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Livermore's New Gourmet Harvest

It's not just about wine anymore


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When Chez Panisse earned top marks in several categories of the 2005 Zagat Survey’s guide to Bay Area restaurants, there was little reason for surprise. Eyebrows rose, however, at the results in the California cuisine category: Directly on the heels of Chez Panisse
was Livermore’s Wente Vineyards Restaurant, which came within two points of the Berkeley institution’s high score.

Wente, which has its own produce and herb garden, has always enjoyed its status as one of the Tri-Valley’s finest. But Livermore has typically been the last place Bay Area diners might look for solid seasonal, local food—which is the heart and soul of California cuisine—when they can’t get reservations at Chez Panisse. To outsiders, it will probably remain that way for some time. For locals, however, the notion that delicious food can’t be had close to home is changing.

Livermore is undergoing a small but significant culinary evolution, led by Wente Vineyards and a local farm, Toehill Station Ranch. The movement, which reveals that the region can grow more than just grape vines, is having an effect on the entire Tri-Valley.

"I think the ‘eat local’ movement that exploded in Berkeley is just getting started around here," says Adam Small, a sous chef at Wente Vineyards Restaurant. "Those of us in the restaurant business have wanted that for some time, and the people of Livermore are catching on."

Dan Marciel agrees. As the owner of Marciel Farms, the only local farm that sells produce at the Livermore farmers market (most vendors are from Fremont), he’s seen the interest from hometown shoppers. "People see my sign saying I farm in Livermore, and they’ll buy my food just for that," Marciel says modestly. (Marciel’s tomatoes would be considered delicious in any case.) Toehill and Marciel, the latter of which comprises just a quarter of an acre, are Livermore’s only produce farms.

When Toehill Station Ranch owner Larry Shaddix first surveyed the 200 acres he’d purchased on Mines Road, 15 miles south of Tesla Road, he noticed something others didn’t: wild elderberries. To the Texas-born rancher, it was a revelation. The presence of wild berries meant the land was fertile and capable of growing delicious produce.

While it might seem basic, Shaddix’s insight was progressive. Because of their high elevation and steep, rocky, dry terrain, the south Livermore hills have always been considered strictly "cattle country"—land best suited to feeding and raising animals. Shaddix’s neighbors advised him to abandon his ideas and follow tradition.

"People told me trying to do more was crazy, but I decided to stick my tongue out at them and go ahead," Shaddix says. In the mid-’90s, Shaddix and his wife, Ann, established Toehill Station, starting out with a bit of pesticide-free produce and a handful of goats and chickens raised without growth hormones. Recently, with the help of their son Earl—a culinary school graduate and line cook—they began to market their products to restaurants.

Wente got first pick. Chef Elisabeth Schwarz immediately took interest in buying produce from a local source—when Wente’s own garden wouldn’t suffice—and Toehill’s superior products made the love affair easy. "Their products are wholesome and clean—they have incredible flavor," says Schwarz, who most often uses the deliciously rich eggs from Toehill’s Araucana chickens. "It’s better when you know the [growers and how the chickens are treated," she says. In a bit of a turnabout, Wente gives Toehill compostable waste to be used on the farm.

"I always prefer buying products from Livermore," Schwarz says. She also buys whole lambs from Shirley Volkman, a breeder with land just north of the Wente estate.

Schwarz isn’t the only one going gaga for local goods. Small, the sous chef at Wente, has been experimenting with the milk from Shaddix-farm goats, making a variety of French- and California-style cheeses that the restaurant hopes to refine into a signature Wente cheese that expresses local terroir. And Toehill products have shown up at Bon Vivant catering and at The Pleasanton Hotel.

Rik Hansen of Arroyo Windmill Groves, a Livermore producer of certified extra-virgin olive oil, says that based on his interaction with locals who visit his mill, the public is eager for local products. But, he says, they’re being made to wait. "Anything that’s happening is in its infancy," says Hansen. He wishes more Tri-Valley restaurants would pick up on using locally grown ingredients.

Perhaps with Wente as a model, they will. Toehill is certainly leading the charge to give restaurants more choices. Its upcoming projects include honey, mushrooms, and possibly olives, both for curing and making oil. If other restaurants boost the demand for such local products, change is inevitable. "We’re trying to make our mark," says Larry Shaddix. "It’s small, but I’m happy with what we’ve started."

 

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