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Sipping Showdown

Testing for a Bottle Shock of our own, Diablo put together a blind tasting, pitting Tri-Valley wines against their more glamorous Napa neighbors.


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Illustration by Greg Clark

Over lunch one day last summer, Diablo Editor, Susan Safipour, asked me what I thought about Livermore Valley wines. Sitting on the sun-drenched patio of the new Walnut Creek restaurant Sasa, I almost choked on my sushi.

I’d been a food and wine writer for more than 20 years, traveling the world to dine (and sip) in Italy, France, Australia, and Chile. Back home, I’d overstayed my welcome at more than a few wineries in Napa, as well as several up and down the West Coast. I’d even lived in Sonoma for a time. But never, not once, had I been to Livermore Valley.

I laughed at myself for being such a wine snob, acknowledging that I’d been hearing rumblings about Livermore wines. People with respectable palates were talking. Wine awards were flying in, and UC Davis–trained winemakers were producing wines in a region once dominated by hobbyists. Had Livermore really morphed into a world-class wine region practically in my own back, uh, vineyard?

I went to investigate. After a few days, I e-mailed Susan to report. I had scouted the area from Pleasanton to Sunol, from the town of Livermore along Tesla Road to the far eastern hills. I discovered wineries where you actually do find owners behind tasting bars, and what I tasted was surprising: the elegant wines of Steven Kent; the playful, fruit-forward wines of Concannon; the powerhouses of Wente, with more wines than I’ve got corkscrews (and that’s a lot). I told Susan, “Let’s put ’em to the test.”

The Test

We wanted to see if Napa wines would stand out for quality and character, and if the Livermore wines could keep pace. We conducted a blind tasting of 30 wines separated into three flights: Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petite Sirah. Each of these flights contained two Napa wines along with several Livermore options. The mission of the judges was twofold: name their three favorite wines in each flight, and identify the two Napa wines in each flight.

For both Livermore Valley and Napa Valley, we chose wines of very high quality, from high-profile wine producers. These wines had all won awards and received great reviews. Every bottle contained 100 percent Livermore Valley or 100 percent Napa Valley grapes.

The Judges

We assembled an expert panel of wine authorities for the blind tasting:

Jim Denham, wine buyer and operator, the Wine Steward.
Ethan Fletcher, food editor, Diablo.
Chris Graves, winemaker, Ruby Hill Winery.
Sara Settegast Hare, Food & Wine columnist and Diablo contributor.
Jeff Jewett, owner, First Street Wine Company.
Jill Taylor, wine director, Va de Vi Restaurant.
Karl Wente, winemaker, Wente Vineyards.
Rhonda Wood, winemaker, Wood Family Vineyards.

The Results

1. Lewis Cellars; 2008 Syrah, Napa ($70).
2. Concannon Vineyard; 2007 Syrah Reserve, Livermore ($25).
3. Wood Family Vineyards; 2006 Syrah Madden Ranch, Livermore ($24).

While the panel’s pick of Lewis Cellars as the top-rated Syrah is not surprising, the sticker shock may be. The $70 price of the Napa entries (we also tasted the Shafer Vineyards 2006 Relentless Syrah, which tied for fourth place) was nearly triple that of the Livermore Syrahs.
Napa? The panel correctly pegged the Lewis as a Napa wine but incorrectly guessed the similarly fruit-forward Concannon. A victory for Livermore.

Tasting Notes The luscious and meaty Lewis wooed many of the judges, with its notes of blackberry and chocolate. The Concannon was considered similar in style to the Lewis, with hints of wild blueberries, a big body, as well as a great nose. Wood Family was noted as big and rich, with a different style than the others, more ripe with char, cooked plum, and “leather.”

1. Wente Vineyards; 2007 Nth Degree Cabernet Sauvignon, Livermore ($60).
2. Tie: Shafer Vineyards; 2007 One Point Five Cabernet, Napa ($70). Madrigal Vineyards; 2006 Las Viñas del Señor, Calistoga ($80).
3. Wood Family Vineyards; 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Thomson Ranch, Livermore ($36).

We expected Napa to do well in the Cab competition, and it did, as Shafer’s star performer, the 2007 One Point Five, and Madrigal Vineyards 2006 Las Viñas del Señor tied for second. But the winner of the category surprised everyone: Wente Vineyard’s 2007 Nth Degree made six out of eight judges’ top threes.

Napa? Seven out of eight panelists identified the Wente as a Napa wine. The Concannon 2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon did not place in the top three but was voted a Napa wine the same number of times as the Madrigal 2006 Las Viñas. Again, the fruit-forward character of Concannon’s wine echoes what the panel expects in a Napa wine. The Wood Family Cab was easy to spot as “not Napa,” due to its burnt, smoky flavor of a picked late wine, trademark characteristics of a wine grown with lots of sun and fewer cooling influences.

Tasting Notes Panelists described the Wente wine as “big with rich mouth feel,” and “very nicely balanced,” with notes of black cherry and hints of dried herbs. The panel found the big, toasty Shafer to have notes of plum and vanilla, while the Madrigal was sultry and creamy with hints of cassis. The Wood Family had cocoa, dried cherry, and big tannins.

1. Madrigal Vineyards; 2007 Petite Sirah, Calistoga ($27).
2. Tie: Concannon Vineyard; 2007 Petite Sirah, Nina’s Cuvée, Livermore ($30). Wente Vineyards; Petite Sirah, 2007 Small Lot, Livermore ($35).
3. Ruby Hill; 2007 Petite Sirah, Pleasanton ($22).

The Madrigal wowed the panel, but the Concannon also showed very well, in addition to eliciting a number of humorous comments.

Napa? Votes were all over the place. Perhaps the varietal expression of Petite Sirah is at issue. Or perhaps it was just palate fatigue, as this was the last flight we tasted.

Tasting Notes One panelist described the Concannon taste as “horse blanket,” while another thought the nose resembled “a diaper [that] needs changing.” (I guess that means earthy?) Still, each of these commentators placed it in his or her top three. The Madrigal was “scrumptioussssssss,” lush, and full-bodied with a floral nose and dark fruit. The Wente was well structured and spicy with soft tannins and deep fruit. The Ruby Hill was described as “perfume-y” on the nose, and long and complex, with chocolate and espresso layers and lots of tannins. The other Napa Petite Sirah, a Girard 2007 ($28) did not place in the top three and did not stand out as a Napa wine.

In Conclusion

While Napa wines ranked well in the final results, many Livermore wines did, too. (In fact, after our tasting, Jill Taylor contacted several Livermore Valley wine producers about listing their wines at Va de Vi.) And at price points that were far lower in some cases, the Livermore entries offered huge wines at remarkable prices. Check ’em out.  ■

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