Vallejo’s Mare Island builds buzz with influx of wineries, distilleries, filmmakers
Vallejo’s Mare Island is a former naval shipbuilding base that has sat mostly vacant for more than 20 years.
But now, the vision to turn it into a vibrant Portland-esque destination with wine, spirits, beer, food, shopping and entertainment is gaining momentum.
“When I first came out here it was a ghost town. Now, it’s been a groundswell. It has the Portland feel, the same industrial, gritty style,” said Napa winemaker Dave Phinney, who has leased seven buildings on the northern end of the island, on the waterfront. “Of course I hope and believe it will come, I just don’t know when. No one cheers harder for Mare Island and Vallejo than I do because I just love it down here.”
Mare Island Brewing opened a tap room just across the river from the island a few years ago. It is adjacent to the ferry terminal, which provides service to and from San Francisco.
Due to the popularity of its beer, owners Kent Fortner and Ryan Gibbons moved into an 8,000-square foot refurbished coal storage shed to expand production last year.
“I think Dave Phinney had the same lightbulb go on that we did when he got down here, like wow, this history doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Fortner said. “He’s got lots of personal firepower he can apply to his project. It’s going to be fantastic.”
The new brewery, also on the waterfront, is an industrial space conducive to production and also has curb appeal, Fortner said. Including the outdoor riverfront, the brewery can accommodate 1,000 people. The future vision for the brewery includes live music, a movie screen, and when pleasure craft pull up and anchor a little skiff can run beer out to the boats.
“There’s a ton of flexibility here,” Fortner said. “What we’ve said from the beginning is if we do this right, and we do it to a certain standard, then we’re going to attract the right other businesses to come in and see the same vision we see. And Phinney coming down and basically taking over the whole block is a really great testament to that. We’re really excited that that kind of investment is being made.”
The 5,000-acre island is a maze of large, mostly empty, industrial buildings on the Napa River. Touro University is located there, as is a U.S. Army Reserve Center and a golf course. Vino Godfather, a wine tasting room in a former naval commander’s home opened on the island in 2015.
Although right now the brewery and Phinney’s distillery are hard to find—and Google Maps doesn’t work there yet—the island does have its location going for it. It’s a 45-minute ferry ride from San Francisco, a half-hour drive from Napa Valley, and the Vallejo Marina and Yacht club are right across the river.
“Its California waterfront property, and they’re not making this anymore,” Phinney said.
From Savage & Cooke, Phinney’s distillery, to the brewery is half a mile, and Fortner envisions “The Wet Mile.”
“You can go to Savage & Cooke and get a shot, go to Vino Godfather and get a glass of wine, stop for coffee somewhere, come down here and have a pint and a sandwich and then work your way back,” he said. “You never have to get in your car because you take the ferry back to the city.”
Gibbons added, “Call your German friend Uber and be home in time for Jeopardy.”
Phinney also has options to lease several other buildings on the island. His plans include the distillery, set to open in May, a tasting room, winery, retail and office space, and a workshop for mixed use artisanal goods that include custom made shot guns. He is also in the cattle business, and wants to use the leather from the cattle to make custom boots and jackets.
“How do you get someone to come to an island? It’s got to be a one-of-a kind thing, and it’s got to be high quality,” he said. “(People will think) ‘If I really go down the rabbit hole, I can get some great wine, great spirits.’ But where else are you going to get fitted for a shotgun? And we have wetlands right over there that you can go shoot at.”
Mare Island is steeped in history as a military and shipbuilding base that dates back to 1854. In 1996, the government closed the naval base and gave a portion of it to the town of Vallejo.
Today, the island is divided up between the town, the federal government, and private entities.
But with the closure of the base, Vallejo’s unemployment escalated, it lost its tax base and had no funds to develop its portion of the island.
In 1997 real estate developer Lennar Mare Island (LMI) partnered with the city. Under the agreement, Lennar would clean up 650 acres, which so far has cost upwards of $150 million, and then develop it.
There are currently 110 businesses that LMI leases to, with about 2,500 full-time employees, said Ed Moser, LMI spokesperson.
One of those tenants is Film Mare Island, which filmed the Netflix series ’13 Reasons Why.’
Last year, Factory_OS, a pre-fabricated home manufacturer, leased a 265,000-square-foot space in a former submarine production building.
“Vallejo is booming right now. We see a lot of new businesses every day looking for space,” Moser said.
LMI has also built 340 homes and has plans for more than 1,000 more.
Fortner and Gibbons both live on Mare Island, and as self-described fans of the historic area, incorporate its naval tradition in every aspect of their beer business.
Their General Order No. 99 porter, for example, refers to the directive issued by Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels in 1914, banishing all alcohol from Naval bases and ships.
“There was a tremendous amount of pride in having built the ships that secured our freedom,” Fortner said. “The contribution of Mare Island to winning the war can’t be argued. A lot of this was saving the heritage that needed to be saved.”
“We want this to be a really great place in Vallejo that people are proud of again. There are fifth generations of families here because of the shipyard. So we’re carrying on that name and trying to make something for them to say they are proud of. We’re ready to set the standard and make Vallejo great again.”
That vision is supported by the community of Vallejo. Visitors from San Francisco make the 45-minute journey by ferry just to check out the tap room on the weekend, but about 85 percent of business at the brewery’s tap room is local.
“(In the beginning) we were worried. I had no idea how gentrified Vallejo was. People came in and didn’t bat an eye at $7 for a pint of craft beer, when the highest we could find in town was $4.50,” Fortner said.
Last year, Gibbons had the idea for a Mare Island Brewing hand-made ceramic growler that sold for $80. Fortner was dubious, but they sold out all 200 almost instantly, he said.
“I’m not saying there is a ton of money in Vallejo, I don’t know what the statistics are, but there is a huge enthusiasm for authentic artisan, local crafted aspects. We’ve tapped into that,” he said.
Phinney is also taken with the history of the area and the restoration of the buildings.
“I have to show you this,” he says of a cement bunker in the center of the distillery building. It used to house sensitive photos and documents during the war, and only a few select individuals had access to it.
“It’s amazing. We have all this built-in history, like that vault,” Phinney said.
While Fortner and Gibbons have branded that history, Phinney says he will not.
“I am reverential to Mare Island Brewery because they were here first. Kent incorporates a lot of the history in his marketing. I’m not going to parlay that,” he said. “We’ll talk about the history but not use it the way he does. Everything can’t be chocolate on top of chocolate. None of our labeling will have much to do with the island, that’s by design.”
Having said that, Phinney was a history major in school and is a “total sucker for history.” The name of the company, Savage & Cooke are the surnames of two men who worked in building No. 101.
Aside from location and built-in history, Mare Island has another advantage. While he lives in St. Helena and loves Napa, Phinney pointed out it’s easier to get permits and build in Solano County.
“It’s a different world here,” he said. “What’s really cool is the group of people that are out here, and who we are trying to attract. The whole idea is we are all like-minded people and there’s enough of this playground to go around. People are reaching out to me and saying ‘that’s super cool, let’s see what’s going on and check it out.’”
As for Mare Island’s success, Phinney and Fortner both said they have the luxury of time, and need the production space first and foremost.
“We have a very viable production spot at this point. If that’s all that ever happens, great. We’ll just make beer,” Fortner said. “If this becomes nine coal sheds that all do retail and we have a ton of traffic down here and it becomes a sort of Portland-Seattle waterfront feel— awesome.”
Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at Cynthia.Sweeney@busjrnl.com or call 707-521-4259.