Living so close to Vallejo, us Benicians are familiar with Mare Island. You probably know that it was the first Naval base on the west coast, established in 1854. You probably also know that it was decommissioned in 1996 and that it has since been slowly re-purposed with zoning for residential and business use, and its historic architecture and unique layout has been used as sets for movies and TV shows. Now, the island’s business owners are opening their doors to tourists from all over, thanks in part to a collective effort called The Wet Mile.
Initiated by the minds at Mare Island Brew Co. Coal Shed Brewery, The Wet Mile is a cooperative effort of Mare Island makers which, in addition to the brewery, currently includes craft distillery Savage and Cooke, Mare Island Art Studios, Vino Godfather Winery, and Ferry Street Wine and Spirits. It’s a weekly happening, every Sunday from noon to 4pm, where visitors are welcomed to stroll the streets of Mare Island and sample what its makers have to offer.
We decided to try out the full experience for ourselves.
While there is no set-in-stone “start” to The Wet Mile, we decided to go by the numerically coded map on The Wet Mile website. This put us starting at Savage and Cooke, the craft whiskey distillery. Savage and Cooke offers a standard tasting of three of their most popular whiskeys, Second Glance, Burning Chair, and Lip Service, for $15/person, as well as a facility tour for $40/person with some additional reserve tastings. We had the pleasure of a private tour with Steven Nagy, who told us all about the history of the distillery and the building it is housed within – including showing us a glimpse inside one of their private tasting rooms, which was once a bunker for classified documents during WWII. He also showed us their stills and explained their distillation process. We caught a glimpse at their private event space, and got a little inside scoop on the owner and his collection of artifacts that furnish the vast building. At the time that I am writing this, Savage and Cooke has a plan in the works to open a restaurant onsite and to begin offering craft cocktails.
Next, we headed to the place that started The Wet Mile: Mare Island Brewing Company’s Coal Shed Brewery. If you’re familiar with Mare Island Brew Co. from the Vallejo ferry building, you guessed it, this is where they make their beer. While their Ferry Taproom is open every day, their Coal Shed Brewery is only open on Sunday afternoons – hence the invention of The Wet Mile to drive foot traffic. If you’re not familiar with Mare Island Brew Co., they have a number of tasty brews, all of which are named with a nod to some piece of Mare Island Naval Shipyard history. The Coalshed Brewery offers a reduced food menu compared with the full menu at the taproom across the river, has a larger seating area and outdoor patio, and more games. It also offers a facility tour with tour guide Frenchie (sometimes the founders themselves will also give tours), who not only gave us insight to the brewing process, but also a hefty dose of Mare Island history. The Coal Shed Brewery is also where brewery club members, or “Yardbirds,” get to experience release parties, as well as other special members-only events.
At this point, we were ready for a bit of a walk.
So, we headed to Mare Island Art Studios. Founded in 1999 and formerly known as Coal Shed Art Studios, this collective of artists moved out of the coal sheds in 2018, as the site was slated for renovations, and now reside on Pintado Street. Mare Island Art Studios provides art and gallery space to 19 Bay Area local artists. The studios are open to the public during The Wet Mile, so you can wander in and view the exhibit currently on display in the gallery, check out works in progress by the artists, and chat with any of the artists onsite that day. We stumbled upon Orna Pascal, generally a quilter and paper artist, who graciously gave us a tour of the studios and introduced us to some works she and her colleagues have done. Each of the artists have their preferred media and subjects. We saw everything from pottery, to classic car art, to an animatronic-computer-face. Artists occasionally offer classes to the public and, while the collective isn’t currently accepting new members, there is an application process online for those who are interested. Applications are collected and reviewed when a new spot becomes available.
From the art studio, we ventured onward to Vino Godfather Winery.
Housed in a historic general’s mansion, Vino Godfather features a unique ambiance in addition to their award-winning wine. We spoke with Tom, who told us a little about the history of Vino Godfather while he poured us tastings of some of the winery’s most popular offerings. We also spoke to a few Vino Godfather enthusiasts, including Kent Knight, who was happy to share fun facts he had learned about the building: everything from the location of prohibition hideaways, to how the servant call system worked, to stories of alleged ghost activity in the old mansion. We were encouraged to wander through the house and take in the original features. The winery presents live music most Saturdays for a cover fee – events that take place in their spacious backyard lot when weather allows, and inside the tasting room when the season is less favorable. Wine club members are invited to these live shows and other special events for free.
We found it difficult to leave the charming scene at Vino Godfather, but our time on The Wet Mile was coming to a close. The final location was Ferry Street Wine and Spirits, a retail shop where we could purchase some of the wares we tasted on our journey. Located right next to Savage and Cooke, it was, conveniently, also where we had left our car (don’t worry, we had a designated driver).
If you’re at all interested in Naval history, or are simply looking for a unique way to spend a Sunday afternoon, I highly encourage you to visit Mare Island. The establishment of “The Wet Mile” alone has successfully drawn more people to the island, generating a buzz about the possibilities for its future. All the vendors we spoke to on our journey assured us that big things are starting to happen on the island, but also expressed an enthusiasm, and almost a sense of duty to preserve and pay homage to the rich history of the one-time Naval base. We look forward to seeing what’s next for this historic site.