By Granate Sosnoff
From the outside, 805 Camelia Street in Berkeley looks like a place where hobbits might duck in for a mug of ale. The front of the small building is covered with ivy and a wine barrel gives a clue to what is offered inside; but there’s hardly any indication of what century we’re in or that we aren’t in Middle-earth.
Sasha Verhage, winemaker at Eno Wines, has been making wine for more than a decade, first as an apprentice with mentor Tom Leaf of Crushpad fame, and then on his own since 2001, when he was offered extra grapes.
Among Verhage’s more noteworthy moments at the winery is when he met musical inspiration and namesake of the winery, Brian Eno, who stopped by in 2007 on his way to produce two records for indie band Coldplay.
A chance set of circumstances led Brian Eno to the small winery to taste. Eno was recording in Emeryville when an acquaintance asked if he’d like to try Verhage’s wines. When Verhage got the call, he was at work at Google and had to cancel an important presentation to make the appointment. All involved were supportive — even Verhage’s boss who ended up giving the presentation and who wished he could have joined in.
Brian Eno’s original style of music had a great impact on Verhage. He named the winery “Eno” as both a tribute to the artist and a reference to “oenology,” the study of wine. The musician liked the wines too.
Verhage, who works as a lead designer and artist at Google, has been called a maverick in winemaking for being a part of the vanguard in the East Bay urban winemaking scene. He’s known for practicing “non-interventional” winemaking. This is essentially a hands-off approach of using minimal sulfites and filtering to “let the earth speak” (as Verhage would say) and allow for flavors to come forth rather than manipulate them.
Part of this style of winemaking is being overly hands-on as well. Verhage selects regions and growers who share the same approach of minimal intervention, (i.e. organic and biodynamic), visits the grapes like a parent, and performs all parts of the winemaking by hand. The highly pampered grapes are then left alone as much as possible as they transform into god’s drink.
For Verhage, the results yield award-winning, sought-after wines that often sell out.
Verhage practices what some see as a modern trend, but is actually a throwback to European winemaking and the likes of Châteauneuf-du-Pape – where Verhage spent a short sabbatical learning from masters of Rhône winemaking.
Captivated by Rhône wines since drinking a particularly stunning bottle of Pure, by Domaine la Barroche, Verhage was lucky to not only get an audience with the winemaker, but also, in 2011, to apprentice with him, the only American to do so.
Lusu Cellars shares winery space with Eno Wines
The relationship has led to an exchange of wines and events and an important bridge for Verhage and his influences. Like most artists and winemakers, Verhage is always incorporating new information into his practices, refining and also passing on what he’s learned to other people like David Teixeira, newly minted owner of Lusu Cellars which shares the space at Camelia Street.
Teixeira has been involved in winemaking most of his young life. He grew up making wine with his Portuguese family in the California Delta area, and in recent years he’s made wine at Eden Canyon in Paso Robles, as well as with Eno wines.
Teixiera took the logical next step of producing wine under his own label in 2010. The name “Lusu” pays tribute to his roots in Portugal, where mythological god Lusus, companion to Bacchus, brought winemaking to the Iberian Peninsula.
Teixiera shifted from the study of philosophy at Cal where he graduated in 2005 to the daily practice of winemaking. For him, the art and science of winemaking is “a hands-on expression of everything.”
Like Eno, Lusu wines are about little intervention and major attention to grapes, the land they are grown in and how they are grown. It is European style meets California; and in Teixiera’s case, a personal continuation from his heritage into urban winemaking.
When I tasted at 805 Camelia, Teixiera was pouring four wines, two from Eno: a 2010 Pinot Noir (The Proposition $30) from Ferrington Vineyard Anderson Valley and a 2010 Rhône Blend (The Outcome $25) of 36% Grenache, 34% Syrah and 30% Counoise from Eagle Point Ranch in Mendocino County; and two from Lusu Cellars: a 2010 Sangiovese ($22) from Dry Creek and a 2010 Zinfandel ($24) from Eldorado, Mt. Myrick Vineyard.
All fours wines were a pleasure, bordering on fantastic. They share what I will call a “clean taste” and perhaps some would call “minerality,” and are reminiscent of European wines. I love Rhône blends and Pinot Noir so I am a sucker for Eno Wines and think that Lusu Cellars’ Sangiovese is superb.
Lusu plans on releasing a Grenache, has a Sauvignon Blanc available on tap at The New Parkway Theater in Oakland, as well as a red blend that will be made available in refillable bottles some time in the spring.
Eno has a few other Pinot Noirs, Zinfandels, and sold-out wines you can read about on the Eno website.
If you go to the joint winery, look for the charming building at 805 Camelia Street with a sign for Broc Cellars, (which clearly needs to be removed) on a Saturday between 1-6 pm. You can then amble over to Donkey & Goat and the real Broc Cellars on 5th and Gilman if you have the stamina. These are four fine wineries in an area now becoming known as either “The Drinks District” or “SoFo” (south of Fourth Street) that shouldn’t be missed.
Bonus track: how is Eno wine like Brian Eno’s music
I asked Verhage how his wine is like Brian Eno’s music and he shared this:
“Everything about the wine I make is like art and music. The labels tell a story and we even used to do liner notes like for a record album. The wine is not the same each year, but is still by the same artist, it’s just a different wine, representing a different time.
My intention with the wine is like what Eno did with music. It can be the main attraction, like in a tasting room, or it can be ambient, like music as background at a dinner party, wedding, or other event where it is a supplement and enhances the experience.
Granate Sosnoff is a nonprofit communications consultant and Mugsy pop up wine bar producer frequently in need of a good glass of wine and trying to grow her twitter @granate.
From fad to fixture: Wines on tap are here to stay
Top picks: 6 stand-out East Bay restaurant wine lists
Broc Cellars in Berkeley: A singular vision
Wine merchant Kermit Lynch celebrates 40th anniversary