The Livermore Wine Country Guide
Meet the winemakers, taste our top ten wines, indulge in four tasting adventures, and get the dish on the dining scene.
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Table of Contents
The East Bay’s wine country hits its stride.
Who Needs Napa?
As you’re cruising along a blessedly uncongested tesla Road, looking out over scenic, sun-soaked vineyard vistas, choosing between tasting rooms where, more likely than not, you’ll find yourself chatting about wine with the actual winemaker, you might come to a surprising realization: It’s not necessarily a bad thing that Livermore isn’t Napa. And hey, the $5 tasting fees aren’t bad, either.
Livermore Valley has a rich history in winemaking—one dominated by the region’s two biggest wineries: Wente and Concannon. Each boasts a huge distribution and can lay claim to being a significant influence in the growth of the state’s, and therefore the country’s, wine industry. Wente’s century-old chardonnay clone is still the most widely planted in California vineyards to this day. (Wente is celebrating 100 Years of Chardonnay this year.) Concannon, meanwhile, was the first to embrace the Livermore Valley’s most celebrated varietal; last year, the winery celebrated the 50th anniversary of bottling the U.S.’s first designated Petite Sirah.
Despite that history, says San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonné, the valley has struggled to buck a reputation as an underachieving wine region, one in which smaller mom-and-pop wineries of uneven quality are overshadowed by the commercially successful big boys in Concannon and Wente.
Or as McGrail Vineyards winemaker Mark Clarin, whose 2008 Cab took top honors at this year’s San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, says, “Put it this way, mention Livermore Valley when you’re anywhere except Livermore, and it’s a tough sell. Heck, even in a place like Danville, they can look at you like you’re trying to sell them nuclear waste.”
But times are changing, and Livermore Valley wineries are getting more props. The momentum has been fueled partly by the fact that there are more wineries now—around 50, versus about a dozen just 20 years ago—allowing the valley to become a legitimate wine-tasting destination. Recent positive critical attention hasn’t hurt, either. Wente was named Wine Enthusiast magazine’s 2011 American winery of the year, and Livermore wineries took home several major awards in this year’s San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, including best overall red for McGrail’s 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon.
“We’ve definitely seen a huge improvement; there are some really good wines coming out of Livermore now,” says Curtis deCarion of Danville’s Esin restaurant, which serves four Livermore Valley wines. “For a long time, we hardly carried any besides Wente, but I’ve been really surprised: In the last few years, it seems like the whole program down there has gotten more serious.”
That’s no accident. Talk to anyone around the valley, and you’ll sense a feeling of common purpose, with everyone pulling the oars in the same direction. A monthly meeting was started in recent years at which a dozen or so Livermore winemakers discuss their craft and offer each other constructive criticism. (“You have to have tough skin because people will speak their minds about your wine,” says Nottingham Cellars’ Collin Cranor. “We really push each other.”) Popular downtown restaurants such as Double Barrel Wine Bar and Winemaker’s Pour House take pride in carrying a wide range of Livermore wines. Even the fledgling viticulture and winery technology program at Las Positas College has made great strides in recent years, providing educational opportunities and a well-schooled work staff for local wineries. This year, Las Positas debuted a fermentation area and brand-new laboratory dedicated solely to oenology.
“One thing that is talked about is that constant push for quality,” says Wente CEO and family matriarch Carolyn Wente. “It’s all about raising the bar every single year.”
As the quality has improved, Bay Area wine enthusiasts have taken notice. Cuda Ridge’s Larry Dino tells a familiar story when he reports that his growing, five-year-old winery saw a record number of visitors and sales this year.
“People are starting to realize that it’s such a short drive to get out here in wine country, there are low tasting fees, and the winemakers and owners are actually in the room with you,” Dino says. “And we’re producing high-quality wine. I think we’re just on the cusp of something bigger.” —By Ethan Fletcher