Discovering A New–actually, old–Northern California Wine Country
Northern California is of course one of the best destinations in the US for wine lovers who want to visit vineyards. But the more established vineyards of Napa can give an air of slick impersonality to a winery tour…while Sonoma vineyards are a bit far flung to see too many actual locations (as opposed to […]
Northern California is of course one of the best destinations in the US for wine lovers who want to visit vineyards. But the more established vineyards of Napa can give an air of slick impersonality to a winery tour…while Sonoma vineyards are a bit far flung to see too many actual locations (as opposed to tasting rooms) in a day.
That doesn’t mean great experiences won’t be found. But when I was invited to visit a less travelled wine valley east of San Francisco, I leapt at the chance. Just from a historical perspective, Livermore Valley AVA really should be more established. After all, it’s home to both Wente vineyards, which is the oldest continuous family-owned winery in the US and Concannon, home of two of the most revered Cabernet Sauvignon clones that really put California on the map (both founded 1883). These two scions are surrounded by nearly 60 boutique operations, some vineyard-based, some garagistes, just outside the traditional storefront downtown of Livermore, filled these days by a fun array of eating and drinking establishments.
But what unifies Livermore Valley, and makes it ripe for exploration, is the lack of expectation. Wineries here are not tied to any particular style or even varieties. Some seek typicity, others idiosyncracy. There is a sense of discovery here, in more ways than one, and a feeling that they are just a few medals away from an explosion.
I started my day at the Wente vineyard tasting room (5050 Arroyo Road)—passing the site of the very first Livermore valley vineyard (circa 1840), a picturesque rolling hill at a bucolic crossroads on the way to what is both an established and up-to-date winery experience. Expanded upon the site of another historic winery that Wente assumed, the property includes some fascinating sandstone wine caves (the only ones in the tri-valley) as well as a golf course, event and concert venue and pretty patio restaurant. Under Karl Wente, the fifth generation family winemaker, the company is now Certified Sustainable and grows a remarkable 37 varieties and produce some 300,000 case (and more under the Food Network brand). Rich, the tasting room manager, took me through several expressions including their limited Nth Degree and Artist Club series. Classic expressions dominate here but some of the most memorable include the Morning Fog Chardonnay (half-oaked, a little rustic, but good acidity); 2014 Riva Ranch Pinot (big nose, strong tannins but soft edges) and the 2014 Nth Pinot (fat mouth, dark fruits, long spicy finish).
Around the other leg of that crossroads vineyard is the compact Dante Robere Vineyards (1200 Wetmore Road), the name an ethnicized version of owners Dan and Bobby. That isn’t the only liberty taken—in fact this three year-old operation only has limited vines they can call their own. Despite these red flags, Dante Robere with only a 2800 case output are fearlessly experimenting with unproven grapes for this area (some from other parts of Northern CA), as well as barrel techniques. The 2013 Dante’s Inferno that owner/winemaker Dan Rosenberg pours me is a jammy estate GSM blend that shows red berries, plum and a woody pepper finish. Their 100% Mourvedre and Carignan bottles (aged in Hungarian oak) are also worth trying; the wine club-only Paradiso blend, which adds in Tempranillo and Touriga is certainly a party in a bottle.
I found Cuda Ridge back on Arroyo Road (2400), where proprietor/winemaker Larry Dino has a much more focused objective: Bordeaux varieties, Bordeaux style, using 100% Livermore Valley grapes (his own vines are not producing much yet).
His 2014 Semillion is remarkable most for its scarcity—sadly, the grape can’t compete much with the popularity of Chardonnay, despite how well it shows in this valley (Dino buys from Wente’s Cresta Blanca vineyard), with a generous mouth of tropical fruits, pear, vanilla and oak from three different barrel types for an attractive balance of body and nose. The Sauvignon Blanc is more rustic, while I also enjoyed the ’14 Cab Franc and Merlot and solid ’13 Malbec, all solid, balanced food wines showing a certain terroir. The 2013 Petit Verdot was perhaps most interesting of all, full of red fruit and vanilla but also a distinct note of wintergreen and minerality, begging for it to be paired confidently with a dessert course.
Continuing North on Arroyo, I turned right on Tesla Road, the main drag of wineries, where I quickly found Concannon Vineyard (4590 Tesla), where the factory-size winemaking facility and sizeable tasting room/restaurant complex sit nestled among flat acres of vine rows, a gorgeous restored farmhouse sitting across from the wide lawn where local families and daytrippers enjoyed $5 glasses of cab and chard. Inside, the tasting room was a literally deafening crowd of millennials, no doubt debating the merits of the estate reserve vs. signature blend.
I’m being facetious. I would never want to discourage millennials from exploring the pleasures of wine tasting, although I’m a bit hard pressed to share their focus amidst such a din. Luckily the adjoining Underdog Wine Bar, as they call the casual restaurant space, is a bit more sedate, accessible through a hallway showcasing the 130+ years of the winery’s bottlings . With an expansive enomatic offering not just Concannon’s range but also many other valley selections and rows of high tops (there are also lounges outside), Underdog is a nice space to catch up things. I sampled the 2013 Lake Country Cab, 2013 Malbec reserve, 2010 Petite Sirah Reserve and Cadis Tempranillo, the latter three all fearlessly dry and spice-driven despite a good amount of fruit. I make a mental note to return for more some time when things are a bit calmer.
Further East on Tesla, I make a quick stop at Steven Kent ( 5443 Tesla), probably the most esteemed Livermore winery in recent history. The relatively homespun barrel room here is nearly as packed as Concannon with wine tasters. Can’t say I blame them.
Passing Wente’s original property (and Winemaker’s Studio—where amateurs can try their hand at blending classes, 5565 Tesla), I turn left on Vasco road where a series of commercial warehouses have been converted to modest size barrel cellars and tasting rooms. I stop at the Vasco Urbano Wine Company (2245 S. Vasco) where wines are bottled under the funky Vasco Urbano and more mainstream Notthingham Cellars labels. Focusing on Valley grapes, Nottingham offers Bordeaux varieties and blends like the pleasantly complex 2013 Casa de Vinas (chocolate-cherry nose; cherry, spice, earth and eucalyptus on the mouth, with a med-dry finish). VU is more daring, making small runs of things like a Rousanne-Marsanne blend, Grenache rose, Petite Sirah variations, and most impressive to me, the 2013 “H.P.” Mourvedre for all its smoky, meaty, vegetal, peppery glory.
It’s a high note to end my day on. Regrouping, I loop back to Livermore’s First Street downtown to an arcade alongside a small park and find The Last Word…where I decide to cleanse my palate with a strong whiskey cocktail.
Variety is certainly the watchword in Livermore.