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A Visit to Fort Awesome

Beyond the shipping brontosauruses of Alameda and past the blocks of abandoned naval barracks exists a mecca of glee: Rock Wall Wine Company. I was positively giddy when I left, and it wasn't the few sips and many more spits of wine talking. It was the sheer energy I got from being in such a bastion of fun where once order and crew cuts ruled.

The cranes in the San Francisco Bay that I've always thought looked like dinosaurs.

No signs of life at the former naval base, but perhaps there will be when this event happens. 


So how did Rock Wall come to be? I'll get to that. First I'll take you on the present-day journey. Rock Wall is housed in a former airplane hangar within the decommissioned Naval Air Station Alameda. It's a ghost town until you get to Rock Wall. My sole encounter on the walk from the Alameda Main Street Ferry Terminal to this urban winery was a maroon Jaguar with furry dice in the mirror. It zoomed ahead of me and out popped a truant teenager and his skateboard. "Where am I?" I wondered. Luckily a small sign let me know I was in the right place, and soon I saw the hulking building that is Rock Wall.

What happened between walking through Rock Wall's doors and meeting winemaker Shauna Rosenblum and leaving is a colorful blur. It started with Seinfeld trivia, which she nailed, except for the episode with Man Hands, and now I have a notebook full of her favorite yeast strains and coopers, plus these quotes:

"I learned how to use a refractometer when I was two."

"The clay is going to be what it wants to be. Grapes are the same."

"It smelled like nachos when it was fermenting."

"I want to talk to every single one of my barrels; I sing to them."

"Anyone can come here, get a glass of wine, sit out back and talk about SpongeBob if they want to!"

The prose version of the story above is this: Rock Wall is the Rosenblum family's project, which they started in 2008 after they sold the Rosenblum label. Then, Shauna had finished her Master's in ceramics and was about to head back into the classroom for a degree in child education when her dad, the famed Zin-whisperer Kent Rosenblum, began enlisting her in various duties at his fledgling wine project: lift the plywood doors off the bays, receive the grapes, crush them, and oh, make wine out of them. By the end of that year, Shauna had made the entire vintage and her dad, whether by accident or design, took notice of her ownership and love of the wines she made. He hired her as Rock Wall's winemaker and took a consulting role, or "the confirmer" as Shauna refers to him.

Kent and Shauna Rosenblum. Photo credit Mike Rosatti and Jim Stone.

"I thought everyone's family had a winery," Shauna said. "When I was a teenager, people would ask me all sorts of questions that I'd say I didn't know the answer to, but I realized I actually could answer them and tell them what a fermentation lock was or how to measure brix."

Clearly, the basics of winemaking are in her blood. While Shauna makes a killer Zinfandel, she also furthers her knowledge by seeking out "oddball varieties" like Teroldego, Fiano and Verdelho. She tastes examples of the varieties that inspire her, and comes up with new combinations of blends, barrels and yeasts used, fermentation times and all the things that make winemaking an art. She even makes the only Californian Norton.

"Norton is a wild, local vine, it's a part of our history and you can't ignore your history," Shauna said. "Is it going to be the best wine you've ever tasted? Maybe. You just have to taste with no expectations."

We didn't high five until later when I said, "Cab Franc is my jam," but I wish we did right after Shauna said that. Having that attitude is what converts a wine drinker into a wine geek, and turns someone who wasn't planning on becoming a winemaker into someone who, just five years after her first vintage, has released 34 wines, and works with 63 vineyard sites and counting. Having tasted through her current lineup, I can safely say that there is something for everyone here. At the very least, you'll appreciate the balance and varietal correctness Shauna and her team consistently achieve.

The view of San Francisco and the Bay Bridge from Rock Wall's deck. Photo credit Mike Rosatti and Jim Stone.

But wine aside, one of the most interesting things about Rock Wall is you don't even have to like wine to want to visit. The site itself is a grown up's playground featuring everything you'd want to do once the workday ends. A dome constructed by a company that creates installations for Burning Man sits beside the tasting room, and the acoustics in there are so good that anyone speaking at its center doesn't need a microphone. In fact, fabric panels that can be used as projector screens were installed to control the sound, and FitBall-sized masses of corks hang from the rafters to remind you of where you are. Burners have gotten married here and are just thrilled that something like it exists outside the Playa. I wished I had a boombox on hand to see what this scene from "Say Anything" would have sounded like in the dome.

Inside the dome. Photo credit Mike Rosatti and Jim Stone.

Shauna showed me the winery where music was blasting from a much stronger sound system. It was like going to another room of a warehouse party, and the soundtrack was chosen by this fellow, a mixed-martial-arts practitioner:

Chris Lao-Scott, Assistant Cellar Master and workday soundtrack-setter.

Hanging from the rafters of the room next door was a huge, red paper heart flanked by lanterns. Those were leftover from another party. For another private event, aeralists dropped from ceiling. And beyond this was a wall that folds out to a panoramic view of the Bay Bridge and all of San Francisco; Rock Wall's bottle features an outline of this view.

Aerialists perform at a wedding at Rock Wall. Image courtesy of Rock Wall Wine Co.

While I was in the tasting room, there was talk of screening a film on-site, and frankly I don't care what that film is; I'd come just to experience watching a movie in such an engaging space. Oh, and they have a full kitchen and Le Truc provides food from noon-6 pm Wednesdays through Sundays, in case you get hungry as you're tasting wine and orating from the middle of the dome.

I left Alameda knowing that I'd be back, something I didn't think after initially rushing by the silent navy buildings. There is a lot of life yet to be discovered here.

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