Vallejo embraces breweries, wineries, distilleries
Leave it to Mare Island Brewing Co. co-owners Kent Fortner and Ryan Gibbons to dub an emerging stretch of craft beverage companies around their business “The Wet Mile.”
The duo, who run their three-year-old taproom in the Vallejo Ferry Building and are finishing the final details on a new brewery just across the Mare Island Strait, are already known for their inventive beer names.
Their Hydraulic Sandwich IPA, for example, salutes Vallejo’s former World War II naval workers’ code phrase that meant “beer for lunch.”
The area, after all, boasts a rich history as a military and shipbuilding base that flourished from 1852 to 1996.
Now, with Fortner and Gibbons leading the way, Vallejo is poised for a re-emergence of liquid meals, in the form of beer, wine, bourbon, whiskey and rye. Their new brewery will open for its first tours and tastings in November. Then, by spring, the new Savage & Cooke distillery is slated to open just down the waterfront from the brewery.
The two spots join Napa Smith Brewery, which opened this past November in northern Vallejo, and Vino Godfather, a wine tasting room that debuted in a former naval commander’s home on Mare Island in 2015.
All the activity marks quite an evolution for Vallejo, considering the area’s last beer manufacturer, Solano Brewing Co., closed with prohibition in 1920.
“There’s such community and culture here, and we’re trying to bridge the history gap via beer,” said Gibbons, of his other tribute beers like Survivor’s Tale Pale Ale and Saginaw Golden Ale, named for the first ship keel laid on Mare Island in 1857. “Old vets especially love it. They buy our logo pint glasses at our taproom to take to other restaurants (that carry our beer) since they won’t drink out of Coors glasses.”
Mare Island Brewing Co. Taproom
Co-owners Kent Fortner and Ryan Gibbons both live on Mare Island, and as self-described fans of the historic area, celebrate 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. And trivia: As Gibbons is quick to explain to a guest, legend has it that “cup of Joe” originated as a not-so-complimentary salute by sailors to Daniels when his order suddenly made coffee the strongest drink on the base.
Indeed, there are coffee notes in this intense brew aged in former whiskey and Pinot Noir barrels for six months, blended and then bottle-conditioned in — get this — a historic bomb shelter on Mare Island. The result is bold yet creamy and elegant, with hints of chocolate, fresh-milled grain, vanilla spice and toast. And like all the Mare Island Brewing beers, the suds remind of wine with their balance and finesse; thank Fortner and Gibbons’ vintner backgrounds for the graceful style.
Small batch seasonal recipes change often, and the beers have been so well received since the taproom opened in 2014, that Fortner and Gibbons have more than doubled production, from 600 barrels last year, to 1,300 this year.
More beer is on the way, too, thanks to their new brewery, set up in June in a collection of historic “turtle hump” design buildings called the Coal Sheds because the nine waterfront structures used to store coal for the navy’s steamships.
Debuted as an 8,000-square-foot, 15-barrel operation, plans are already underway for more tanks, and also a 4,000-square-foot restaurant that may come online in 2019.
A larger kitchen is in the works at the Vallejo Ferry Building taproom, too, where chef Scotti Hazeltine works from-scratch magic in a 210-square-foot kitchen.
The kitchen soon will span 900 square feet, for dishes like a beer-steamed pastrami sandwich with homemade sauerkraut and Swiss on rye, or a smoked pork and veal bratwurst steamed in Coal Shed stout with sauerkraut and IPA spicy mustard.
Guests also soon will find a greatly expanded restaurant here, extending into the Ferry Building lobby, and upstairs, to a 125-seat observation deck offering spectacular water, shipyard and coal shed views.
Napa Smith Brewery
The brewmaster at this expansive operation in a former Sears service center building is named, oh-so appropriately, Stein Servick. And he’s serious about the 14 beers on tap that he and his team craft in small batches totaling some 5,500 barrels.
“We’re hyper seasonal,” Servick said. “It’s good for our customers, who want variety among our core beers. And it’s great for our brewers, who don’t want to make the same beer day after day.”
Since relocating from multiple buildings in south Napa to Vallejo last winter, Servick and crew are luxuriating in 36,000 square feet of space, including an airy taproom anchored by a floor-to-ceiling mural painting of the brewing process.
The new taproom is doing double the business of the Napa space, said hospitality manager Noelle Roldan, partly because it’s more accessible now for visitors and commuters off Highway 80.
The tasting set-up definitely helps with the “wow” factor, too. Twelve beers are served in small glasses set into a carved out wood barrel stave with two more beers available on the side. The amount looks intimidating, but Roldan assures guests the flight only adds up to about 20 to 24 ounces, or “two regular beers, easy enough to enjoy.”
The range offers something for every palate, too, from the crisp, light Pilsner, to the inky dark, velvety smooth Black Chasm stout brimming with notes of coffee and tobacco.
Tip: Soak up live music on Saturdays, and dive into the ribs, chicken, pulled pork and fried catfish from Earl’s Barbecue truck parked daily by the taproom door.
Vino Godfather Winery Mansion Tasting Room
The setting is just too cool — a grand, Colonial Revival Commander’s house built in 1901 on Mare Island’s gracious Mansion Row. Spanning 7,500 square feet, the three-story white manse features formal parlors set with antique chandeliers and coal burning fireplaces, double staircases, a full attic and goodies like a carved wood cupboard panel that opens to a secret compartment etched by the home’s former resident: “CDR John J. Beck and Millie and Mittens” — complete with a tiny, dark-stain cat paw print.
Owners Frank Kennedy and Twila Nixon acquired the lease and turned the space into a tasting destination in 2015, showcasing Kennedy’s approachable, fruit forward wines from Suisun Valley and Clarksburg sourced grapes. It’s the first and only wine tasting room in the area with the Vino Godfather name being a tip of the hat to Kennedy’s family tree of longtime winemakers.
The $10 tasting brings about a half dozen wines, and once you find your favorite, you’ll want to grab a full glass ($8 to $13) and relax on the front porch, nibbling complimentary spicy cracker mix. It’s timeless elegance, the porch framed with carved columns and banisters and overlooking an expansive emerald lawn.
On Saturdays from 2 to 5 p.m., live music makes this one of the best party places in town, featuring notable acts like the legendary Pete Escovedo Latin Jazz Ensemble.
Savage & Cooke
By spring, bourbon, whiskey and rye lovers will be able to admire a brand new distillery, housed in a very old brick building next door to the Mare Island Museum. Set in Building 45 in the Mare Island Historic Core, the two-story waterfront brownstone was originally built in 1864 and used as a Navy apprentice training facility.
While the business is new, it does come with a pedigree. Savage & Cooke is owned by David Phinney, who also was winemaker at Orin Swift Cellars of St. Helena, and is known for his Splinter Group Spirits’ Straight Edge Bourbon Whiskey and Slaughter House American Whiskey. He recently sold Orin Swift to E&J Gallo and Splinter to Vintage Wine Estates.
At more than 16,000 square feet, renovating the building has been an undertaking, guided by Vallejo’s Architectural Heritage and Landmarks Commission. Initial focus is on setting up the distillery, according to Savage & Cooke general manager Lauren Blanchard, with a tasting room to follow.
Already, the company is producing several small batch spirits off-site, including Second Glance American Whiskey and The Burning Chair Bourbon, both finished in wine barrels from Phinney’s Napa Valley Cabernet projects, and Ayate Reposado and Ayate Añejo tequilas, both finished in wine barrels from Phinney’s Napa Valley Chardonnay projects.
If you go
Mare Island Brewing Co. Taproom: 289 Mare Island Way (in the Vallejo Ferry Building Waterfront Rotunda),Vallejo, (707) 556-3000, www.mareislandbrewingco.com
brewingco.com. Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Napa Smith Brewery: 101 Yolano Drive, Vallejo, (707) 252-4392, www.napasmithbrewery.com. Open noon to 9 p.m. daily.
Vino Godfather Winery Mansion Tasting Room: 500 Walnut Ave., Vallejo, (707) 552-2331, vinogodfather.com
godfather.com. Open noon to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday and noon to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday.
Savage & Cooke: 1096 Railroad Ave., Vallejo, www.savageandcooke.com.