Brendan Eliason saved his winery by going small – and local.
The founder of Periscope Cellars Winery, located in Swan’s Market in Oakland, Eliason was on track a few years ago to increase his production from 3,000 to 10,000 cases of wine annually. Since Eliason only made $10 to $12 profit on a case of wine, he thought he needed to go big to succeed.
But Eliason hated his race to get bigger. He also realized he wasn’t making much money.
So, in 2011, after moving his winery from Emeryville to Oakland, Eliason cut back to making just 500 cases of wine a year. He stopped selling wholesale and started selling his handcrafted wines by the glass at Deep Roots, the wine bar he owns in Swan’s Market. Now he’s small, he’s nimble, and couldn’t be happier.
“I didn’t become a winemaker to sit in a cubicle all day and make spread sheets,”said Eliason recently while holding his six-month old daughter, Minna, at the launch of the new Oakland Urban Wine Trail. “Now I have a small neighborhood winery. I live six blocks away. All the wine that is served comes from a one-mile radius. The opportunity to sell directly to my neighbors and community is appealing.”
The key to Eliason’s sustainability, though, is getting people into the tasting room where they can sample his wine.
In an effort to increase those visits, Eliason decided that Periscope Cellars should become one of the 10 wineries on the new Oakland Urban Wine Trail. It’s an initiative created by Visit Oakland, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the city’s tourism business. The idea is to brand Oakland’s wineries, many of which are scattered near one another in industrial buildings near Jack London Square, as a distinct tourist destination.
“We have watched Kentucky do it,” said Alison Best, president and CEO of Visit Oakland. “They have the Urban Bourbon Trail. We have the Oakland Urban Wine Trail. These wines are grown and sourced from all over California, but the work is happening here in Oakland.”
The Oakland Urban Wine Trail had a kick-off event for press and hospitality leaders last week at Campovida, a winery located at 95 Linden St. in the complex that holds James Syhabout’s The Dock at Linden Street. Vintners from all of the 10 wineries on the trail were pouring samples and chatting about their hopes for the newly branded wine trail.
“What we really have got to do is let everyone know we are down here and that there are world-class wines made here in Oakland,” said Steve Shaffer, who owns Urban Legend with his wife Marilee. The winery is on Fourth Street.
Promoters of the Wine Trail point to two advantages: location and connection. If you live in the Bay Area, it’s a lot easier to go to Oakland by car, ferry, or BART than it is to drive an hour north to Napa or Sonoma.
Tasting wine at any of the 10 wineries on the trail also will be a more intimate experience than tasting at a Napa or Sonoma winery where tastings are more mass-produced, promoters contend. Frequently, the person pouring is either the winemaker or someone with influence with the winemaker. So feedback from customers gets incorporated quickly, said Shaffer.
Urban Legend tries to root its wines in Oakland neighborhoods by making blends that reflect each neighborhood’s personality, and it seeks customer feedback, said Shaffer. Each year, the Shaffers make wine for a different district. For example, the Jingletown neighborhood down near the estuary is filled with artists. Urban Legend blended a wine that was light and bright, he said. The wine made for Oakland’s hip Uptown neighborhood was a semi-Bordeaux blend. The West Oakland wine was dark, spicy, and sweet around the edges. It is a blend of Zinfandel, Petit Syrah and Grenache.
The only neighborhood Urban Legend has had difficulty with is Rockridge, Shaffer said. He wanted to do a blend that was lively and sophisticated. They tried six different blends and liked them, but didn’t think they reflected Rockridge. Instead, it was like all of Oakland, so he named the wine “The Town.”
The 10 wineries on the Oakland Urban Wine Trail include Campovida, Cerruti Cellars, Dashe Cellars, Irish Monkey Cellars, Jeff Cohn Cellars, Periscope Cellars Winery, Rosenblum Cellars, Stage Left Cellars, Two Mile Wines and Urban Legend. At least six of them are within easy walking distance of one another. Others are accessible by BART, ferry, and bus.
Visitors can also go on a bike tour of the wineries. East Bay Winery Bike Tours offers a tour that includes a number of Oakland and Alameda wineries, and a separate tour that showcases Berkeley wineries.
Best said she hopes the Oakland Urban Wine Trail appeals to both tourists and Bay Area residents. Oakland hosts a lot of tournaments at its ice rink and meetings at its convention center. Offering a two-hour immersion into the local wine scene should appeal to people who have some downtime, she said. Visiting a number of wineries in a short period of time on a Saturday or Sunday should make the trail an inviting weekend outing, she said.
And while these Oakland wineries have been around for a few years, creating a well-marked trail for people to follow should increase business, said Best. In 2014, about 15,000 people visited tasting rooms in the region and consumed 10 million glasses of wine, according to literature provided by Visit Oakland.
“We wanted to make it a consumable experience,” said Best. “We wanted to pack it up to make it easier for the consumer to navigate.”
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