Thursday, January 5, 2012

Urban Legend Cellars – An East Bay Gem in Oakland, California

After visiting JC Cellars and Dashe Cellars, I drove to the other end of 4th Street in Oakland to visit Urban Legend Cellars. The title “Cellars” (as opposed to “Vineyards” or “Winery”) seems to be a common theme on this street.

Urban Legend Cellars is an independent Urban Winery with a very small hands-on crew that produces their small lot wines from a variety of vineyard sources from all over California. It is a “classic Mom and Pop business” that entails just Marilee and Steve Shaffer - a husband and wife dynamic duo - and a few crush and cellar volunteers.

 Marilee Shaffer has an MBA from UC Berkeley and her past careers include academic research to discover effective bacterial vaccines, development of molecular cloning methods with a focus on DNA sequencing, and biotech equipment sales engineering and marketing. After many years of working with biotech start-ups, she then went on to start a business of her own and founded Waypoint, a “click-and-mortar” retailer of products for marine navigation that she still leads. She then went on to use her old microbiology background to start home winemaking, and eventually went on to complete the UC Davis Winemaking Certificate program as part of getting the winery launched. 

Steve Shaffer has a background in engineering, with a previous career designing computer and telecom systems. In fact, he holds several fundamental patents in computer system and fiber optic networking. But he also has an artistic side that is revealed in various aspects of the winery. He designed and built the tasting counter (as well as the winery itself) the winery’s presentation material and the website. Most importantly, he's the “designer” behind the flavor with flair for barreling and blending that makes Urban Legend’s wine distinctive. 

While visiting I tasted the following wines:

My first pour was the 2010 Sauvignon Blanc from Lake County. I visited Lake County last summer and at all the wineries the Sauv Blancs really stood out. It seems that this area may become known as being THE best-suited region in California for this grape. In addition to producing quality, the Sauv Blancs from this area are also extremely affordable. This wine has a classic profile of grapefruit, lemon zest, a little tropical fruit and a chalky minerality with great acidity and a long citrus finish without the herbal/grassy profile of New Zealand Sauv Blancs. So, if this is what you’re looking for, this is a great one for only $18 a bottle.

The second sample was a rosé, the 2010 Rosato di Barbara, Clarksburg. I have had rosés made from Syrah, Grenache, Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Pinot Noir (my favorite) and even a few made from Cabernet and Merlot. I think this may be the first I have ever had that is made from Barbera. On the nose it is earthy, maybe even slightly “poopy,” followed by strawberry jam and orange rind. It is an intriguing wine that may be better appreciated on a hot day. It sells for $18 a bottle.

My third wine was the 2009 Lolapalooza from Amador County. This wine is a Southern Rhone blend of 94% Grenache, 2% Mouvedre, and 2% Syrah. Before tasting this wine, there were very few California Grenache dominant wines that I have really liked. This is a somewhat light-red wine in color that is very subtle in its profile. On the nose this wine has a combination of a bread-like quality combined with dried red fruits and spice that reminds me of Fruitcake or a Pantone roll. On the palate the nose is repeated along with a crisp acidity. I thoroughly enjoyed this one so I brought a bottle home for $26.

The fourth pour was the 2009 Barbera from Amador County. On the nose this wine exudes black cherries, toffee, ripe blackberries, pomegranate and a touch of graham cracker on the tail end with a slight nutty/caramel finish. On the palate this wine is juicy with mouth-watering acidity that makes it very food-friendly. If you like Barbera, this is a good one for $26 bottle.

The fifth sample was the 2009 “Uptown,” a Bordeaux blend of 60% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon from Mendocino County. I wasn’t impressed with this one, it is more or less a simple red table wine without any distinctive fruit, floral, earth or spice characteristics that sells for $20 (per liter). It is sold in funny little jugs which you can recycle with re-fills.

My sixth wine sample (remember, I am tasting and spitting into a cup – NOT drinking) was the 2009 Malbec from Mendocino County. This is a BIG juicy wine with a great bouquet of lavender and loads of concentrated blueberries, cassis and a hint of dried figs. Although not quite as hedonistic as many Argentinian Malbecs on the market, this one is a mouthful of blueberry pie that will stain your teeth purple. If that is what you’re looking for you’ll want to check this one out. It sells for $29 a bottle.

My final wine was the 2010 Tocai Friulano. This wine is from the Chiles Valley which is nestled in the Vaca Mountains on the northeast side of Napa Valley consisting of 6000 acres, with only 1000 acres of planted to vine. Tocai Friulano is an Italian grape that is also referred to as “Sauvignon vert” (as well as Sauvignonasse, Friulano, and jakot) in order to avoid confusion with the Hungarian wine “Tokaji” which does not have any Tocai Friulano in it all - but instead is comprised typically of Furmint (70%), Hárslevelű (20-25%), and Muscat blanc a Petits Grains (5-10%). When I first arrived and looked at the tasting menu I saw the Tocai Friulano on the “Current release” list but was disappointed when the server stated that it was not being poured. When I am out wine tasting I am always looking for something different, a rare find, something out of the ordinary. After all, everybody and their grandmother produces a Chardonnay, a Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot so I like to find opportunities to expand my palate and further my wine education. Well, just as I was finishing the Malbec the other server opened a bottle and so although I had just finished a BIG red wine I asked of a sample of this delicate white wine. To truth is, if a white wine has sufficient acidity it is better to have it AFTER tasting a red wine as the acid will cleanse your palate and so it was with this gem. On the nose I picked up melon rind, fresh pineapple and lemon. On the palate it is refreshing with a long, clean finish. This wine sells for $24 a bottle.

To visit or for more information:

Urban Legend Cellars

621 4th St.

Oakland, CA 94607

Phone: 1-510-545-4356

Dashe Cellars, JC Cellars and Urban Legend Cellars, and other recently reviewed Urban Wineries such as Rosenblum Cellars and Rock Wall Winery are members of the East Bay Vintners Alliance. For more information check out their web site:

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