Non-Car Approaches to Urban Wine Tasting

sculptureWine tasters can access the wineries on San Francisco’s Treasure Island (this photo was shot at a cool park on its west side) via boat or bus in addition to by car.  Beyond that,  cyclists can take tasting tours of the urban wineries popping up elsewhere in San Francisco and the East Bay.

(Published by the San Jose Mercury News and its affiliates on January 19, 2014. To see the newspaper’s whole urban winery section, click here.)

You quickly forget about the wind blasting like a building-sized fan set on high after stepping into the salon of the comfy old Neptune cruiser docked at Pier 39 and immediately receiving a glass of locally made sparkling wine and a smile.

You’re on your way over to Treasure Island for a day of winery visits but during this part of the leisurely outing, you’re seeing spectacular bay views and sleek seals through the windows as you munch on cheese and fruit while quaffing some merlot.

Pleasantly ensconced in the boat’s heated cabin with 18 other happy citizens, you vow never to drive to a wine tasting again.

 neptune-1The Neptune is a popular cabin cruiser that takes guests to Treasure Island for tasting tours or on wine tours that stay on the bay.

“For me, this was perfect,” says Laura Miles of San Rafael, who’s taken two wine cruises on board the Neptune so far.  Sure, urban wineries have short drive times but an enjoyable way to avoid possible DUIs is going by boat, bike, public transportation or on foot.

neptune-2The comfy interior cabin of the Neptune is a protected place to sip and look at the view.

The wine cruise to Treasure Island includes tastings at the three wineries along the island’s west side near the small boat harbor: The Winery SF, Vie and Sol Rouge. Besides the sipping, visitors can roll bocce balls on the courts next to Vie with the city skyline looming nearby or snack at adjacent picnic tables.

bocceThe bocce ball courts next to Vie Winery have city views in the background.

After a few hours of whistle wetting, the last thing cruise participants focus on is the bay’s notoriously fierce afternoon gusts. According to the Neptune’s owner, Melissa McDowell, when guests return to the boat, “They’re so relaxed and loose they don’t notice that it’s rougher. They stand outside and get splashed and they love it!”

Less blood tingling but just as safe for wine tasters is hopping on Muni’s Route 108 — with many departures and arrivals daily — and spending the day exploring the square-mile island’s 14 wineries on foot.  This funky former naval base is surely the state’s most unconventional wine country, with various operations utilizing a former military brig, naval hangar, onetime food storage facility and multiple old warehouses.

winery sfThe Winery SF on Treasure Island — a popular event and tasting venue — is located in a former Navy hangar.

According to Robert Amox, owner of the island’s winery incubator, Bodega Wine Estates, walking “can be a bit of a trek but it’s a good thing because it paces you between tastings.” Insiders hint: Step onto Muni as it makes its regular stops.

Another way of getting there for some fortunate residents is docking their private boats at the island’s harbor, where east-side wineries will pick up prospective tasters by prior arrangement.

TI dockThe small marina on Treasure Island’s west side is close to three local wineries.

This small, flat island is copacetic for cycling and rollerblading, too, but requires transporting your own equipment. Those wanting to keep cars out of the equation but still dive into the urban winery scene need look no further than the popular cycle winery tours on San Francisco’s mainland and in the East Bay.

treasure_islandMan-made Treasure Island is about one square mile and is a funky former naval base awaiting redevelopment.

Explains Arianne Goodman, founder of Gears & Grapes Getaways, a San Francisco-based bike touring company: “People are getting over the hurdle; ‘Oh, there’s wine being made in San Francisco?'”

The requirements for her urban tour of the city’s burgeoning wineries is simple. “All you have to do is be ready to have fun and try wine.” If pedaling and sipping seem incompatible in a car-intense metropolis, Goodman quickly explains that her guests use bike lanes and safe-riding practices.

bluxome street winerySan Francisco’s Bluxome Street Winery is one of the urban spots sometimes included on the Gears & Grapes cycle tasting tours.

The situation is similarly encouraging on cycle wine tours across the bay.  “So far, I’ve had about 2,100 riders and I’ve never had a problem with someone having too much to drink,” reports Jon Zalon, owner-operator of East Bay Winery Bike Tours.

east-bay-winery-bike-toursRather than rolling vineyards, urban tasting tours take in a different landscape but still provide great enjoyment.

Nor are the routes challenging. “I warn people on our Berkeley ride that we have a really huge 20-foot hill to go up.  That’s it,” he laughs.

Zalon currently offers loops to wineries in Alameda and Oakland/Berkeley, but he’s waiting impatiently for the stunning new pedestrian/bike path on the Bay Bridge’s eastern section to extend to Treasure Island so he can organize a third loop.  “That’s supposed to be my top secret,” he says.  “Don’t tell anybody.”

bay bridge bike pathWhen the gorgeous new pedestrian/bike path on the eastern section of the Bay Bridge is finally completed, it will extend all the way to Treasure Island. 


San Francisco Winery CruiseA classic 1958 cabin cruiser departs from Pier 39 and the package includes the boat trip, local wines and snacks on board, plus wine flights at three Treasure Island wineries. Most trips take place on Sundays. $159 per person but various deals can be found online.

Gears & Grapes City Wine Tour – Participants pedal to three San Francisco wineries for tastings on this afternoon tour, then enjoy dinner with wine at a SOMA restaurant. The cost of $99 per person includes bike and helmet usage plus meal but not tasting fees.  By appointment on weekends but expands to weekdays after Memorial Day.

East Bay Winery Bike Tours – Starting at Jack London Square, this easy-riding trip covers an Alameda loop or an Oakland/Berkeley loop and the $89 fee includes bike and helmet usage, snacks and gourmet picnic lunch plus tastings. Saturdays or by appointment.

Bus to Treasure Island – Self-guided wine tours without the need for a designated driver are a wise way to experience the thriving winery scene on this tiny island. Route 108 on Muni departs and returns to the terminal in SOMA multiple times daily and makes stops on Treasure Island for those not into hoofing it across the entire square-mile island.


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