From a typically quiet corner in West Berkeley, inviting music spills from a lively courtyard full of wine lovers. A DJ is spinning jazz records, rustic wine barrels serve as makeshift tables, and many in attendance are sipping on a beverage that’s been making a splash in the artisan food and drink scene—chilled natural wine.
Hammerling Wines, which helps host this monthly event with three other wineries, specializes in sparkling natural wine, and it’s popular on a hot, late summer day like this one—with many nursing (and some chugging) glasses of the bubbly concoction.
Lou Bustamente, a Vallejo resident and first timer at the event, officially dubbed the Gilman Wine Block Party, made the trip to Berkeley after trying a Hammerling Wine in Vallejo. He said the sparkling variety is his “desert island wine.”
“It’s good for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Bustamente said between chuckles. “You can have it all day long!”
Other natural wineries involved are Donkey & Goat, Broc Cellars and Vinca Minor, all of which conveniently operate within a block of each other around Fifth and Gilman streets in Berkeley. Driven by their proximity and shared approach to wine-making, the quartet has been hosting this post-COVID iteration of the block party every first Friday of the month since 2021 in the large courtyard between Donkey & Goat and Hammerling.
“There’s a lot of nice synergies of having a bunch of wineries together,” said Jared Brandt, founder of Donkey & Goat. “We want to all do this as a team to get people in the neighborhood out, and I think all of us want to support each other.”
The First Friday Gilman Wine Block Party originally dates back to 2016, and was the idea of former Donkey & Goat employee Erin Callahan. At the time, Donkey & Goat and Broc Cellars were the only wineries occupying the block, and business was slower than it is today. As a way to get more foot traffic and build bridges in the community, Callahan used her interest in and connections to Berkeley’s music and art scene to bring people together in the courtyard for First Fridays.
“I was inspired to meld my worlds of wine and music events, as well as bringing in art, in order to inspire people that might not come out for the wine, but maybe they would come out for the music and have a glass of wine,” she said.
Natural wine has been steadily growing in popularity. Berkeley is home to some of the earliest purveyors of the funky, unfiltered cousin of traditional wine, labeled “natural” because it is fermented without additives Donkey & Goat pre-dates the natural wine movement, according to Brandt, who learned to make wine from Éric Texier, considered the “old guard” of natural wine-making. Brandt enjoys making wines that have “as little intervention as possible” and better reflect the terroir, or region, that the wine came from.
In line with the event, which is both casual and elegant, Brandt makes wines that are high quality, but not too serious.
“Wine should be fun to drink at dinner,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be super serious, it doesn’t have to be super fancy, it doesn’t even have to be super expensive.”
Hammerling Wines, which is just across the courtyard from Donkey & Goat, follows a similar philosophy. The founder, Josh Hammerling, spearheaded re-creating the Gilman Wine Block event after the initial COVID-19 lockdown. In 2021, he submitted paperwork to the city to shut down the street and create a laid-back atmosphere for cooped-up Berkeleyans to spend time together and enjoy good food and wine in a safe, outdoor setting. Now, with no social-distancing rules requiring extra space, there are no street closures.
“We’re wanting to create a nice experience with the food and the wine but in a way that doesn’t make anyone feel alienated,” Hammerling said. “You can show up with your dog and flip flops and no one is going to judge you.”
That goal was certainly met at the October installment. Dogs circled at sandaled feet, enjoying pets from passersby. Children spread coloring books out across picnic tables and screamed while parents attempted to keep their precious glasses from spilling.
It was Berkeley resident Julia Beery’s first time at the Gilman Wine Block Party. Her baby son sat atop the table next to her glass of Donkey & Goat’s Pét Nat—a sparkling wine that pre-dates the traditional method of champagne-making, but only became popular in the wine scene in the last five to 10 years. It’s a deep orange color, with a murky, fizzy quality. It looks like a Hefeweizen or a mimosa, but tastes more fermented, like a kombucha.
Beery said she likes drinking funky wines, and will return to the event especially because she’s comfortable bringing her kids.
“I get stressed about whether they’ll be too loud or something,” she said. “But I don’t have to worry about him making noise and I don’t feel like I’m disturbing anyone. It makes it a lot less stressful.”
In addition to the variety of natural wines being served, there was a wide array of food, like fresh raw oysters from the pop-up Shuck Buddy and Palestinian-Cuban fusion from Asúkar. Also, thanks to Hammerling’s affinity for tacos, multiple vendors were serving up unique varieties, like Xulo’s double decker taco, which has a crunchy corn tortilla inside of a homemade flour tortilla.
“Go eat anywhere here and it’s probably the best meal you’ve had in awhile,” said Zachary Becerra, who works with Donkey and Goat and helped restart the event after COVID-19.
Hammerling is well-connected in the food community, and said one of his favorite parts of the event is the creativity and spontaneous collaboration that happens between chefs and winemakers.
“There’s something really cool about being able to bring together all of your friends who are all so talented,” he said. ”It’s a lot of work but I think everybody feels like it’s worth it.”
As the night unfolded, what was once a mellow gathering quickly transformed into a crowded celebration. The jazz tunes from the speakers changed to reggae and hip hop, and the scorching sun dropped in the sky, making way for a cool breeze.
According to Hammerling, more than 1,000 people now come through the event each month, and while its size and popularity have grown over the years, the goal has always been the same—to be with the community and celebrate good food and wine.
“There’s plenty of pretentious things in the Bay Area that are really perfectly dialed, the service is totally on point, but like, that’s not really what we wanted to do,” Hammerling said. “We’re not trying to make money off people, the point is for it to be truly a community event.”
The next First Friday Gilman Wine Block will be Nov. 3.