Livermore Valley is a hidden wealth of history, family hospitality and most of all, excellent wine. It borders the suburban sprawl of East Bay cities such as Pleasanton, Dublin and Concord and is less than 30 miles from Oakland. Its close location to San Francisco makes Livermore Valley Wine Country a desirable, if not unexpected, wine destination. With more than 40 wineries in close proximity to each other, Livermore Valley is worth several repeat visits from Bay Area residents and those in other Northern California cities. Armchair wine tourists will also enjoy shopping online and getting to know the wines, specifically chardonnay and petite sirah, that the region made famous in California.
A recent visit took me to Livermore from Sacramento, a distance of about 90 miles. Whether approaching from San Francisco, Oakland or Sacramento, Livermore Valley’s vineyards, which are tucked between the city of Livermore and the low foothills of the Diablo range, are invisible from the freeway. This leaves one with the impression that there couldn’t possibly be room for an extensive wine country. But the land plays tricks and after a short drive through suburban housing, the valley opens and vineyards can be seen stretched across the valley floor and rising onto the lower slopes of the hills. It’s a pleasant surprise that wasn’t without its own struggle for existence.
Being located in the Bay Area almost caused an end to the region’s wine history, which dates back to the mid-1700s, even before the 1882 date when Cresta Blanca became the valley’s first commercial winery (the original building is now a registered national historic landmark). As the Bay Area population grew, farm and vineyard land was rapidly converted to residential development until a conservation trust was formed to protect the remaining lots. This conservation retained the region’s historic wineries such as Wente and Concannon. Just as important, this trust has allowed for newer wineries such as McGrail to flourish. Solidly recognized as a crucial contributor to the history of quality wine in California, Livermore’s wine country is certainly worth a visit by wine lovers.
The Varietals of Livermore
Many wine regions are known for a particular grape, although, especially in the New World, most wine regions produce several varietals. Examples of this strong relationship can be found between Napa Valley and cabernet sauvignon, Marlborough and sauvignon blanc and Mendoza Valley and malbec.
Livermore Valley is no exception and the grapes in the region are most famous for are chardonnay and petite sirah, both of which owe much of their California history to the valley. Chardonnay was first brought to Livermore Valley from France in 1912 by Ernest Wente, son of Wente founder, Charles Wente. The cuttings of chardonnay were cultivated and eventually became known as the “Wente Clone” of chardonnay, able to produce better in the warmer climate of California as compared to France.
If you are a drinker of California chardonnay, regardless of the winery that produces it, most likely it was grown from the Wente Clone. California chardonnays have more peach, mango, star fruit and even orange citrus flavors as compared to other chardonnays.
Livermore is also the origin of the first bottled petite sirah in the United States. The grape, originally from France’s Rhône Valley where it is called Durif, was typically used as a blending grape because of its strong color and intense tannins. In 1961, Jim Concannon became the first wine producer to make petite sirah as a varietal wine in the United States, celebrating the grape’s dark fruit flavors and silky finish. As a fourth generation vintner, John Concannon says, “There is nothing petite about petite sirah.”
History stands alongside wine and good times and Livermore offers pleasant wineries that are approachable and friendly to visitors and where winery owners often mingle with guests to talk about their wines and vineyards.
5050 Arroyo Road
Livermore, CA 94550
Wente Vineyards, now operated by fourth and fifth-generation Wentes, has the distinction of being the oldest family-operated winery in the United States after opening its doors in 1883. A visit to Wente is actually a visit to two winery locations. The first is closer to the region’s other wineries and has the production facilities, a tasting room and a separate tasting room for Wente’s second label, Tamás Estates. Wente’s other location is further from town and located against the foothills and is a true winery destination.
The “Vineyard” location is immediately distinguished by the historic Cresta Blanca buildings of Livermore’s original winery that Wente purchased in 1981. The tasting room, wine caves and barrel room are all part of this original winery and worth a tour just to see the caves alone. In addition to the winery, there is a golf course, a concert amphitheater and areas for weddings.
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The Restaurant at Wente offers multi-course lunches and dinners that are presented with quality and style designed to make you slow down to savor each bite. Start off with a salad made with fresh vegetables grown on-site, enjoy tender meat, pasta or vegetarian dishes, and finish with specialty desserts and cheeses. A wine selection by the bottle or glass will complement the meal with help from your server.
When tasting and buying wine from Wente, the chardonnays are the signature varietals with styles ranging from completely stainless steel to those aged in French, American and Hungarian oaks. Sample the range and you’re sure to find at least one that fits your desired palate. In addition, Wente makes a range of award-winning cabernet sauvignons and winery visitors will enjoy sampling the syrah, sauvignon blanc, grenache and several red wine blends.
5600 Greenville Road
Livermore, CA 94550
Continuing the family-run theme, McGrail Vineyards is one of Livermore’s newer wineries. Beginning in 1999 as a vineyard growing exceptional cabernet sauvignon, McGrail originally sold its grapes and didn’t release under its own label until the 2003 vintage in 2005. The newness of the winery should not cause a visitor to think that McGrail doesn’t take its craft seriously. The winery was already winning awards led by its signature cabernet sauvignon. The 2008 Cabernet Reserve won the 2012 Sweepstakes Red Wine Award at the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. (Hint: buy this one before they sell out!) That’s quite an honor for such a young winery.
A visit to McGrail immediately impresses with the views and it’s easy to see the family’s pride in their location as well as in their cabernet sauvignon vineyards which can be seen from around the winery. The hilltop location is perfect for cabernet sauvignon. This leaves the grapes cool in the evening and early morning with fog that burns off later in the day, thus exposing the grapes to a very warm afternoon sun. The Bay Area’s weather allows for a long growing season which is necessary to ripen cabernet grapes.
There’s a reason the family does so well with its cabernet. Heather McGrail, daughter of owners Jim and Ginger, says, “Our winemaker and the McGrail family feel fortunate to have a great piece of property that grows wonderful cabernet sauvignon. Our main goal is to work hard in the vineyard to cultivate only the best fruit and then to move it gently along as it slowly ages into a delicious glass of wine.” In short, they pamper the grapes of this varietal to the desired perfection you can taste in the glass.
When you visit, however, don’t think that this will be a stuffy affair full of the talk of tannins, brix, pH and terroir. The McGrails are, above all, down to earth and friendly. At the entrance to the winery is a classic pickup truck and on the grounds you’ll find musicians, a large fountain, local artists and even olive oil tastings. McGrail adds, “We try to keep it interesting by having events twice a month.” The winery is an active, enjoyable, unpretentious spot that just happens to have fantastic vineyard views.
For tasting and buying, focus on the cabernet sauvignon, the winery’s signature varietal. It’s produced in different styles that have various amounts and types of oak. The winemaker even pulls the skins out early and makes a cabernet sauvignon rosé that’s perfect when chilled and served on a warm summer evening. Finally, in homage to the region’s petite sirah heritage, McGrail makes a cabernet/petite sirah blend, something distinctively Livermore.
4590 Tesla Road
Livermore, CA 94550
Family pride and heritage run deep in Livermore and Concannon Vineyard is just another example. Fourth-generation descendant, John Concannon, is still involved in the family business. The beautiful winery and vineyards are a testament to his family’s hard work and perseverance and guests will find several connections to California wine history at the winery.
Established in 1883, Concannon Vineyard owes its first success to producing sacramental wines for the Archbishop of San Francisco. This contract with the Catholic Church proved invaluable as it carried the winery successfully through Prohibition, a time when making wine for religious purposes was considered the only legitimate form of winemaking.
The vineyards at Concannon themselves are a California State Historical Landmark as cuttings from Livermore were taken to Mexico to improve the country’s commercial wine production. At the edge of the site near Tesla Road, the historic Concannon family home sits near the original gate for the winery and another historic building, now called the Ellen Rowe Victorian, was moved from downtown Livermore to the site and serves as a backdrop for weddings.
But for most wine drinkers, Concannon’s main claim to fame is the first bottling of petite sirah as a varietal wine in the United States. The first vintage of petite sirah, typically a blending grape, was the 1961 (actually released in 1964, allowing for oak aging that softened the typically harsh petite sirah tannins), and it has become the signature varietal of the winery and a grape that many other wineries now produce as a varietal.
Visitors can enjoy the petite sirah in the tasting room, by the glass in Concannon’s new Underdog Wine Bar and Restaurant or out on the expansive lawn in front of the winery.
For tasting and buying, no visit to Concannon is complete without sampling the range of petite sirah, which is treated by this winery as a premier varietal. The Captain Joe Petite Sirah is a particular favorite of Concannon guests. The winery also produces several other varietals, including syrah, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sauvignon blanc.
Concannon has grown to be the second-largest producer of wine in Livermore, but as Concannon said in a recent interview, “Our philosophy today remains the same as it did 129 years ago when my great-grandfather established the winery in 1883 [which was to] offer quality wines at a fair price. I think he would be very proud to have his name on our current vintages.” The smiles on the faces of the guests in the Concannon tasting room certainly echo those thoughts.