Wine is a growing presence in Contra Costa County. The county now has its own winegrowers association, a wine competition and 18 bonded wineries -- including some in the unlikeliest places. You may know about Hannah Nicole Vineyards' sprawling estate in Brentwood, but did you know about Sterling Albert's winery in industrial Concord? That Rodeo has its first winery? Or how about this: Lamorinda's eight licensed wineries are awaiting final approval of their petition to establish an American Viticultural Area. Organizers say the Lamorinda AVA could be official before the end of the year.
I recently visited a selection of Contra Costa wineries that are open to the public. Here's what stood out as new or interesting.
Sterling Albert Winery
For years, Sterling Albert was known as the guy who made powerful wines from grapes grown atop Mt. Diablo. In 2011, Albert cut those ties in favor of a more viticulturally reliable business. After 18 years of winemaking, he now sources fruit from across Northern California and makes his own and other winemakers' artisanal wines in a 2,200-square-foot winery in Concord near the Peet's and Frito-Lay warehouses.
In June, the winery's name will change to Mt. Diablo Winery & Custom Crush, to reflect everything he does. It starts with seeking out "tiny, oddball vineyards that are meticulously farmed" to craft his own value-tier Corkscrew wines (all under $20) and the premium Nimium and Château Merrill brands (which are both custom crush gigs).
Everything is done in small lots, and the quality shows. During my tour of these county wineries, I found Albert's wines to be the most refined, particularly the creamy 2013 Sterling Albert Alexander Valley chardonnay ($24) and the 2011 Nimium Colli di Zinbarrah, a silky blend of zinfandel, barbera and petite sirah. As if making 20-plus wines and expanding into custom crush isn't enough, Albert is getting licensed as a full distillery, producing rum, cognac and a line of eau de vie he hopes to release this summer. Open noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays, until 3 p.m. Sundays. 5052 Forni Drive, Concord; www.sawinery.net
Four Fools Winery
Retired Pittsburg city manager Marc Grisham and longtime friend and home winemaker John Conroy opened Rodeo's first winery back in October. Along with their wives, Grisham and Conroy are working hard to revive this town's waterfront with what they hope will be a destination event space and overnight getaway. The winery caretaker's house is getting a face-lift, and they plan to bring in dolled-up trailers and RVs like the ones along the Russian River Valley. There's something peaceful about sipping wine on the winery's balcony while taking in the quiet (albeit mudbound) waterfront, with a lone scrap metal worker and harbor master lugging firewood.
Four Fools is Conroy's first commercial gig as a winemaker. He continues to hone his craft, sourcing fruit from Lodi, Livermore and beyond for a growing portfolio that currently includes 400 to 600 cases of six wines. For now, stick with the Queen's Revenge cabernet sauvignon and Harlequin chardonnay (if you like buttery). If the marina unfolds the way Conroy imagines it, with wine enthusiasts strolling over from Hercules on an extended bike path, I think Four Fools will thrive.
Open noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 13 Pacific Ave., Rodeo; fourfoolswinery.com
When the Viano family purchased their Martinez vineyard in 1920, this was a thriving grape-growing area and home to 15 wineries. Viano Vineyard itself was planted in 1888, and some of those vines are still there.
Now, with the third and fourth generations in charge (namely, John and David Viano), the property is home to 60 acres planted to 20 varieties, including cabernet sauvignon, chenin blanc, valdiguie and zinfandel. Because all 10,000 or so cases are produced, bottled and marketed directly to local retailers such as Lunardi's, Diablo Foods and Andronico's, Viano's prices are low, as in $5 to $17.
On the higher end is the intense, reserve Sand Rock Hill Zinfandel ($15), which is made from 85- to 124-year-old vines. It was one of the few wines that was showing well on my visit. Most of them, including the whites, tasted slightly oxidized. I visited on a Monday, and the tasting room attendant confirmed that the bottles I was tasting were uncorked on Friday and over the weekend.
But the standard tasting -- three whites, three reds -- is free, and they charge $1 per tasting of reserve wines. As long as you ask for a fresh bottle, it's a pretty cool way to spend an afternoon in the suburbs.
Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays; 150 Morrell Ave., Martinez; vianovineyards.com
Contact Jessica Yadegaran at email@example.com.