Skip to main content

Step Into History at Pier 45 in San Francisco

By Alexa Chipman May 25, 2017

On a secluded pier, hidden from the bustle of Pier 39, is a colorful banner indicating “Historic Pier 45” arched across an entrance next to the Musee Mecanique. Behind its cheerful red and blue is a miniature World War II maritime museum, with the liberty ship SS Jeremiah O’Brien and submarine USS Pampanito (SS-383), both primarily independently operated and open for tours with a small fee.

USS Pampanito

USS Pampanito in San Francisco

Built for long-range patrols on the hunt for enemy shipping, Pampanito is a sleek, dangerous boat with the most advanced technology of her time on board—volunteers have scoured the world in an attempt to bring her as close to original specifications as possible, and their attention to detail shows. Forerunners of modern computing are on board—the cypher machine to send and receive encrypted messages, and the Torpedo Data Computer (TDC), which assisted with the complex calculations needed to determine range and firing angle between two constantly moving platforms. This “futuristic” technology was unique to United States submarines, allowing for more accurate firing from a safe distance, protecting crews from going in close where the mostly surface vessel was vulnerable.

USS Pampanito in San Francisco

Despite the name submarine, World War II boats could only run on batteries when submerged, and the men on board would have trouble surviving more than a day, with limited battery power and carbon dioxide poisoning occurring, even using lithium hydroxide powder to coat the decks. If she needed to submerge quickly, it was almost instantaneous—any men on deck had to get below and secure the hatch within 30 seconds. Unfortunately, the conning tower is closed off to the public, which is where the periscope is, but walking through the control room, with its dramatic red lighting, makes it easy to imagine what it was like.

Along with the impressive record of stopping enemy shipping—submarines were 2% of the Navy and destroyed 55%—Pampanito miraculously saved a group of POWs who had been captured early in the war. The men were being transported as labor, after undergoing heinous treatment building the Burma “Death” railway, when the submarine sank the ship they were imprisoned on. The men had given up hope, when Pampanito returned to the area hunting for intel, and happened to discover that the survivors were friendlies. Frank Farmer, the first to be rescued, stated that as the ship sank, his thought was that he knew they were going to die, but at least they would be free. In a highly unusual mission for a submarine, Pampanito called for assistance, and many of the survivors were brought on board to be cleaned up and returned home safely.

USS Pampanito in San Francisco

Pampanito is cramped quarters, and during the beginning of a patrol, every available space was filled with food supplies, including the showers. Before you think it was romantic being on board, remember that you would be “hot bunking” with multiple people sharing the same bed in constant oppressive heat with terrible hours, and if you pressed the wrong button, everyone could be killed. It wasn’t all bad—submariners were volunteers who passed rigorous training. They wanted to be there, and they were the best at what they did, forming close comradery. The food was amazing, with ice cream, sizzling french fries, and a baker on board who did nothing but make cookies, rolls, and fresh bread for the crew. Most of the men aboard grew up during the Great Depression, and that sort of treatment was a luxury. To this day, having fabulous meals available is a highlight of the submarine service.

If you go on a tour, ask for the audio—relevant clips of interviews and explanatory background of the vessel help put each area in context.

Daily 9:00 a.m. to varying
(Phone 415.775.1943 to find out when it closes on the day you plan to visit)
Visit the website

SS Jeremiah O’Brien

Jeremiah O’Brien has been a fixture in San Francisco bay for as long as I can remember. During the 1940s, the harbor was a hubbub of activity for the war effort, with liberty ships being churned out in massive assembly lines from Richmond. Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo was at its peak, with constant traffic going through for research, repair and shipbuilding. With veterans from World War II becoming difficult to find, their stories are fading; being able to go aboard and see what life was like in a tactile way is not only exciting, but imperative to preserve their history.

Still in operating condition, Jeremiah O’Brien, affectionately known as “Jerry,” still goes on tours of the bay—from relaxing afternoon cruises with wine tasting to an up close view of the famous Fleet Week, when modern US Navy ships arrive in the bay along with an air show from the Blue Angels. She was launched in 1943 and carried supplies and troops during the war, until joining the Reserve Fleet in Suisun Bay, where she languished until 1979, when volunteers saved her from being scrapped.

After being lovingly restored, she was able to participate in the 50th Anniversary of D-Day. Currently she is the only operational liberty ship in its original state, and clambering aboard is quite an experience—a tribute to the those who built and maintained her. Be sure to visit the engine room on Steaming Weekends to see her in action, but it does get loud!

Daily 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Visit the website

Where to Eat

Bistro Boudin in San Francisco

Being right next to Pier 39 means that the options are wide open, from budget friendly, albeit dodgy, roadside grills to gourmet dining. I prefer getting away from the crowds, which can be over-the-top even during the off season. If you can wade your way through the lower area and past the baking demonstration windows, I recommend Bistro Boudin. Walk up the staircase, following signs to their museum, and concierge will take it from there.

The bistro has a wide, open floor plan with sleek design and an industrial flare. Unlike the mayhem below, their elegant seating tends to be quieter, with a spectacular view of the bay, including Pier 45. Their menu is primarily seafood, as to be expected, with a wine list of local favorites that pair well with the offered dishes. They have a wide range of cocktails available, also leaning toward signatures that are light and refreshing with fish, like the Moscow Mule. I was impressed not only with the level of service, but presentation and taste. The bread provided as appetizer is delicious, and they offer an annual bread club that is rather like a wine club, only each month you receive a specially baked loaf.

Daily 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
(Will vary during Fleet Week)
Visit the website

Visiting Pier 45 is an educational and intriguing experience, with plenty to do in the surrounding area. If you do plan on visiting, try to arrive before 8:30am in order to find parking, otherwise take public transit. Don’t be in a hurry when you leave—it can take awhile to ease your way out through the traffic.

Modern Winemaking Techniques from Around the World

By Alexa Chipman May 21, 2017

There is an inherent prejudice against advancing winemaking technology, since it is a field that is steeped with history and carefully curated handcrafting of the perfect product. Techniques are handed down through generations of vintners and winemakers, and they work well—but what if the process could be improved? Why should we continue to make the same mistakes, just because it was done by previous generations? Innovators from around the world are questioning age old customs, trying to streamline and improve traditional methods.

New Zealand Vineyard

New Zealand & Australia

If your first reaction to seeing a screwtop bottle is revulsion at buying cheap wine, think again. Cork rot regularly causes loss of good wine, and can easily contaminate a bottle—it may not be obvious early on, but a flaw in the wood will affect the end result, causing you to open a bottle and find that it is undrinkable, or has had its flavor severely impacted. While its affect on aroma is still being debated, bottling wine with screwtops has been common practice for some time.

When touring New Zealand or Australian wine country, ask what their experience has been, and the challenges they face trying to overcome American snobbery regarding this modern bottling technique. Some Austrialian wineries have to do a separate run of corked bottles, just to ship to the United States, whose wine drinkers are suspicious of screwtops.

South Africa

Wyness Vineyards, in Stellenbosch Valley near Cape Town, recently experimented with using a culinary gadget known as the “Disruptor” to speed up the process of crush. According to Roy Henderson, who helped develop it at Green Cell Technologies, “without using harmful heat or chemicals, the process uses grapes to generate nutrient-rich emulsions” that break down components at a cellular level, releasing additional flavor.

While it may sound too technological for a hands-on process like winemaking, Ryan Wyness believes it will help certain cultivars who need assistance with maximum extraction in geographic locations that struggle to produce tannins. “These areas can now increase those aspects without adding anything to the wine.”

Visit Wyness Vineyards on Facebook
Quoted from “An Experiment in Making Wine” by permission of Alex J. Coyne

Loxton Wine Cellars in Sonoma


Loxton Cellars is located in Sonoma wine country, surrounded by spectacular scenery. With a background in physics and several generations of growers from South Australia, Chris Loxton is unafraid of trying new techniques in the winemaking process. He is experimenting with different types of barrels that are designed to be larger, with practical upgrades to make the crush safer and more efficient, such as hooks to add ladders that prevent slippage.

For hundreds of years, French oak barrels were chosen based on location—what forest they are from—but a newer concept is to group them by the amount of tannins they bring out in the wine. For example, inherently tannic grapes would likely be paired with a low tannin barrel, and visa versa. This will revolutionize the aging process, and allow for more predictable results.

Chris Loxton is a personable wealth of knowledge; if you visit Sonoma wine country, be sure to stop by for the Loxton “Walkabout” tours, where he explains in depth about the technical side of winemaking—how what weeds are growing in a field will give insight into the soil content and how to treat the grapes, what to look for during bud break, and on through the entire process of harvest to bottling. His wine is luscious and smooth, meant for multiple glasses, rather than a roundkick of oak and tannic flavor that you often find in Napa.

Hours: Daily 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Walkabout Tour on weekends at 10:30 a.m. with reservation
Location: 11466 Dunbar Road, Glen Ellen CA

Eric Ross Winery

Eric Ross is a Haven of First-Rate Wine

By Alexa Chipman May 13, 2017

Tucked along scenic Arnold Drive in Glen Ellen is a snug, rustic tasting room. It may not have an impressive building, but its wine certainly is. Its interior is filled with comfortable couches and distinctive rooster symbol scattered about the room, referencing an incident early in the winery’s history, when the forklift was moving from the barn to crush pad and nearly collided with a rooster, causing quite a flurry of squealing brakes and hilarity. The rooster’s image can now be found in the logo and on bottle labels.

Eric Ross Winery

Eric Ross, who fully bought out the winery about nine years ago and has been working with the current tasting room managers even longer, was a photographer with the San Francisco Chronicle who found himself documenting wineries, and became fascinated with that world. After attending UC Davis, he now dedicates himself entirely to winemaking, although you can see some of his photography in the tasting room and on Silver Image labels.

During his time as a photo journalist, Ross discovered gems of small vineyards that he now calls upon when finding grapes to work with for the winery’s limited runs. One of the advantages of working in that manner is that if a harvest is not up to his standards, there is no obligation to produce the wine; for example, this year has no rosé— the grapes were not of high enough quality. He enjoys experimenting with the signature Eric Ross blends, such as Struttin’ Red, which might be Portuguese style one year, and primarily Zinfandel the next.

Tasting Room managers Dennis and Diane Mitchell cultivate a cozy atmosphere. I had car trouble while I was visiting, and they were incredibly helpful and supportive—this is not a tasting room that sees you as a potential credit card transaction, they care about their visitors and are a joy to interact with. Next time you are going through Glen Ellen, be sure to stop by.

Eric Ross Winery

Tasting notes:

Albarino, Lodi 2014
Violets and tangerine aroma touch the senses with this refreshing, well balanced wine. It has enough intensity to bring flavor without becoming bitter, with a touch of strawberry to it. Stainless steel fermentation was used.

Struttin’ White, 2014
A blend of Albarino with Muscat Canelli, it has a tropical flavor with mangos and peaches. The dry Muscat interacts for a brisk, not overly sweet white wine. Stainless steel fermentation was used.

Pinot Noir, Russian River 2013
This distinctive wine wafts its powerful burnt toast and smoke aroma with such intensity that I found myself wondering if there was a campfire nearby. It brought back memories of marshmallows and family vacations. If you think Pinot Noir is an uninteresting, overused wine, you haven’t tried this one. It is French oak barrel aged. I noticed a slight smoke edge to the Struttin’ Red as well, it appears to be an emphasis in Eric Ross wine, that I find delightful.

Tempranillo, Lodi 2012
The first thing that struck me was the color, which is a rich violet ruby in the glass. This satisfying, dark wine is multi layered with blackberry and molasses. It has a light touch on the tannins, without puckering the entire mouth. This is an ideal table wine, and used a combination of American and French oak barrels.

Struttin’ Red Port, 2013
Butterscotch lingers into a floral aftertaste with this classic after dinner port. It is luscious and sweet without becoming a thick syrup—just the right level of dessert style finish to it.

OVZ Zinfandel Port, Dry Creek Valley 2011
This port has depth to it with a tangerine, hazelnut feel that is dryer than what I am used to. It caresses with sweetness, rather than rushing into it, and is worth taking the time to savor.

Daily 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Location: 14300 Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen CA