A recent day trip to Livermore Valley’s wine country corrected my misconceptions and also raised a few questions, the most important one being: Why should wine-drinkers go there? With good to great wine being made in all directions, it’s a fair question. If you love wine as I do, or if the experience takes precedent for you, I have your answer. But first let’s look at my misconceptions.
Livermore Valley is a hot winegrowing region. FALSE. Watch the evening news in the Bay Area and you’ll notice the temps around Livermore are consistently some of the highest. While summer days are hot in Livermore Valley, the heat leaves as fast as it arrives. Do you know all the wind turbines on Altamont Pass overlooking Livermore? They’re catching the cool bay winds from the southwest that blow in, unchecked, from Fremont. Their path runs right through the Livermore vineyards. It’s natural, dependable air conditioning. This leads me to my next misconception:
Over-ripe, raisin-y “big reds” are the dominant style. WAY FALSE. The cool bay winds turn this assumption on its head and shakes it around by the ankles. Think southern Napa Valley and Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley for comparisons. My favorite red wines tasted during my visit were the results of a moderate winegrowing climate: perky Chardonnays, Cabernet Francs, Merlots and Bordeaux-style blends.
The Livermore Valley wine industry begins and ends with the venerable Wente and Concannon wineries. FALSE. While this is true from a production and distribution perspective, a drive through Livermore Valley showcases myriad scrappy, micro-producers with down-home charm and hospitality…and smaller gates at the entrance. In fact, Wente Vineyards is all for “the little guy” and supports the industry by selling grapes and farming services to many local micro- wineries. Wente understands the more good wine coming out of Livermore helps everybody.
Before I answer the Why Go? question, a couple of my correct assumptions.
- Traffic can be a pain. A one hour drive from Napa can turn into two hours if you don’t plan. No matter your direction, coming or going, avoid rush hours.
- Tasting fees are very fair. Think Napa Valley 20 years ago: $15-$20 tastings, waived with purchase is common (That said, please don’t say, “Dan told me if I bought a bottle…” as it depends on the winery.)
- The staff at the wineries, often the owners, are exceedingly friendly and eager to please. Awesome hospitality. I got the feeling they’d invite me home for dinner if I had the time.
- The wines are good. Sometimes very good. As the up & comers refine their vineyard and winery practices, the quality as a whole will keep going up. Without a doubt you’ll find wines, typically between $20 and $50/bottle, to buy as you taste. I recommend a few below alongside places to visit.
Why should you visit Livermore Valley wine country?
Pay Livermore Valley Wine Country a visit to harken back to the days in Napa when the owner is (often) your host, the vibe is homey and, with some study and guidance, new favorite wines can be found.
To get the ball rolling, here are a few recommendations. Check the winery websites or call for tasting room hours. Do try to visit on a weekend as you’ll find a greater buzz of wine tasting activity then (and no rush hour traffic). All my recommendations are 5-10 minutes from each other. Super-convenient.
Steven Kent Winery. One of the more established wineries in Livermore, Steven Kent has been making premium wines for over 20 years. Try the Steven Kent “Ghielmetti Vineyard” Cabernet 2015, part of the winery’s “Single Vineyard Series” of Cabs, for a study of moderate climate Livermore Cabernet: red fruits, refreshing acidity, fine tannins.
The Block 37, a group of six neighboring wineries (plus a brewer and distiller) make wine and serve guests with an air of camaraderie that makes you feel good inside. Three of my favorites poured at their respective tasting rooms are Wood Family Chardonnay (lightly buttered toast, Granny Smith apple, white peach), Embodied Wines Tempranillo (silky and spicy) and Occasio Chardonnay “Del Arroyo Vineyard.”
Murrieta’s Well. Owned by the Wente Family since the 1930s and “revived” in 1990, Murrieta’s Well ramped up quality and interest when they hired Napa Valley’s Robbie Meyer as winemaker in 2014. Pay Murrieta’s Well a visit for a more swanky wine experience. My favorite of their wines right now is their five grape white blend “The Whip.” I’m a sucker for fruity, floral, aromatic dry white wines and this hits the nail on the head. Also reviewed and recommended: Murrieta’s Well Merlot “Small Lot” 2015.
3 Steves Winery and McGrail Vineyards & Winery. These wineries rest side-by-side on a hill offering 360 degree views of Livermore Valley – your Kodak moment. The seating, inside & out, layout and décor at 3 Steves tells me they want folks to hang out and party for a while. Try their Cab Sauv/Syrah blend “Duel.” It’s sappy, juicy and rich. McGrail takes their Cabernet Sauvignon quite seriously. For example, they barrel age their Estate Cabernet in French, American and Hungarian barrels and bottle small lots of each one separately. All three Cabs are dark red/black fruited and strong with fine tannins. I like all three equally, for different reasons. Read my review of the McGrail Cabernet “James Vincent” 2015, aged in all new French oak.