When Frank Kennedy first spoke of opening a winery on Vallejo’s Mare Island, people told him he was nuts. Mainly accessible by drawbridge, the area was better known as a defunct US Navy base, rather than the hotspot for new homes and businesses as it’s known today. Plus, many wondered how a wine tasting room could compete with the nearby Napa Valley, an internationally known attraction for wine lovers.
That was roughly 18 months ago. Now, more than 10,000 customers later, Kennedy and his business partner, Twila Nixon, seem like trailblazers. Their winery and Mare Island tasting room, known as Vino Godfather, was set up in October of 2015. Though their last names might suggest they’d get along about as well as a couple cats in a bag, Nixon and Kennedy have worked together to build Vino Godfather into a local favorite. Their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. In fact, there are whispers that several wineries––as well as a distillery––are looking to follow suit and set up tasting rooms on the island.
“I’d love to see a whole winery row here, where people can go from winery to winery,” Nixon said.
The success of Vino Godfather––as well as the nearby Mare Island Brewing Company––may have opened the door for the possibility of a wine and restaurant boom on the island, but not just sellers of intoxicating beverages are setting up shop there. For years, Vallejo relied on the Navy base as its lifeblood, and the local economy struggled to recuperate after the base closed its doors. However, Mare Island––which now has Touro University, an athletic center, a prefab home business, and much more––seems to be testing new waters. The last three years have seen an increasing number of new business applications on the island, and the Solano County Department of Transportation has talked about expanding freight service there as well.
“There is a revival going on here,” Kennedy said. “It’s fun to be a part of it. We bring people in from all over the place, not just Solano County.”
Before Kennedy was known for Vino Godfather, he was known for the wine it now provides––released four years before Vino Godfather’s opening––called Prohibition Wines. The name is a tribute to Kennedy’s ancestors, whom he said, “did a little bit of bootlegging” during the Prohibition Era. Kennedy, following in his family’s footsteps, spent 20 years working in the business. He started working on Prohibition Wines in 2008, years before the first batch was released.
Now, Kennedy and Nixon have teamed up with longtime Bay Area winemaker Warren Smith, who heads production at Vino Godfather. The winery is planning to fill thousands of bottles this year, and it recently signed a contract for distribution with Costco. Kennedy said he thinks their success is dependent on their ability to consistently produce high quality wine.
“We want to put the best wines we can in the bottle,” Kennedy said. “We use real corks so you can get bottle aging—we don’t skimp on anything.”
It took months for Nixon and Kennedy to build Vino Godfather’s tasting room, which is located at the former home of a US Navy commander. The building is one of several historical mansions on the island. Trees surround it, and Roman-style pillars hold up the porch. Visit the tasting room, and you might hear some Frank Sinatra, or notice plaques commemorating the Godfather film series as you order your wine. The porch is furnished with fluffy couches, and folks are encouraged to come by with takeout food, sit on the porch, and enjoy a glass of wine and the summer breeze.
“It’s beautiful out here, and you’re totally protected,” Nixon said, while sitting on the porch during a sunny afternoon in early March. “People will come out here when it rains and watch the rain for hours.”
They also do what they can to preserve Vallejo’s history: the walls are covered with pictures of old navy boats, including one that transported an atomic bomb during World War II. Behind each picture, there is a story where Vallejo history and US history intersect. Like what has happened with the Mare Island Brewing Company, customers at Vino Godfather occasionally offer to bring in their historical artifacts or photos for display.
“One of our clients is a navy historian, and actually grew up in one of the homes around here,” Kennedy said. “We became good friends with him and when we told him we’d love to turn this room into a historical room, he gave us all these pictures. They’re wonderful.”
Vino Godfather’s wines are priced around $20-25 a bottle. Nixon and Kennedy have recently started a wine club as well. The club offers a discount of three purchases a year––typically coming out to around a case of wine, according to Kennedy.
“We’re priced right, we’re not pricing ourselves out of the market,” Kennedy said. “We aren’t catering to people who pay $100. We want people to be able to drink our wines all the time, not just on special occasions.”
Vino Godfather has year-round events, and they kick it up a notch during spring and summer. On Saturdays, the winery hosts live music events on an outdoor stage, adjacent to the island tasting room. They offer two glasses of wine, and food that is provided by a local cafe for a $15 entrance fee.
Vino Godfather’s tasting room is located at 500 Walnut Avenue on Mare Island (the closest cross street is Kansas Street), across from the VA Clinic at the first mansion on Mansion Row. Its hours are 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, noon to 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, noon to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. On Saturdays, they also have live entertainment, and pizza that’s cooked in a brick oven outside. For more information, call (707) 552-2331 or visit them on the web at: www.vinogodfather.com.
Nate Gartrell grew up in Benicia, studied journalism in college, and has written for a handful of media outlets since age 15. He aspires to visit all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums and to hit the trifecta at the horse track.