Livermore Valley Wine Tasting – California

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Livermore Valley Wine History

Livermore Valley is not new to wine production. The first grapes were planted in the valley in the 1840s and the first winery took root in 1883. Before prohibition, there were over 50 wineries in this valley tucked between the San Francisco Bay Area and California’s Central Valley. Only two of those 50 wineries made it through that dry period but the area now has over 50 wineries again. The two largest vineyards in the Livermore Valley are also the two oldest. Carl H. Wente & James Concannon both started vineyards in the valley in 1883.

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You have probably heard of the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” when Chardonnay from the Napa Valley of California triumphed over French wine in a blind taste test in Paris (If not watch the movie “Bottle Shock“). But did you know, that a white from Livermore from Charles Wetmore’s Cresta Blanca Vineyards won the grand prize 87 years earlier at the International Paris Exposition in 1889?

Furthermore, that Chardonnay that made Napa famous traces back to Livermore. 80% of the Chardonnay grown in California traces back to a clone developed by Livermore Valley’s Wente Vineyard in 1936. Petite Sirah also comes from Livermore, from Concannon Vineyards as do 80% of the Cabernet Sauvignon vines in California because the vines at Concannon were determined to be the most resistant to phylloxera.

Livermore Valley AVA

The Livermore Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) covers the valley from the hills behind the bay to the wind farms of the Altamont Pass that separates it from the Central Valley. It includes all or part of the cities of Livermore, Dublin, Pleasanton, San Ramon, Danville, Castro Valley, and Sonol with Livermore itself being the site of the majority of the vineyards.

The San Francisco Bay gets the cool breezes from the ocean and the Central Valley gets hot and dry weather. Livermore’s weather like its location is in between. It can get warm summer days and then the cooling breezes get sucked in from the bay in the afternoon. Because the valley is oriented east and west, part of the valley is closer to the cooling breezes and part is closer to the warm interior of California. This makes the valley a place where a great variety of wine grapes can grow and so the Livermore Valley AVA grows over 30 different varieties of grapes.

Wineries

During my last visit to the valley, I went wine tasting at 4 vineyards and then had a special wine pairing event at a 5th.

Fenestra

Fenestra owners Lanny and Fran Replogle  bought the current property in 1980. The first vineyards on the site were founded in 1880 by George True. The True winery was one of those many family-owned vineyards that did not survive the Volstead Act (Prohibition). Lanny was a former San Jose State Chemistry professor who taught Organic chemistry for 31 years. There are many wineries in the area whose owners started elsewhere in the sciences or high tech.

Winemaker Aaron Luna’s roots run deep in California. His family traces back to the first mestizo marriage between a Spanish settler and a native American at the Carmel mission. Luna’s career path started in the Carmel Valley in his native Monterey County but led him to Margaret River in Western Australia. He returned home to California and eventually combined the practical knowledge he had learned for over a decade in the wine business with a degree in Viticulture and Enology from UC Davis.

Fenestra has had good success with their wines of late. Their Chardonnay was named best in Livermore and their Cabernet Sauvignon received a full 100 points at the California state fair competition. We tasted a number of their wines, mostly reds. One of their better-known reds is their True Red blend which uses the “True” name from the original vineyards and its label looks like it belongs in the periodic table of the elements with a nod to the owner’s chemistry professor background.

Wente Vineyards & Estate Tasting Room

Wente is not just one of the two oldest and two largest wineries in the valley. It is a party. We visited on a sunny Saturday in early May and the grounds of Wente were buzzing. There was live music and at least one a bridal shower.

The vineyard is known for its events including a concert series. In 2019 they will host artists including Seal, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Styx, Josh Groban, Bos Scaggs, and REO Speedwagon. Their concerts are held outdoors on the lawn in a 1,400 seat venue.

They have two restaurants: The Restaurant and The Grill. The Restaurant is closed for renovation as of my visit in May of 2019. Wente is also the only local winery that has an 18 hole golf course designed by golfer Greg Norman.

Wente does also make wine. They are, as I mentioned above, the source of California Chardonnay. They also bought the Charles Wetmore vineyards which were the first medal-winning winery from California. Not only do they have a plaque commemorating the occasion but they recently found some barrels that were made to commemorate the achievement. Wente is currently run by the 5th and 6th generation of the winemaking family.

Interestingly when Chardonnay was first introduced by Wente in 1936 it was called “Pinot Chardonnay”.

Wente grows 23 different varietals on its 2,000+ acres of vines in the Livermore Valley. They also have some acreage in Aroyo Seco off the Salinas Valley in Monterey County.

Take the time to stroll to the back of the property where they have a large garden that is supplying fresh produce for their restaurants including an interesting assortment of edible flowers. Their gardener Diane Dovholuk has been with Wente’s for 30 years, starting in the tasting room but promoting and eventually taking point on the growing garden project.

And yes, Wente does actually grow wine. We tasted 4 wines from their wine list. I found the Chardonnay particularly interesting and it had a wet river stone kind of nose that I found intriguing.

Karl, the 5th generation winemaker has started creating a series of small-batch wines branded with the Nth degree brand. These were the wines that convinced the older generation that he was ready to take charge.

Cuda Ridge Wines

Cuda Ridge Winery is named after a 1970 purple Plymouth Barracuda car which is parked out back. Before winemaking became his passion Cuda Ridge owner and winemaker Larry Dino was in high tech and spent enough time ( 3 years) and money restoring this car that his wife would jokingly call the car his “mistress”. When they decided to make their passion for winemaking into a business, one of their friends suggested the name of the winery.

Like so many of the wineries in Livermore Valley, Cuda Ridge is a boutique winery. They produce 2,500 cases of wine a year. But within that, they use 8 varietals and have 17 labels.

They are known for the Cab Franc (90 points) and Petite Bordeaux wines in particular, but that may change as their Merlot recently was awarded a 92 by Wine Spectator.

They specialize in Bordeaux style wines. Dino says that one thing that distinguishes Livermore Valley wines from their neighbors in Napa is the softer tannins of the reds.

Retzlaff

Retzlaff is a family-owned winery… but the family name is not Retzlaff. Bob and Gloria Taylor bought the historic Connelly Estate in 1972 and planted their vines in 1976. There was already a Taylor winery so they used Gloria’s maiden name for their new venture.

Bob had been a chemist and perhaps in response to that, their winery was organic from day one. It is still the only organic winery in the Livermore Valley.

The original vines were trousseau gris grapes but there was little call for that variety at the time so they re-grafted the old vines to Bordeaux varietals. They make about 2,500 cases of wine a year.

Salome and Aaron Taylor currently do much of the day to day operations. Aaron is Bob and Gloria’s son. Just to keep it in the family you should also try their “Isabelle’s blush” wine which was named for the younger Taylor’s daughter.

Cabernet put Retzlaff on the map but they are also getting better known for their white wines. Don’t expect to taste any of their reds that are younger than 5 year’s old as they prefer to cellar their wines.

Personally, I am a big fan of their port wine and we always keep a bottle in the house. We discovered Retzlaff when on a trip to Livermore from our home in nearby San Jose we saw that they had live music and a picnic area on the weekends.

Retzlaff has started to do historic estate tours with food and wine pairings on Saturdays or by reservation. Salome also runs wine tours under the brand Travel with Salome.

Los Positas

Owners Lisa and Lothar Maier planted their vineyards at Los Positas with Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Tempranillo, Barbera, Petite Sirah and Chardonnay in 2006.

Winemaker Brent Amos was the winemaker at Fenestra for 7 years before coming to Los Positas. Los Positas is becoming an all estate wine winery. They do 3,000 cases of wine but 33 different labels, although their Tempranillo and Barbera set them apart.

Their 2016 Malbec won best in show at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

They have been doing pairings with food for an additional $10 with their wine tastings for some time, mixing up the pairings regularly. When I visited, they were doing a cheesecake cupcake pairing.

They are adding a new more extensive tasting experience that we were able to try out when we visited. Andrew, their engaging Wine Ambassador gave us a tour of their grounds and then we retired to their event center for a tasting with small bites of food. Los Positas does a number of events especially weddings.

Andrew greeted us with a champagne flute but the actual pairing we took part in included:

  • 2017 Rose paired with Caviar and Creme Fraiche on Parmesan Crisp
  • 2014 Meritage paired with Basil Cream in Capocollo cups with California Sun Dried Tomatoes
  • 2018 Albarino paired with Chilled Avacado and Grapefruit Soup
  • 2016 Reserve Chardonnay paired with Crystalized 3 Year Gouda
  • 2014 Reserve Barbera paired with Smoked Duck Breast and English Cucumber Spirals
  • 2015 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon paired with Handmade Rum Truffle

This is a 1.5-2 hour small group event. It might just be the wine talking, but it was wonderful. The bites had a mixture of spicy, sweet, and salty goodness. The wines were all quite enjoyable. The only wine that was not an estate wine was the Meritage because they don’t yet have their own Merlot grapes on the estate.

I was less familiar with the Albarino which is a Spanish/Portuguese wine. Their Albarino won best of show in the Alameda county fair.

Getting Around

Livermore Valley is an easy drive from the San Francisco Bay area. It is around 45 minutes from Silicon Valley, much easier to reach than Napa or Sonoma from the south bay. You can also take Bart out to Dublin and then catch an Uber to a winery. There are 8 miles of bike trails that can take you between vineyards and you can rent bikes or even electric bikes locally.

Also, consider getting a group together with a designated driver. Our designated driver was a chauffeur for Black Tie. We were even greeted with a glass of champagne… as if we needed more wine. There are a growing number of limousine or wine tours available.

Where to Stay

If you are going to taste this much wine consider staying locally. We stayed at the Aloft which has good weekend rates. I am not nearly cool enough to stay in an Aloft, but they kindly didn’t point that out.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that Livermore makes some great wine. There are more and more interesting experiences like the tasting we did at Los Positas. The convenience alone would suggest you give the Livermore Valley a try. I think you will find, like we have, that you won’t make only one visit.

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast, and a co-host for This Week in Travel podcast.

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