When you ask San Francisco Bay Area residents about Livermore, you’ll get two responses frequently: it’s hot and there are windmills. Oh, and it’s really far away from everything Bay Area. As a nearly lifelong Bay Area resident, that’s what I’ve always thought to be correct. Although I knew that grapes grew in Livermore.
Except in Livermore those famous windmills are really the Altamont Pass Wind Farm, one of the largest of its kind in the world. While somewhat distant, those winds do provide a cooling influence on the vineyards of Livermore Valley, one of the West Coast’s most overlooked wine-growing and wine-making regions.
Indeed, it’s hot in the summer. And the windmills figure prominently on the horizon or when driving past town towards Tahoe. From San Francisco it’s just an hour at the right departure time, essentially the same as to Napa or Healdsburg. From San Jose it’s much shorter at barely a half hour.
During a summer visit, people at tasting rooms told me they came from the Central Valley, Sunnyvale (the Peninsula) and the city of San Francisco. It’s not exactly an isolated wine region like Anderson Valley or even Paso Robles. Visitors taste from all over the Bay Area and Northern California.
Prior to this visit I knew about wine from Livermore but only as cheap table wine. They certainly did not register as wines that could be on par with the Bay Area’s heavyweights in Napa, Sonoma or the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Wente Chardonnay was served to me five years ago on Delta Airlines, so that did obscure my opinion with visions of those little screw top bottles on economy class. It just doesn’t scream quality when served in plastic cups in those back of the plane seats. While Wente is the big winery in the area, they are not the status quo these days. It’s an appellation of careful wine-making and vineyard management from a vast majority of small labels.
Livermore Valley Wine History and Terroir
Wine is definitely not new to these parts. The first vines were planted in the 1840’s. James Concannon founded his namesake winery in 1883. C.H. Wente founded his namesake winery in, yes, 1883. Those are still the two nationally known names in these parts but the Livermore Valley now has over 50 wineries. Most of these wineries aren’t known outside of an extremely small bubble in the Bay Area but the impressive roster makes choosing tasting rooms to visit a challenge.
The heat is obvious when you look at the numbers: in the summer highs average 85 degrees but easily can hit 100. But be aware this is the Bay Area after all which means cool breezes from the Bay and the Pacific Coast all year. So even in the summer when it’s 98 degrees at 3 pm in Livermore, bring a light sweater at night for the wind and post-sunset cool-off.
Outside of the constant sun year-round and Pacific marine and San Francisco Bay influences of wind and fog, Livermore’s well-drained gravel soil gives the grapes the key nutrients to develop their character. Some vineyards sport soils with sand and/or loam.
Livermore Valley Vs. Napa Valley
The town of Livermore is just under 85,000 residents and lies in a spacious valley between the Altamont Pass and the Central Valley to the east and Mission Pass and Vaca Mountains separating the Bay Area’s flat lands to the west.
The main difference of Livermore Valley with Napa Valley, its closest Bordeaux- inspired region, is that the valley runs east to west and is at a higher elevation ranging mostly between 500 and 1000 feet. In total, the Livermore Valley AVA runs 18 miles east to west, 25 miles north to south and features 4,000 acres of vines in a total of 259,000 acres.
So, it’s not densely packed with vines everywhere you look. Along the main stretch of Livermore Avenue and then becoming Tesla Road (no, not THAT Tesla), it does seem like there’s nothing but tasting rooms and vines (eventually it becomes the renowned Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory). But it’s a small, tightly packed area a good two miles south and southwest of Livermore’s charming, Old West-evoking downtown.
Eating in Livermore
Two of the best restaurants in town are at the aforementioned legendary wineries. Underdog Wine Bar at Concannon is a great pre or post-tasting small plates spot and the garden surroundings are nothing short of perfectly manicured-charming. If you’re there in the summer, there is a superb caprese. Anytime of year get a charcuterie board. You bet Concannon wines are poured but so are a number of local wines like Page Mill’s Sauvignon Blanc.
Bay Area residents have known for a long time about The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards. Chef Matt Greco comes to Livermore by way of several well-known New York establishments like Café Boulud and A Voce. Dinner might start with steamed Prince Edward Island mussels in a yuzu and Champagne- based broth followed by duck with grilled sweet and sour cabbage. For 25 years, summer concerts have been marquee events at Wente as well.
Continuing to eat closer to town, Casse-Croute is the classic French bakery it seems every major wine region has, proving nothing pairs better with a wine tasting afternoon than an immaculately flaky pain au chocolat start. More casual Livermore spots like the excellent Southern Thai cooking at Lanna Thai (with “dude food” creations like Thai poutine and non-alcoholic chicken dumpling shooters) and El Sacromente’s Mexican cooking are good names to know. For tacos, consider Tequila’s Taqueria (curiously, no Tequila is served).
The nearby community of Fremont might be known as “Little Kabul” but Livermore’s De Afghanan’s kebabs are possibly superior to any restaurant over the hill. And also being part of the “Tri-Valley Region,” take note of Pleasanton. It doesn’t have just a utopian name but also wonderful Cajun cooking at Voodoo Kitchen. When you’re tired of wine, if at all possible, have a hoppy break tasting at Altamont Beer Works, a Livermore craft brewery located in your classic non-descript office park.
The Wines and Wineries
There isn’t a wine style or variety that just screams as Livermore’s signature. It’s not the next Burgundy or the next Bordeaux but there are major elements of both. There’s a little Sancerre. A little Marlborough. A touch of Chinon. Even some Paso Robles, a fellow California region also not along the coast.
McGrail Vineyards and Winery
But there is one wine that unequivocally represents Livermore. That’s the Cabernet Sauvignon from Mark Clarin of McGrail Vineyards and Winery. It’s routinely an award winner in Northern California, deservedly competing and defeating the best of Napa head to head—and at fraction of the cost.
The 2011 vintage isn’t a brute force Cabernet expression like so many of it peers. Its dense and mature with leather, cinnamon and a little bit of dark, wrinkled fruit, balancing powerful yet soft tannins with a smooth finish. It’s a plush wine, definitely not rustic or heavy.
We’ll get more to Petite Sirah and Sauvignon Blanc in a few moments with two wineries that particularly soar with those grapes. McGrail has winners with both, though. The 2013 Sauvignon Blanc opens with a nice minerality before shifting towards notes of tropical fruit and a creamy texture—it’s a big version for the usually tense, tart grape. The 2011 Casa de Vinas Petite Sirah recalls strawberry jam and barbeque together. It’s a very fickle grape, McGrail explained to me, that loves intense heat and also loves to rot quickly. It’s also lovely on its own rather than just being termed a blending grape as often is the case. A beautiful golden 2012 Chardonnay that showed more oak on the nose than palate and the 2008 Proprietary Red that really is 100% Merlot with a distinct raspberry nose and acidic, sweet red fruit notes round out the line-up.
I also had the privilege of sampling young 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon in barrel, one with all French oak, the other with all American oak. Both are clearly raw and puckery but at good fruit stages. You can tell they’re on their way again to that balanced style the 2011 vintage presents.
3 Steves Winery
After McGrail’s Cabernet Sauvignon, the second most notable and celebrated wine from the Valley is 3 Steves Winery’s Cienega Valley Ancient Vine Zinfandel. Its 2011 vintage won the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition’s ‘Best of Show’ this year. I can see why. The grapes actually hail from Hollister, south of San Jose, from vines planted in 1905. It’s a relaxed wine that frankly seems young with sage and cracked pepper on the back bone. All of the heat and body of the wine stay compact and in the end it’s eminently refreshing while remaining tremendously complex.
The 2012 3 Cabs blend with 94% Cabernet Pfeiffer, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 1% Cabernet Franc is intense of green pepper and cayenne pepper: racy, zesty and polarizing no doubt. That is not a misprint. Indeed, 94% Cabernet Pfeiffer, a crazy and exciting grape. The 2013 Livermore Chardonnay is energetic and presents good fruit but doesn’t shy from the oak. 3 Steves is really onto something with a very pleasant Brut sparkler from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. I also sampled in barrel some good structured Cabernet Franc on its own and some Cabernet Sauvignon on its own, both showing promise for five years from now.
So, about the “Steves”…there is no catch. There are indeed three Steves. The winery was created by a trio of friends. Yes, all three are named Steve, though that is not the main reason they became friends I’m told. Steve Burman, Steve Melander and Steve Ziganti met after each individually acquired shares in a struggling winery.
Not everything went to plan (or was conducted ethically by the winery) and after working together on trying to right the ship for the winery, these three men, yes all named Steve, started their own winery with generous help on their recently opened estate from neighbors. Not just with great reds and whites, you’re also rewarded with possibly the area’s most beautiful panoramic views, right next to McGrail on Greenville Road just south of the Tesla Road wineries for an impressive 1-2 punch. The tasting room itself features a bar acquired on-line made from a bowling alley in Colorado, though no using the wine glasses as pins.
Page Mill Winery
Even though we’re an hour away from San Francisco and a half hour from San Jose, there’s a definite connection between Livermore and the Peninsula, the region between those two Bay Area anchor cities. Burman from 3 Steves attended Stanford. Page Mill Road is in Stanford’s backyard but not exactly the backyard of Livermore. After starting on the Peninsula near the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1976, Page Mill Winery left Page Mill Road in 2004 and has been a Livermore staple since.
The winery and tasting room are one of the few pastoral, not flashy venues in the Livermore Valley, especially when compared to nearby Wente and Concannon. Why did Page Mill make the move to Livermore? Real estate prices (this author literally lives steps from their old winery and can vouch how exorbitant real estate prices have become) and space (the winery now makes over double the wine they did in the old space, up to 3,000 cases). Oh, and the terroir acquired in Livermore turned out to different than the Santa Cruz Mountains but far more impressive than they originally thought.
Second generation winemaker Dane Stark’s standouts are the Sauvignon Blanc and GPS. A what, I beg your pardon? That’s right, not a navigational devise. The 2012 Grenache-Petite Sirah-Syrah blend has a beautiful heavy body that follows as both hearty and sleek, full of orange peel, red currant and raspberry, speckled with cinnamon.
Page Mill’s 2013 Ghielmetti Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc is a strong expression of the grape by being loose with purposeful tension where pear contrasts with a light grassy edge. Also note the 2013 Vintner Select Chardonnay aged in 100% new American oak that translates to definite butter notes but is pleasantly subdued by honeydew and ash on the finish. In short, it’s a mix of old and new California Chardonnay styles. Also the 2012 Tazetta Syrah unfurls layers of spice at a not shy 15.2% alcohol level. Fortunately, the alcohol doesn’t equal any sort of burn. Everything is tied together with distinct notes of wood and juniper. You bet this is a natural pork chop pairing.
Steven Kent Mirassou’s Wineries
We’ve gone this far without talking about Pinot Noir. How is this a report on California and no Pinot Noir yet? Well, we’re not on the coast. That means it’s time for Steven Kent Mirassou, the sixth generation of one of the state’s most prominent families in the wine business, to step on stage with his winery—or really portfolios in one brand: Steven Kent Winery, La Rochelle and Lineage. The Steven Kent Winery is mainly Livermore and Cabernet Sauvignon the calling card (the Napa side if you will). La Rochelle’s focus is vineyard-specific Chardonnays and Pinot Noir (the Burgundy side). Lineage is one red wine from five Bordeaux grapes. All in all, Mirassou’s brands produce a reasonable 7,000 barrels.
The main source for the Bordeaux varieties is the aforementioned Ghielmetti Vineyard at Reuss and Tesla Roads in the hills above the Livermore Valley (just keep driving east from all the wineries!). Back west along Tesla Road, the estate Home Ranch Vineyard grows Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and some Barbera. Kent looks to Sonoma County’s Russian River appellation for the unexpected eye-opener of the portfolio, a La Rochelle 2012 Pinot Meunier. It’s light, balances strong fruit with pleasant minerality. It’s a formidable voice for the oft-ignored grape. No wonder Manresa, the famed restaurant in Los Gatos, elected to serve it recently as part of the wine pairings for its tasting menu last year.
But, why on Earth Pinot Meunier you ask? In 2011, the winery struggled with its own fruit because of a bad crop and acquired 12 tons of Pinot Meunier from the famed Saralee’s Vineyard, now property of Kendall Jackson. Usually the winery would produce on a small scale around 100 cases of a niche wine like this but had no choice other than to bottle everything—866 cases in all, two-thirds of which have already been sold. For a good reason. Wine drinkers are on to something.
From the Steven Kent label, a 2013 Lola Sauvignon Blanc strikes with honey on the nose followed by a bright, crisp, pear-forward profile similar to New Zealand styles. The Cabernet Sauvignons are more restrained than typical of Northern California. The 100% bottling called “The Premier” aged in all new French oak presents plum and dried olive notes, while the 2011 Livermore Valley blend is more chewy with notes of un-sweetened oats and dried fruit with a good nudge of oak perking up the lingering finish.
Back on the La Rochelle side by winemaker Tom Stutz, the 2010 Pinot Noir from Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands and a vineyard owned by the well-known wine-making Talbott family strikes with a jewel-like ruby hue leading to a tangy fruit-driven wine with hints of redwood bark and mushroom, in an elegant, silky body. This is superb New World Burgundy. Close to it is the 2009 White Sage also from Santa Lucia Highlands, perhaps slightly less full of savory notes and leaning more to the fruit with a bit less richness to the body.
Unfortunately I didn’t get to try the Lineage from Mirassou but the wine was just given a 94 score for its 2010 vintage by Wine Spectator’s James Laube. Chances are it’s a formidable wine in that case.
None of these first six wineries are remotely what you’d consider “big.” Other new and old small-lot Livermore names to know include Bent Creek, Big White House, Caddis, Charles R, Murrieta’s Well, Retzlaff, and Wood. The valley doesn’t seem to go for the middle ground. It’s personal and boutique-sized— or industry giants.
Livermore Valley’s Giants Deliver
Chances are you’ve had the wines of or certainly heard the names Concannon and Wente. Both wineries still remain in the same families over a century later—Wente on its fourth and fifth generation and Concannon on its fourth generation. They’re big deals at all ends of the wine quality spectrum from mass quantity bottom shelf bottles for grocery chains to some downright special bottlings that command a sum of three figures. There’s a lot in between and they cover pretty much all of those, too. Each winery has both immaculate grounds and gorgeous private tasting rooms. They also both have main tasting rooms not unlike the hysteria of the Louvre’s Mona Lisa room and enormous grape crushing tanks that reminded me of a tour at Budweiser in St. Louis.
Wente Vineyards recently unveiled one of the real charms of the Livermore wine tasting circuit, the Winemakers Studio. One of the hardest parts of starting an affection for wine is that it really is a complicated subject. The chemistry, agriculture, taste profiles, grape differences…it’s not just smashed grapes aged and poured in a glass.
A very good move by Wente to recognize this and use their power and resources on wine education programs like guided tastings (for $10, not your $70 Napa guided tasting), wine aroma seminars and sessions with a winemaker to make your own red or white blends from different vineyards. Plus, they’ve got a bar complete with wine on tap. My schools never had that. Yes, it feels a bit forced and obviously corporate but it’s a good thing to have. Wine doesn’t have to be a secretive, stiff, mysterious tasting notes affair.
Wente boasts both an estate tasting room along the main drag of Tesla Road and a vineyard tasting room coupled with their restaurant. At both you’ll learn about the different wine categories: Estate Grown, Single Vineyard, Small Lot, and The Nth Degree. The final one is the name to keep in mind. On par with La Rochelle’s Pinot Noir, the 2012 Nth Degree Pinot Noir is brilliant, showing careful levity with distinct red fruit and dewy forest. This is a winemaker’s wine and shows all the fresh, balanced forest you hope for from the variety. 2013 Riva Ranch is still young and finding its legs, blasting oak but its heft should calm down and be a strong fish pairing in four years.
At the Winemakers Studio, don’t skip the 2012 Azul Verde (on tap) made by one of the winery’s enologists Elizabeth Kester where all of the dried red fruit qualities of Cabernet Franc get mellowed and strikes at first even as a Pinot Noir with a distinct candied cranberry personality. It’s downright refreshing and different.
Just across the street and exactly the same age, Concannon Vineyard boasts the same name power and size power as Wente. Except Wente tends to be best known for Burgundy varietals, Concannon is synonamous with Petite Sirah. Or as they call it, “The Little Grape That Could.”
Concannon was the first American winery to label a bottle by the variety with its 1961 vintage, released in 1964. I’d love to find the price of it today…of course the Petite Sirah can be enjoyed in the winery’s Reserve and Conservancy lines. It also appears in Assemblage Red Reserve with Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. It’s spicy and quirky presenting a salt and sugar tango of chicken gribenes and cola. A fun wine without question. It made me chuckle and think to myself: “Hey, this works.”
From Santa Barbara comes the 2011 GSM that appears a much brighter red shade than most of its peers and hits its stride with controlled notes of vanilla, cracked pepper and a dash of blueberries. The 2009 Reserve Syrah showed more Rhône strength in the dark fruit direction for the grape than smoky. But what struck me most? A Chardonnay, where the 2013 Reserve showed why the new breed of California Chardonnay is giving the grape its good name again. It’s more mineral driven than buttery, enough oak provides a lush texture and the lychee notes and controlled acidity pushes the wine into a more layered, complex direction. And there are also a host of “selected vineyards” from the Central Coast available usually in the $10-15 range but I find them often in single digits at grocery stores.
Livermore Valley Worthy of the Spotlight
But the image of Livermore being one of California’s second tier—relegated to the bottom shelf—wine regions is no more. Maybe the quality wavered in the 20th century. It’s there now in abundance. Yes, it’s a great region to visit and the windmills never fail to catch your attention. It’s time for Livermore’s wine region to get more attention in the Bay Area and actually be sold around the Bay Area at destination restaurants and wine merchants. After that, hopefully soon, you will be seeing their wines nationwide—and not as cheap stuff on an airplane.