Chardonnay haters: This Oakland winery’s Old World-take tastes new

Côte West, an urban winery located near Jack London Square. Photo: Côte West

In an urban winery steps from Oakland’s glistening waterfront, just south of Jack London Square, Bret Hogan was very excited — to show me a PVC pipe. Technically it’s a “glycol manifold” that Hogan installed as part of a cooling system to help keep temperatures down while fermenting white and rosé wines. It’s an important piece of equipment, especially on a warm day inside the bright and breezy barrel room at Côte West, the winery that Hogan co-founded with his wife, Kerrie. From his wide smile and equally enthusiastic overview of a charcoal filter, it’s clear that Hogan is a veritable wine lover and a vintning nerd, particularly when it comes to Côte West’s flagship style: Chardonnay.

“I was an ABC drinker, Anything But Chardonnay,” Hogan explained. Like many teenagers who grew up in the Golden State, Hogan’s parents had an affinity for the ubiquitous varietal, which was a turnoff at the time. “I gave up because my parents drank a lot of Chardonnay when I was a kid, and it was always around.” Chardonnay can yield sticky sweet notes, an unappealing attribute unless it’s a glass of apple juice. As Hogan put it bluntly, Chardonnay can be “very bad.”

But Hogan’s anti-Chardonnay sentiments changed after he received a prestigious fellowship to study with acclaimed winemaker Dominique Lafon in Meursault, Burgundy. At the time, Hogan was finishing a two-year graduate program in Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis. Lafon is, according to Hogan, a “rockstar” of the French wine world; he also happens to be renowned for his Chardonnay. Hogan tasted his wines, and was blown away. “They were so different than what I had known in California,” he said. “I told myself this would really be a huge waste of an experience to not try and replicate what I’ve learned.”

So that’s exactly what Hogan did as head winemaker at Côte West. Côte is the French word for “hill” or “slope,” which is the site of premier cru and grand cru vineyards in Burgundy. “West” is a hat tip to the California grapes that Hogan sources from vineyards throughout the state. Taken together, “Côte West is an attempt to make wines in the old-world style,” Hogan said, “but with West Coast vineyard sources.” Hogan takes cues from traditional Burgundian techniques, too, by crafting additive-free wines with minimal intervention and little to no sulfur.


A glass filled with Côte West Chardonnay on a table with an open bottle. Photo: Côte West
Côte West’s Chardonnay. Photo: Côte West

In other words, this is not your grandmother’s Chardonnay. Forget syrupy, fruit-bomb flavors or in-your-face vanilla and oak notes. “Old world wines are lower in alcohol, higher in acid,” Hogan said. In practice, that means all of Côte West’s wines are under 14% ABV, which stands for alcohol by volume. When tasting, expect less heat in the back of your throat (higher alcohol can impart a burn), and more mouthwatering flavor, a result of higher acidity.

Old-world wines are also “more food-friendly,” Hogan added. Without missing a beat, he described the perfect food pairing: “A fatty roasted chicken and that Chardonnay,” he said. “No utensils. Your wine glass is going to get dirty.”

Côte West isn’t just AAC (All About Chardonnay), though. As part of its tasting menu, offered on weekends, you can sample six Côte West wines for just $15; that fee is waived if you purchase a bottle. For some bottles, that’s a bargain, with prices starting at $22 for a 2018 Rosé of Zinfandel smacking of red fruit, made with grapes from Del Barba Vineyard in Contra Costa County.

On the pricier end is a peppery 2015 Pinot Noir that originates from La Cruz Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast ($43). My personal favorites from our tasting included a crisp 2018 pétillant-naturel (an effervescent wine that is fermented once, inside the bottle), made from Sauvignon Blanc; a delightfully dry, fuller-bodied 2018 Rosé of Counoise; and of course, that zesty 2015 Chardonnay, which like Côte West’s Pinot, features grapes from La Cruz Vineyard.

Hogan’s use of more obscure grapes to create single-varietal wines, such as that easy-drinking Rosé of Counoise, reflects his willingness to experiment. It’s a trait that he indulged at UC Davis, where Hogan says he studied wine “24-7.” But that work didn’t just occur in the library stacks. “We had winemaking clubs up there. We’d make all kinds of wacky wines in backyards,” he said. “We made some terrible wines, but we made some very good wines,” too.

Studying at Davis also gave Hogan a fast track into a relatively insular industry. “I didn’t have family connections, and I didn’t grow up in wine country,” Hogan said. Before Davis, Hogan lacked significant professional connections, having spent seven years working in sales at Google. Though he spoke very highly of the company (and of its free food for employees), Hogan said that he felt unfulfilled by his work there.

Hogan’s reprieve at the time? Brewing beer at home as a hobby. Not long after, Hogan started tinkering around with wine, and he was hooked. “The rhythm of the year changes so much because it’s dependent on the seasons. Every day is different.” Hogan was also gratified by the process of inventing something to imbibe. “I loved being able to create a physical tangible product, especially a consumable product, and be able to give it to someone and see them get satisfaction out of it.”

2018 Counoise grapes from Dry Creek Valley, which will be made into a delightfully dry rosé.
2018 Counoise from Dry Creek Valley, which will be made into a delightfully dry rosé. Photo: Côte West

While winemaking fulfilled Hogan’s aspirations, farming still felt like a bridge too far. That’s partially why the Hogans decided to work with vineyards from around the state, rather than tend their own vines. This model also offers significant flexibility when it comes to deciding which wines to make, and Côte West can consequently capitalize on trends. For instance, Hogan decided to create his first rosé just weeks before harvest in 2016, when the style’s popularity was growing; he didn’t have to wait five years to plant a vineyard.

Other thriving East Bay wineries have used this decentralized production model for years. Founded in 2004, Donkey & Goat Winery, in West Berkeley, sources grapes from select growers to make much-loved “natural” wines, featuring minimal sulfur and native ferments. Broc Cellars, located just doors down from Donkey & Goat, also works with partner vineyards to create wines without additives and little to no sulfur dioxide.

That said, operating a winery outside of Napa and Sonoma isn’t always easy, particularly in Côte West’s current digs — a historically industrial part of Oakland that doesn’t get much foot traffic. The Hogans chose the site primarily because of its spacious production facility. At the same time, the lack of passersby is an issue when it comes to filling the winery’s tasting room (which is a shame; it’s a sleek but inviting space, warmly-lit, with walls of exposed brick). “We are off the beaten path,” Hogan said. “People, when they come, they’ve come intentionally. No one just happens to come into Côte West.”

Then there are dirtier details. Hogan doesn’t have a vineyard where he can drop “green waste.” So without the requisite specialty dumpster, which must be ordered ahead of harvest and removed in a timely manner, you can get fruit flies and loose fermenting fruit. “It’ll just be awful,” Hogan added. And there’s something indisputably idyllic about the pastoral scenery, which is lacking in urban Jack London. “Of course, it’s romantic, right, to have the vineyard and the winery,” he said. “I can’t deny that.”

Assistant winemaker Michael McCullough dumping whole-cluster white grapes into a press during the 2018 harvest.
Assistant winemaker Michael McCullough dumping whole-cluster white grapes into a press during the 2018 harvest. Photo: Côte West

Nevertheless, Hogan seemed giddy at the thought of this year’s harvest, which runs from late August through the beginning of November. Once Hogan trucks in the grapes, it’s an all-hands-on-deck operation to press them. Though at Côte West, that involves a crew of just two: Hogan and assistant winemaker Michael McCullough, who has winemaking experience in both hemispheres, and doubles as a sommelier at Verjus, the San Francisco wine bar “star.” Kerrie, Côte West’s co-founder and Hogan’s wife, continues to work full time as the director of partnerships at Google, where the couple met; even still, she finds time to assist with Côte West’s marketing and sales strategy.

There’s something else that Hogan is excited about: “winemaker dinner parties,” which he plans to launch in November. Côte West club members will have first dibs on seats, and pending space, the general public can join in. Diners will enjoy chef-prepared dishes, likely in the winery’s barrel room, paired with Côte West wines. The event will provide an open forum for questions and there will be discussion of wines and pairings. Now heading into a sixth vintage, diners can also enjoy Côte West “verticals,” where different years of the same wine are served in succession (imagine drinking four years of the Côte West Chardonnay back-to-back). Still smiling, Hogan added, “wine aficionados geek out on that.”

Côte West’s tasting room is open from 2-6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.