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Wine Country in the Burbs

Contra Costa reclaims its vineyard roots.


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Once home to 50 wineries, Contra Costa was a leader in the California wine industry before Prohibition. Winehaven, then the world’s largest winery, thrived here, as did Christian Brothers.

By 1919, 40 percent of the county’s agricultural land was devoted to grape growing. Blessed with a terroir likened to some of the world’s renowned wine regions, Contra Costa seemed destined to be what Napa is today. We all know that didn’t happen. Prohibition, followed by a switch to other agriculture and spreading suburbia, smashed the county’s wine industry. But Contra Costa never stopped producing great wine grapes.

The 800-square-mile county has varying microclimates and soil strata that create a complex growing region often compared to France’s Rhône Valley, as well as to parts of Sicily and Portugal. Wineries outside of Contra Costa make popular wines, such as Cline Ancient Vines Mourvèdre, with fruit from the county’s sought-after century-old vines, some of California’s oldest. But the county, sandwiched between Napa and Livermore, never regained its earlier standing as an eminent wine producer.

Lately, however, the Contra Costa wine scene seems to be making a serious comeback. Thanks to favorable changes to county zoning and tax laws, a growing population of wine lovers and backyard vineyards, and an upsurge of sophisticated, passionate, attentive boutique winemakers, Contra Costa is attracting notice as a place that makes pretty good wine.

“We’ve already established ourselves as growers, and now we’re on the threshold of establishing ourselves as producers, as wineries in our own right,” says Mark Enlow, general manager for Tamayo Family Vineyards in Brentwood.

Area wine buyers and industry insiders say they’re impressed by what they’re seeing—and drinking. “Contra Costa wine quality was quite variable several years ago,” says Brendan Eliason, owner of Periscope Cellars in Emeryville and former wine director of Walnut Creek’s Va de Vi. “But I’ve noticed definite improvement and think the wines are substantially better.”

Jim Denham, buyer for and operator of Pleasanton’s Wine Steward, says that although it’s early in the evolution of Contra Costa’s wineries, he’s seeing a lot of potential. “Many of these winemakers are making some really decent wines—richly fruited, big, friendly reds.”

Eliason says that for local winemakers to be successful, Contra Costa has to make a name for itself. That’s a top priority for Aldo Ghiozzi, who chairs the Contra Costa Wine, Grape, and Olive Growers Association. “We need to spend the first five years saturating the local Contra Costa consumer with knowledge of Contra Costa wine, and then we can ripple out to other areas,” says Ghiozzi, who publishes Wine … Oh!, a magazine covering the Contra Costa wine scene. “Eventually, we want Contra Costa to be a wine country travel destination.”

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