Every few months, it seems, when relatives or friends parade into the Bay Area, I make the hours-long trek through congested traffic into California wine country. After living out here for five years, you can imagine how many times I've toured the Napa and Sonoma valleys. That's why I recently was surprised -- and only too happy -- to discover another wine region just a stone's throw from San Francisco.
Livermore Valley's 26 wineries are hidden amid suburban tracts and scenic arroyos and canyons 39 miles south and east of the Bay Bridge. Many visitors through the area probably are more familiar with the huge Altamonte Pass windmill farm that helps generate 1% of the state's electricity. But Livermore is actually one of California's oldest wine-producing regions. Dating back to the 1840s, Livermore has played a key role in shaping the reputation of the state's wines. It was here where the world first saw overhead irrigation, mechanical harvesting, and roller crushing of grapes. America won its first grand prize award and a gold medal for wine from two Livermore wineries in 1889 at the Paris Exposition. And guess where California chardonnay originated? "Eighty percent of the chardonnay in California is planted to the Wente clone," says Carolyn Wente, a fourth-generation co-owner of the Wente Vineyards Estate Winery in Livermore.
Once a haven for farmers, Mexican horse rustlers, and prospectors, Livermore stands out because of some differences from the more popular Napa and Sonoma. A key distinction is its east-west orientation that creates a wind tunnel effect, pulling heat from California's fertile Central Valley during the day and cool air from the Pacific Ocean at night. The heat increases grapes' sugar levels, while the cool air helps build acid levels for bolder flavors. The climate, similar to France's Bordeaux region, allows Livermore vintners a few more days a year to keep their grapes on the vine than those in Napa and Sonoma, valleys that have a north-south orientation. "Even one day more on the vine can make a difference in what becomes a great-tasting wine," says Jim Concannon, grandson of the founder of Concannon Vineyard.
To the uninitiated, Livermore hardly seems the place to grow grapes. The soil is so rocky (Concannon's massive front gate is built from granite boulders taken out of the ground) that you wonder why anyone would bother. Turns out, rocky soil is great for grapes. Vines struggle to get water and produce fewer leaves, so the grapes are more exposed to the sun. The result is wines with great flavors and less jaw-tightening acidity.
A LARGER POUR
Concannon, the first Irish-owned vineyard in the country, prospered for decades as a major producer of sacramental wines for the Catholic Church. In 1961, it created petite sirah, a descendant from the Duriff Rhone grape of France. Infused with hints of blackberries and spices, its strong flavors complement beef and lamb. It sells for about $12 a bottle. Concannon also makes a terrific port, great with chocolate brownies, for $45.
Down the road is Wente, whose biggest claim to fame is chardonnay. Bottles run from $10 to $30. Wente also makes a smooth-tasting merlot under the Crane Ridge Reserve label for $18. In addition to a tasting room, the 2,000-acre property boasts a Greg Norman-designed golf course, a restaurant serving some 400 West Coast wines, and a 1,500-person outdoor concert area.
Since Livermore is less crowded than Napa or Sonoma, winery staff members have more time to talk about the wine. You also generally get a larger "pour," and many of the wineries offer tastings for free. With six more wineries expected to open in Livermore by yearend, I'll be steering more visitors there in the coming months.
By Cliff Edwards