employ.
"It doesn't mean you don't add water," he said of dry farming. "It is training your root system to grow
deep into the soil. Each cubic foot you descend, your 'terroir' (taste imparted by environment) expresses more eloquently."
Bill Bedsworth said his Oakland-based Two Mile Wines holds long-term contracts with grape growers from Livermore to Healdsburg. "We don't pay by the pound," he said, "we pay by the block. Importantly, this makes them not focus on the quantity. You can make bad wine out of good grapes, but the other direction ... is a lot more difficult."
Yadegaran asked the panel how a local winery impacts a region. Captain said his vineyard's environmentally-sound practices eliminate pollution and because the grapes
travel only 500 feet -- transported by human power -- the operation has a minimal carbon footprint. And his vineyard's active 4-H program, high school scholarships and college internships support future generations' knowledge.
Shaffer said the source of some of their grapes, former sugar beet and alfalfa territory near Clarksburg south of Sacramento, demonstrates good land and employment stewardship by avoiding chemicals, using sustainable practices and by not hiring temporary labor.
Scientific backgrounds -- or interest, at the very least -- connected the panel's four winemakers (also including Mark Clarin of McGrail Vineyards of Livermore), who collectively bring expertise in microbiology, chemistry, aeronautics and medical engineering to the table. But winemaking is also art, they insisted, and a passion for good wine led all of them into the field.
Getting wealthy from this pursuit, they agreed, is unlikely.
"There's a well-known saying, 'The best way to make a small fortune in wine is start with a large one,' " Bedsworth said, laughing. Barriers to profitmaking come from stringent regulations, the difficulty of "spreading the word" about East Bay wines -- especially in the glare of Napa's and Sonoma's renown -- but not from internal competition. Clarin said local restaurants welcome his approaches, and Bedsworth has been aided by other local vintners, willing to share tips and contribute to one of his goals: the "de-snobification" of wine.
Clarin said social media has been most effective in letting people know premium wines are being made in the Tri-Valley and publishing a tour-tasting-bottle-of-wine package on Travelzoo has helped attract people from outside the area.
An audience member requested the winemakers name local wines they enjoy, other than their own. Shaffer, predictably, said, "You have to tell me what I'm eating; then I know what I'm interested in." Naming a number of wines from what were, essentially, their competitors, the winemakers demonstrated the area's camaraderie and a shared belief that tasting wines is essential to learn about them.
The audience, about to sample wines from six local wineries, proved willing to learn, eagerly filling their glasses.