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.Broc Cellars Does Wine, Naturally

Berkeley winemakers celebrate the earth’s bounty and let the grapes speak for themselves

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Since 2002, when winemaker Chris Brockway established Berkeley’s Broc Cellars, the focus has been on using organically grown grapes, fermented with the yeast that occurs naturally on them, resulting in a true natural wine. Brockway’s partner in life and business, Bridget Leary, recalled those early days.

“Chris loves zinfandel, so it was one of the first wines he wanted to make,” she said. Although he liked the older-style zinfandels, which were heavier and denser, he wanted to make a wine perfect for food pairing. So, Vine Starr, Broc Cellars’ first vintage, released in 2006, was originally a blend of zinfandel and syrah, inspired by “where Beaujolais and Northern Rhone meet.” 

By 2009, the wine was 100% zinfandel, but still harvested early to highlight acidity and fresh fruit. Vine Starr remains one of Broc Cellars’ signature wines. It’s been embraced, said Leary, by chefs and wine lovers from as far away as Norway and Japan. “Chefs love to pair it with fish dishes like cioppino,” she noted.  

Over the years, it’s been joined by multiple other vintages, including the 2022 Broc Massa Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2023 Go Grapes White, the 2022 Grenache Gris Rosé and many others, all true to the original purpose of making natural, drinkable wines.

The biggest news at Broc is that in 2023, the winery purchased a vineyard in Mendocino, Fox Hill Vineyard, that it had been working with since 2013. Until the purchase, Broc had been a negociant, a winery purchasing grapes from various vineyards to make its wine. “We always wanted a vineyard of our own,” said Leary, “but for many years, the dream didn’t feel tangible.” It took almost three years to finalize the sale, but, she said, “The past was leading us to do this.” Broc Cellars is now officially a vigneron, a winegrower.

The relationship began with what became a flagship wine for Broc, the Nero d’Avola, “lovingly referred to as The Badger,” said Leary, because the 60-acre Alexander Valley vineyard “has lots of critters.” Brockway worked closely with Sam Bilbro of Idlewild Wines and Evan Lewandowski of Ruth Lewandowski Wines, who helped farm the land for over a decade. Fox Hill is a CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) vineyard, and Brockway will continue that tradition.

Cover crops are used to boost soil health, water retention and biodiversity, and grazing sheep both help keep the cover crops manageable and fertilize the soil. The early harvesting often results in lower alcohol wines, now in big demand with wine drinkers. Sulfur is never added during fermentation, although, depending on the wine, the style and the year, a small amount may be added at bottling. The wines are manipulated as little as possible during fermentation, and many are unfiltered.

Besides the Nero d’Avola, other Fox Hill grapes, including trebbiano and dolcetto, are already used in several of Broc Cellars’ wines, including Amore Rosso, Amore Bianco and Amore Blendo. Significantly, said Leary, Broc plans to continue Fox Hill’s tradition of growing Italian grapes, including “the library of obscure Italian varieties already growing there.” The winery will make many wines this year from Fox Hill grapes, “expanding our vision,” she added.

In April, Broc introduced two new wines made from Fox Hill grapes. One is a negroamaro, made from a deep red grape variety grown in the Puglia region of southern Italy for at least 1,500 years, with “rich black fruit flavors with a distinct finish of dried herbs,” according to wine site Wine Folly.

The second new wine is an arneis, a white wine associated with Italy’s Piedmont region. Fun wine fact: “Arneis” means “little rascal” in Piedmontese, likely called so because it can be tricky to grow. The grapes produce dry, but full-bodied, wine.

Both the new wines, as well as many of the Broc Cellars current releases, will be featured at the winery’s very popular tasting room in Berkeley’s Gilman District. Snacks and other beverages are served as well. The tasting room on Thursdays and Fridays, 2-7pm, becomes the wine bar “Bar Broc,” featuring selected wines to taste and compare. 

“Come in and visit to taste the new wines,” Leary invited East Bay Magazine readers. “Many people are not as familiar with the Italian varieties. Ask questions! Learn about what we do, and how we achieve the taste of Californian terroirs.”

Terroir can also be tasted in Broc’s unique Aqua Vino, created from the skins of valdiguié grapes left over from making its Love Rosé. The skins were macerated in water for three days, fermented for a week in stainless steel, transferred to pressurized tanks and then blended with Broc’s Nouveau wine. Water from the Sierra snowmelt in the Mokelumne River watershed—the same drinking water Berkeley uses—makes up 25% of the final product, resulting in a bubbly, low-alcohol drink. Aqua Vino also comes in cans.

Broc partners with a number of local restaurants, pop-ups and food trucks at the tasting room, “in a celebration of eating and drinking,” Leary said. Reservations are available for indoor seating or on the covered patio. According to Broc materials, “kids and well-behaved doggies” are welcome.

The winery has also become known for its signature glassware, Broc Glass, which includes its hand-blown glasses and decanter by local craftsperson Rafi Ajl. Other products from the vineyards Broc sources are Fox Hill Extra Virgin Olive Oil; persimmon butter from the same vineyard, from a line called Jane Taylor Jams; and Camino Red Wine Vinegar.

More collaborations include the Fort Point Brewing Nouveau Farmhouse Ale, made with grapes from Ricetti Vineyard’s Mendocino Zinfandel; local craftsperson Cristina Gaitán’s napkins, tablecloths and shirts in her Una Ice Dye line; and an ongoing relationship with artist Marta Elise Johanson, who designs Broc’s labels.

Perhaps the most unusual Broc collaboration is a 2023 album, Notes & Tones, which takes its name from the book by jazz drummer Art Taylor. It was produced by DJ Muggs, and made with samples from “cosmic jazz musician” Sun Ra. Designed to complement Broc’s Notes & Tones wine, only 700 LPs were pressed. The wine is a blend of tocai friulano and trebbiano, both from the Fox Hill Vineyard.

With all these uniquely Broc products and experiences, the winery prioritizes its connections in the community highly, said Leary, and so, she added, do Broc patrons. The relationships and community support, she noted, “are what a lot of people like.” That, of course, along with their favorite Broc wines, and looking forward to what the winery will come up with next.

Broc Cellars, 1360 5th St., Berkeley. 510.424.7323, Tasting room open Thu/Fri, 2-7pm, Sat/Sun, noon-5pm.

Janis Hashe
Janis Hashe regularly contributes to the East Bay Express and other Bay Area publications.


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