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.”