Many Alamedans have never set foot on the rock wall. It can take an hour or longer to reach the end.
Yes, it’s a winery, but it’s also a hidden landmark for nature lovers and fishermen.
If you say “Alameda rock wall” in Alameda, most residents likely assume you’re talking about the winery. That’s because the Rock Wall Wine Company, housed in a 40,000-square-foot converted airplane hangar at the former Alameda naval air base, is more renowned than the artifact it’s named after—an actual rock wall jutting over a mile into the San Francisco Bay.
“Naming the winery after the rock wall was an homage to our location on the west side of Alameda,” said Shauna Rosenblum, winemaker for Rock Wall Wine Company, explaining the wall, built during World War II to keep potential torpedoes and submarines from reaching the naval fleet, inspired the winery’s moniker. “It is an Alameda landmark.”
Yet many Alamedans—including me, a resident for over 30 years—have seen the rock wall from a boat or ferry but have never set foot on it. I set out to explore it for the first time on a recent Sunday afternoon, inspired by my neighbors, Derrick and Sarah Oldridge, who discovered the rock wall during a leisurely drive around Alameda last year. Now they traverse it regularly for exercise.
Getting there required veering left on an unmarked road off Central Avenue. It was easy to miss and seemed, at first, like an Encinal High School driveway. The road led to an ample parking lot, the Encinal boat ramp, and just past a short section of the Bay Trail, the rock wall—a long and narrow path of rock leading into the water.
The wall starts off paved, like a sidewalk barely wide enough for two people to stand on side by side. At about 1,000 feet, the cement coating disappears, requiring visitors to negotiate a jagged, uneven surface riddled with cracks. From there, it can take an hour or longer to reach the end at a careful pace.
On my initial visit with my husband and 6-year-old daughter, the warm weather was ideal for taking in the panoramic view of the Bay Area and some prime fishing. A few fishermen had staked out sections of the wall for themselves. Choosing to remain anonymous, they said they grew up in Alameda but now live in Orinda, Hayward, and Oakland.
David, a former Alamedan who now resides in Oakland, was back for the first time in 20 years. Though he had two lines in the water, he said he’d be perfectly happy if he didn’t catch anything, spreading his arms out to indicate the view, the water, and the fresh air.
Like David, other fishermen that day said they don’t make it back to the wall very often, though they wish they could. “Life gets busy,” Fred said. “I have kids, a job. This is my first time fishing here all year.” With two jacksmelt in his bucket, he aimed to go home with at least six fish.
One thing they all had in common was tradition: They all had started fishing there when they were children, some as father-son teams, and that childhood nostalgia drives their return.
For my second trip, Crab Cove supervising naturalist James Frank accompanied me. Frank explained that the rocks are a protective habitat. The nooks and crannies provide hiding places for seaweed, plankton, and other life to grow. These provide sustenance for a wide array of fish, including anchovies, topsmelt, rockfish, bat rays, sharks, sturgeon, and striped bass, the larger fish feeding on the small. The fish then attract shorebirds and harbor seals.
“It’s a habitat for the whole food chain,” Frank said, as we set off on a walk to the wall’s end. Chatty and enthusiastic, Frank hopped across the wall at a quick pace, pointing out a world of wonders along the way.
In the shallows, we found rows of rockweed with air sacs that reach up for the sunlight, a pile of sea hare eggs that resemble white spaghetti string, sea sponge clinging to seaweed, and a school of anchovies feasting on planktonic skeleton shrimp, whose bodies formed brown clouds in the water. Barnacles clung to the rocks themselves, and rock lice scuttled. The remnants of crustaceans and even a chicken bone lay smashed, a gull’s or perhaps a seal’s snack. Out in the water, a single loon bobbed. From the air, pelicans checked in regularly, and Caspian terns that nest nearby at Alameda Point kept a wary watch. Rockfish and jacksmelt seemed to be the catch of the day, as two fishermen reeled them in within minutes of each other.
“It’s tough to live in an urban place when hunting and fishing are misunderstood by the majority of the people,” Frank said, with an eye on the fishermen. Frank is used to complaints from residents who worry that fishing bay waters harms the environment. As long as the fish are harvested legally, however, he said he does not see it as an issue.
“The East Bay was built on farms. Before the cities, and even before European settlement, with the Ohlone people, [the water and the land] provided a heritage of food and agriculture that fed the masses.”
Frank pointed out that many of the fishermen who come to the rock wall are feeding their friends, families, and communities with their catch. Any fish, regardless of where it’s from, can be high in toxins, but fish consumption studies have found that there are many healthy options from the bay.
“The smelt run in December to January, but you can catch them here year-round. They are a good option, because they are plankton eaters at the bottom of the food chain, with low toxins. It doesn’t destroy the environment to fish them,” Frank said. “Some people can’t afford to pay for fish from the other side of the planet at Whole Foods.”
During the herring run in the winter, he said, he has seen up to 20 small boats in the water at a time and everyday fishermen pulling up their legal limit of 200 pounds of herring in one day with their cast nets.
“It lasts about two weeks in January or February, when the herring come to spawn. It’s a smorgasbord for everything, with the birds eating the herring eggs, the harbor seals and sea lions chasing the fish, and the fishing fleets in the water.”
While the herring are good for frying, smoking, or pickling, as Frank did with a catch last year, many of the fishermen also freeze them for bait and use them to lure halibut in the summer.
Having grown up in a coastal urban town back east, Frank said his background as a fisherman from a young age impacted his desire to become a naturalist and educate people about the environment. “I find that the people who appreciate the resource the most are the ones who use it. It’s all part of a system I am a part of. I want to see it well managed and well maintained.” Decades old, the rock wall has changed little, if at all, from the time it was built, and has come to be a reliable local habitat and landmark. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife considers the rock wall a public pier, so no fishing license is needed.
“We really liked the concept of reaching back into history to make a connection to the location where we currently make wine,” Shauna Rosenblum said later. “The fact that wine can last for decades just furthers the conceptual excitement that our children might be drinking some Rock Wall wine in 2050, and the name references something from more than 100 years ago.”