As told in conversation with President Mike Tierney
The story begins on Taft Street in the Rockridge area of Oakland, not far from the University of California at Berkeley. My brother John was an undergraduate at Cal and I was a grad student. We both were cooking part time in Berkeley restaurants and became intrigued with the developing food and wine scene. We started making wine and John proved his talents early on. He soon made wine not only for himself but for a rapidly growing fan club of family and friends. His efforts during this time earned him a BEST OF SHOW AWARD at the California State Fair – the state’s highest honor for a home winemaker.
At that time in Berkeley there was an amazing business called Wine and the People. Located on University Avenue in an old warehouse, owner Peter Brehm searched vineyard areas all over California and beyond for quality grapes for home winemakers. John took a job there when Wine and the People began importing winemaking equipment from Europe for small wineries and serious amateurs. Eventually Wine and the People became a winery with John as winemaker. It was there John met fellow employee Mike Martini, original Taft Street partner and later mayor and city council member of Santa Rosa.
Meanwhile, back at Taft Street things were jumping. Since our house was built in 1918 and the garage could no longer comfortably fit a car, we turned it into something infinitely more useful – a winery. We added wiring, a new layer of concrete, and we even included an air-conditioned area for cold stabilizing white wines. Barrels, stainless tanks, a basket press and hand corker completed the scene. By the late 1970’s, we were making up to 1000 gallons. With a little quality control and an ever growing following who loved the wine, the house and garage on Taft Street gained a reputation of its own.
Such a reputation had our next-door neighbor (an early to bed kind of guy) complaining to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF). He asserted we were illegally making alcohol. I got a call from an agent telling me she would be out the next day to investigate the complaint. A law left over from Prohibition states a family can make up to 200 gallons of wine a year for home consumption. We were able to satisfy the agent that more than five families were involved in making wine and we were well within the law. An interesting aside is that several years later when we received our government bond, it was the very same agent who gave the ok.
The fun continued throughout the 1970′s and dreams began to form about making Taft Street Garage a commercial enterprise. We had everything but money. John and Mike Martini were not getting rich working at Wine and the People; my brother in law Arleigh Sanderson and I were not getting rich teaching school; and my brother Marty was not getting rich enough practicing law. I did, however, have a friend who was not only successful in business but also had a hand in a few start-ups. Andy Barlett became our first president, with the five of us mentioned above as vice presidents.
We would be a boutique winery making small lots of handcrafted wines. We would continue what we had started in the garage, but since we were now a high-class organization we dropped “Garage” from our name. John and Mike Martini were put on the payroll immediately. They began a search for a winery site in Sonoma County, where my brothers and I had spent our summers as kids and felt a close affinity to the Russian River area. We found a warehouse space in the sleepy town of Forestville and moved in early in 1982, just in time for that year’s harvest.
Since we were the new kids on the block and wine was becoming a hot industry, we could not secure enough Sonoma County grapes to meet our needs. So we used some of the same sources we had from the Wine and the People days and secured Chardonnay from Sonoma and Santa Barbara, Pinot Noir from Monterey, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc from Napa, and Merlot from Sonoma. Total production from the 1982 harvest was about 1700 cases.
At the time we planned the business there was simply not enough wine being produced to meet market demand. Retailers and restaurateurs from the Bay Area would drive to Napa and Sonoma and buy whatever they could find. We saw this and figured the least of our worries would be selling new wine. We planned on making a list of the top retailers and restaurants and allocating from there.
It didn’t quite work that way. We got a few wines placed in shops and restaurants, but selling wine was a lot harder than we imagined. After several months of the phone not ringing off the hook, we realized action was required. I was teaching high school at the time and decided to take a sabbatical leave for the spring semester of 1984. Starting with a phone book and a pickup truck, we finally started to see the kind of sales we had taken for granted when we created Taft Street.
The next fall when I returned to teaching, we had secured a place for ourselves in the Bay Area market. I kept my day job, teaching part-time, and filled my pickup truck with wine every day after school. We later added wine brokers in the South San Francisco Bay Area and the North Bay. As months passed our reputation grew via word of mouth and several good reviews from wine publications, and a number of out of state distributors began representing us.
Awards came in droves. In one ten-year stretch our chardonnay was a Best Buy in the WINE SPECTATOR nine times. Our 1986 Russian River Chardonnay was awarded the Best of Show at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, and John was name Winemaker of the Year.
During the 1990’s we expanded our production to meet national demand. Taft Street quickly grew to 20,000+ cases per year. We had gone out of Sonoma County to secure grapes for an expanded market; yet we saw a genuine excitement for the wines we were making from grapes grown in nearby Russian River Valley and other nearby vineyards.
We opened a tasting room and saw a strong local following develop. Taft Street wines would accompany many an impromptu dinner amongst an eclectic group of friends. The conversation was always stimulating and often contentious – just what good friends and strong families enjoy most. We felt truly at home in Sonoma County.
Our experience on the national stage showed us that being small was beautiful, and with a renewed sense of focus on the Russian River Valley, we decided to concentrate on those wines originating in nearby vineyards. Working with local growers has enabled us to create wines that reflect the individual quality of specific sites as well as show off our own developed winemaking skills.
In 2007, we brought on winemaker Evelyn White, formerly of Clos Du Bois, and were excited to see her creativity immediately reflected in the wines. She is a perfect match for this enthusiastic family, and continues to innovate with each award-winning vintage. Growing pains behind us, Taft Street has returned to its garagistes roots and stayed true to a policy of reasonable prices, quality local grape sourcing, and moderate production.
With a strong sense of place and of family, we continue in the garagistes traditions to this day, producing limited production, handcrafted wines from select California vineyards. The next generation of the Taft Street family has joined the founders and we look forward another 30 exciting years.
We continue to live, work and have fun in Sonoma County, and plan on doing so for quite a while.