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Red, White, and GOOD

Livermore's new, bigger, and better wine country is making a splash


If you haven’t visited the Livermore Valley lately, you’re overdue for some great wine tasting. In the past few years, new vines have been planted, new wineries have opened, old ones have reinvented themselves, and the wines have improved—dramatically.

Some of the recent changes are easy to spot: Concannon’s renovated vineyards along Tesla Road and the resurrection of the old Ruby Hill property as the new Mitchell Katz, for instance.

Others are less obvious but more important. A decade ago, a tasting trip through Livermore would turn up an occasional wine that was, well, eccentric. Amateurish. Not ready for prime time. That’s no longer true. Livermore wines across the board are now quite drinkable, and several easily hold their own against well-known bottles from that other Wine Country up north.

The Livermore Valley is a unique wine country experience. It offers a quirky mix of mom-and-pop operations and state-of-the-art players making space for themselves among the tract houses on some of the most historically important vineyard dirt in California. The vibe is refreshingly relaxed and personal—you just might get your glass filled by the winemaker herself.

This is a guide to the cream of the Livermore winery crop: the innovators, the overachievers, the veterans who’ve stepped up their game, and some talented new kids on the block. Take a look. You might be surprised at what you find.

The heart of Livermore Valley wine country is the three-mile stretch of Tesla Road that locals call The Strip. It may not be as long or as gaudy as Napa’s Highway 29, but it offers plenty of ways to tickle your palate, more than its share of colorful characters, and a rich slice of history. We’ll start at the eastern end, farthest from downtown Livermore, and head west.

Cedar Mountain Hail the Cab
7000 Tesla Rd., (925) 373-6636
Mon.–Fri. 11 a.m.–3 p.m., Sat.–Sun. 12–4 p.m.

This is Livermore: Do-it-yourself—and do it right. For 16 years, Cedar Mountain owners Earl and Linda Ault have held down day jobs at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and somehow still found time to tweak everything—the winery, the tasting room, their house—until it’s just right.

They put just as much care into what they put in the bottle, and their Cabernet Sauvignon is top-notch. Earl is fond
of telling people, "You can get Napa-quality wine for 20 bucks. And I’ve got the awards to prove it." Cedar Mountain is one of the few small Livermore Valley producers that sells its wine beyond California’s borders.

Worth the Trip: Bing Crosby used to own the property.

Taste This: Blanches Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, and the fortified dessert wines

Rios-Lovell Wedding Central
6500 Tesla Rd., (925) 443-0434
ed.–Fri. 11 a.m.–3 p.m., Sat.–Sun. 11 a.m.–5 p.m.

Your first thought at seeing Rios-Lovell may not be wine. The architecture is more wedding cake than chateau, and that’s the idea. Small startup wineries usually have trouble getting noticed, so Max Rios and Katy Lovell have made hosting events a priority.

Inside at the tasting bar, you’ll discover that Rios-Lovell is a lifestyle winery that also happens to make darn good wine. The estate-grown vintages pull in dozens of awards every year. It’s the icing on the cake.

Worth the Trip: a glass in a gazebo

Taste This: Sangiovese and Petite Sirah

Wente Vineyards The Godfathers
5565 Tesla Rd., (925) 456-2305
Daily 11 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

Walk into the Wente tasting room, and you’re in the big time: A flock of staff welcomes a steady stream of visitors, and sells a broad range of wines as well as merchandise, from decanters to picnic supplies. Don’t look for the trendy and exotic. Wente has always aimed for consistent, straight-ahead varietals, including less-than-$10 Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc as good as any in California.

Carl Wente planted his first 47 acres of vines in 1883, and today, the Wente brand accounts for well over half the wine produced in Livermore. If not for the Wentes, the valley would be housing tracts, not wine country.

Worth the Trip: the most knowledgeable, professional tasting-room staff in the valley

Taste This: the new, upscale, small-lot wines

Steven Kent/Tamás Estates One Family, Two Faces
5443 Tesla Rd.
Steven Kent, (925) 456-2357

Tamás Estates
(925) 456-2380
Daily noon–4:30 p.m.

Two strikingly different wineries share one parking lot, but they are joined by history as well as asphalt. In the 1980s, a branch of Monterey County’s wine-pioneering Mirassou family relocated to Livermore and founded Ivan Tamás, concentrating on everyday Italian varietals. At the end of the 1990s, the family launched Steven Kent, with a focus on world-class Cabernet Sauvignon. Both wineries are still on track.

Tamás Estates is classic down-home Livermore, with flower-print tablecloths on barrel-top tables and friendly faces offering you a taste.

Just steps away, Steven Kent is très atmospheric: full of barrels and track lighting, a huge wheel of parmesan, and a sleek tasting bar offering wines that compete with anything in the state.

Worth the Trip: Park once, taste twice.

Taste This at Tamás Estates: the Pinot Grigio and Sangiovese, two of the best deals in Livermore

Taste This at Steven Kent: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merrillie Chardonnay, the Vincere "Tuscan" blend

Tesla Road West

Continuing down Tesla Road, you continue to experience the diversity of styles that makes Livermore Valley so enchanting. Along this stretch you’ll visit some of the newer wineries that have been rebuilding the valley’s reputation, which, in the 50 years before Prohibition, rivaled that of any region in California.

Tesla Vintners Farmhouse Foursome
5143 Tesla Rd., (925) 606-9463
Wed.–Sun. 11 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

If not for the shiny new sign, you might think Tesla Vintners was just another attractively restored farmhouse. Instead, behind all those trees and shrubs is Livermore Valley’s first co-op tasting room, home to four local labels. For two fledgling producers—Big White House and Little Valley—the 120-year-old structure provides a public outlet. For Fenestra and Thomas Coyne—established brands with wineries a little off the beaten path (see "Southern Loop," page 86)—it’s a great way to fly the flag on The Strip.

If four wineries aren’t enough to get your attention, the tasting room also serves as a gallery for interesting crafts, a showcase for local artists, and a venue for musical events.

Worth the Trip: the most tasting options per square foot in Livermore

Taste This: Little Valley’s mirth-inducing Raspberry Champagne, Big White House’s Lodi Viognier, and reds from Coyne and FenestraStony

Ridge/Crooked Vine Moving Up (and Out Back)
4948 Tesla Rd. Crooked Vine
(925) 371-8156
Stony Ridge
(925) 449-0458
Thurs.–Sun. 11 a.m.–4:30 p.m. and by appointment

To find the "tasting room" at Stony Ridge/Crooked Vine, you have to wander around back, past the Trio restaurant, and through the trees to a boxy warehouse. It’s more like a tasting space, a corner surrounded by barrels and wine-making gizmos—which means that during harvest time, it’s a pretty lively place.

Stony Ridge, opened in 1975, is the oldest of the "new" Livermore wineries, with a continuing emphasis on Italian grapes; Crooked Vine is its upscale brand committed to small batches of handcrafted wines. Owner Dale Vaughn-Bowen has strengthened both tracks by hiring longtime Concannon winemaker Tom Lane. While the permit process for a new winery building takes its sweet time, visitors get nice and close to the action in the tasting room’s intimate setting around back.

Worth the Trip: a great opportunity to compare well-made everyday wines and special-occasion bottles

Taste This: Zinfandels from both brands, Stony Ridge’s sweet Malvasia Bianca, Crooked Vine’s Viognier

Murrieta’s Well Simply Perfect
3005 Mines Rd., (925) 456-2390
Wed.–Sun 11 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

In this charmed spot, founder Phil Wente (who is also one of the three principals at Wente Vineyards) and Chilean-born consulting winemaker Sergio Traverso have demonstrated, year after year, a sure hand with blended wines that show what Livermore can do.

The property was first farmed by Livermore pioneer Louis Mel in the 1880s (the original winery walls are still in place), and it’s the only winery in California named after an outlaw: Mexican bandit/folk hero Joaquin Murrieta, who, legend has it, used to water his horses here between raids.

Worth the Trip: never a routine wine in the lineup, and the staff know their stuff

Taste This: the Red and White Meritage (Vendimia), the captivating Zarzuela

Concannon Vineyard A Welcome Renaissance
4590 Tesla Rd., (925) 456-2505
Daily 11 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

Inside and outside, Concannon’s tasting room has plenty of period charm: brick walls showing their age, a California State Historical Landmark plaque celebrating its founding in 1883, white wines at the bar chilled in old-fashioned cold boxes with wooden doors. But Concannon is no antique.

With a well-heeled new owner, the Wine Group, Concannon today is a burst of energy. The vineyards are in their best shape in years, and are pumping out some excellent wine, including multiple takes on Petite Sirah, a variety Concannon was the first in the United States to release, in 1964.

Worth the Trip: The tasting room is an 1880s original. Check out the cider press.

Taste This: the Assemblage and Stampmakers blends, any Petite Sirah

Retzlaff Vineyards Goodness, How Gracious
1356 S. Livermore Ave., (925) 447-8941
Tues.–Fri. 12–2 p.m., Sat.–Sun. 12–4:30 p.m.

Everything about Retzlaff is down to earth, gentle, and direct. Owners Bob and Gloria Taylor have farmed organically for years, not because it’s trendy, just because it makes sense. In the mid-1980s, they did something even more unusual: budding most of their vines over to Cabernet Sauvignon. It turned out to be a really good idea.

"Imagine not drinking wine with your meal," says Gloria, as though she were pondering the repeal of the law of gravity. "Can it possibly be a meal?"

Worth the Trip: probably the nicest people on Earth

Taste This: the Estate Cabernet and a winning Sauvignon Blanc

The Southern Loop

If you think Livermore wine country starts and stops on Tesla Road, you’re missing half the fun. A few miles south, up and down some hills, awaits another world that’s bubbling with new initiatives, rich in history, and home to some of the tastiest bottles in the area.

Mitchell Katz Ruby Hill Reborn
1188 Vineyard Ave., Pleasanton
(925) 931-0744
Sat.–Sun. 12–5 p.m.

Head into the wine country from Interstate 680, take the Bernal exit, continue east on Vineyard Avenue, and your introduction to the southern loop is Mitchell Katz. At the end of an imposing palm-lined drive stands a new tasting room and winery, constructed with recycled bricks and timbers from the original Ruby Hill Winery, which was built at the end of the 19th century.

Developer Mike Callahan and winemaker Mitchell Katz brought the rotting hulk of Ruby Hill back to life in 2002. The tasting room has a great display of photographs, covering everything from the old days to the recent construction. It’s a perfect setting for the Mitchell Katz roster: big, bold, well-oaked, "masculine" wines that are as muscular as the reconstruction itself.

Worth the Trip: the garage-door sized rendering of the old Ruby Hill label hanging dramatically over the tasting bar

Taste This: multiple Zinfandels, including one with a vintage label

Fenestra Winery C’mon In
83 Vallecitos Rd.
(925) 447-5246
Sat.–Sun. 12–5 p.m.

This is a genuine, old-fashioned country winery, absolutely without pretense. The informal, welcoming tasting room combines the clutter of a working winery with the hospitality of owners and staff who seem positively delighted that you came in the door.

(If you don’t have time to make it in for Fenestra’s good vibe, you can find its wines at the Tesla Vintners co-op mentioned on page 84.)

Twenty-five years ago, Lanny and Fran Replogle took on the daunting task of rehabilitating the derelict remains of the century-old George True winery. Stretches of the original brick walls serve as a backdrop for more wines than you can shake a tasting glass at, covering the bases from Semillon, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc to dry rosé, big reds, and fortified sweeties.

Like many Livermore wineries, it wouldn’t survive a week in the North Coast pressure-cooker—the grounds are too "historic" and the wines are too "affordable"—but then, Lanny and Fran wouldn’t want to.

Worth the Trip: the friendliest tasting room in Livermore, set among the most beautiful picnic grounds

Taste This: the True Red bargain blend, Estate Syrah, Lodi Port

Tenuta Vineyards The Ultimate Backyard Winery
633 Kalthoff Commons, (925) 960-1006
Sat.–Sun. 12–5 p.m. and by appointment

The neighborhood around Tenuta looks like any other upscale California residential district—except for all the grapevines.

When the pressure to build new housing threatened to pave over the Livermore Valley wine country in the 1990s, the South Livermore Plan encouraged parcels that combined luxury home lots with working vineyards. Suburban homesteaders Ron and Nancy Tenuta set their sights on making wine; they even decided to grow Pinot Noir, which is scarce in Livermore.

And they did it right. They designed an efficient, modern facility that allows them to do custom-crush work for other wineries,
and they hired South African–trained winemaker Kirstin Nolte. Their wines aren’t high-alcohol, high-extract blockbusters; instead, they show a lovely, almost Old World balance and restraint.

Worth the Trip: Check out Nolte’s paintings on the tasting room walls (and on some of
the labels).

Taste This: the delightful Duet white blend, Estate Pinot Noir

Thomas Coyne Funky Property, Dazzling Wine
51 E. Vallecitos Rd.
(925) 373-6541
Sat.–Sun. 12–5 p.m.

When Tom Coyne set up shop on East Vallecitos Road in 1994, he brought the spirit—and several of the surviving buildings—of the abandoned Chateau Bellevue, built in 1881, back to life.

A few hundred yards up a gravel road, the site is a knockout: panoramic views, rustic barns, and history you can touch.

(If you have time only for the wines, you can also find them at the Tesla Vintners co-op mentioned on page 84.)

Coyne is a science guy who worked for years as a chemical engineer with Clorox. We are so glad he decided to ditch the bleach and go into the wine business, because year after year, he puts out some of the best bottles in the Livermore Valley.

His wines cover a lot of varietal ground, from lip-smacking Pinot Blanc to serious Merlots and captivating Rhônes.

Worth the Trip: nothing but tasty wines

Taste This: the Quest Rhône blend, Chateau Bellevue Reserve Syrah

Wente Vineyards Restaurant and Event Center Full-Service Elegance
5050 Arroyo Rd., (925) 456-2400
aily 11 a.m.–6:30 p.m.

The main Wente tasting room is on Tesla Road, adjacent to the winery; this place offers a feast for all the senses. For the eyes, views aplenty, looking across the vineyard land that, under the Cresta Blanca label, won California wine its first international competition in 1891. For the taste buds, it’s Livermore Valley wine country’s premier restaurant, with a substantial wine list. For the ears, in summer there are concerts by headliners on the lawn, under the stars. If you’ve got the itch, there’s a Greg Norman–designed golf course. In a pinch, you can just taste wine. And directly across the street is the wonderful Sycamore Grove Park.

Worth the Trip: Name one winery in Napa that combines stellar food, top-notch music, challenging golf, and first-rate wine.

Taste This: any of the new, upscale, small-lot wines

When the husband-and-wife team of Tim Patterson and Nancy G. Freeman aren’t wining and dining, they’re contributing to Diablo.

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