The East Bay area is known as the suburbs of the city of San Francisco (in fact, the phrase contra costa means “across coast” in Spanish). The BART takes tourists and commuters all the way from SFO to Oakland, to northern East Bay cities like Richmond, southern Bay Area cities like San Jose (as of June 2020), and out west into Contra Costa County, past Walnut Creek and Concord, ending in Antioch, which is next to many legendary Zinfandel vineyards in the East Bay.
Sitting on the edge of the San Francisco and Suisun Bays, Contra Costa is home to hundred-year-old vineyards of Zinfandel, Mourvedre (Mataro), and Carignan grapes that produce earthy and robust red wines. These old vines can be found sprawling across the sandy soil at the entrance of the Sacramento Delta in the cities of Oakley and Brentwood.
Most of the vineyards are planted on their own roots, and the sandy soil combined with deep roots (which are able to tap into water 40+ feet below the surface) helps these vines to handle extreme weather and create more balanced wines. This is an especially good thing because the East Bay microclimate endures hot days and a lot of wind, meaning the fog that blankets vineyards from just across the bay in the Carneros Valley doesn’t provide any moisture to the grapes.
While this wine region is one of the oldest in California, after the railroad connected with the eastern states, many grape growers sold their land back in the ’80s and ’90s to housing developers, big box stores, and farms for cherry trees and strawberry fields.
Over time, the grape-growing region has seen these vineyards decrease in size, but a few winemakers have banded together to ensure that some Contra Costa vineyards continue to produce Zinfandel and other varietals. Winemaker Morgan Twain-Peterson MW has even commented that Evangelho Vineyard, in the Contra Costa AVA, is “one of the greatest vineyards in California.” Hear more about his thoughts on one of California’s oldest and most legendary vineyards.
Morgan’s label Bedrock Wine Co. makes two different Zins from this legendary vineyard (they bought 10 acres of Evangelho back in 2017): a Bedrock Wine Company California Old Vine Zinfandel and a Heritage Wine Zinfandel blend. Both can be purchased through their mailing list with allotments coming out three times per year.
Also in Oakley, Jesse’s Vineyard is named after the original farmer who owned and farmed the vineyard. Both he and his son (also named Jesse) have passed away, and the legendary vineyard has sold off 58 of its original 60 acres of old vines. Shauna Rousenblum, winemaker at Rock Wall Wine Company in Almada considers herself lucky to be one of the wineries that sources their grapes from the Zinfandel vines at Jesse’s Vineyard.
The 2016 Jesse’s Vineyard zinfandel is a single vineyard wine with flavors of ripe cherry pie, cocoa, black tea, sage, milk chocolate, pipe tobacco, and toasted marshmallow with a brambly blackberry finish—this is the type of Zinfandel that makes people love this varietal. You can buy the zin online or at a select few wine shops around the country.
Live Oak Vineyard
Three Wine Company is a family-owned winery with a long history in Contra Costa County. Winemaker Matt Cline’s career began in the ‘80s by helping his brother at his Oakley winery, just before Matt began as winemaker and creative director at Cline Cellars (originally based in Oakley until moving to Sonoma).
Matt is so passionate about Contra Costa County vineyards that in 2014, he aligned with the City of Oakley and a large group of environmental and historical enthusiasts to stand up to the State of California to save the historic and high-quality vineyards along the delta.
The Live Oak vineyard is separated by Live Oak Road in Oakley, making up two small vineyards under the same name. The Mazzoni block is made up of mostly Zinfandel vineyards, but much like many other older Contra Costa County vineyards, the block is home to Petite Sirah, Carignane, Mataro, and Alicante Bouschet, with a few vines of Muscat of Alexandria as well. The one-and-a-half-acre Live Oak block across the street is 100% Zinfandel. Their 2015 Zinfandel Live Oak Contra Costa County can be found online.
Truly Legendary Zinfandel Vineyards in Contra Costa County
While the Contra Costa County vineyards may have less acreage than they did in the past, the vines continue to produce some Zinfandels that truly make this varietal stand out. As Matt Cline says, “The beauty of the Contra Costa County vineyards is part of a lost heritage.”
Next time you are in your local wine shop, ask if they have any Contra Costa County Zinfandels, and let us know what you think! Learn more about Contra Costa County legendary Zin vineyards and hear more stories from the winemakers themselves.