Travelogue: Livermore Valley, California
Smoke replaced fog drifting across downtown San Francisco when we drove in from the airport last Wednesday. People talked of ash settling on their clothing as they criss-crossed across diagonal roads in between famed cable cars. In the distance towards the mountains a grey hew hung below the sky.
Despite thinking we could still make a day of it, we decided in the end to switch our Friday Napa Valley plans and instead our group travelled the shorter journey across the East Bay from San Francisco to Livermore Valley, One of the oldest wine regions in California, but untouched by commercialism and usually occupied by the local wine connoisseur and not by bus loads of tourists.
Talking to the people at the vineyards they had seen an uptick in visitors not unsurprisingly these last couple of weeks, bitter sweet said one, as their companions further north struggled to keep their businesses intact as devastating wildfires germinated in the hills all around them in Napa and Sonoma Valley’s.
Livermore is a much shorter drive than Napa from downtown San Fran passing the commuter lands of the East Bay and soon becoming very rural. As the gateway to the Central Valley, Livermore, California is the easternmost city in the San Francisco Bay area. Founded in 1869, the City of Livermore is also the state’s oldest wine region with a mild climate and plenty of open space lending itself to an obvious relaxed lifestyle.
The city is also known for its arts and culture plus the world’s longest burning light bulb. There is also golf, lakes and parks but we had no time for that, we had come to taste wine, and taste wine we did
The Livermore appellation is known mostly for Petite Syrah, but there was also fine Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet plus some unexpected varietals, from Gruner Veltliner to Verdelho.
Our first stop was the Garre Winery, which awkwardly we arrived at before it opened at 11am. We waited patiently and satisfied ourselves with homemade bloody mary’s. When the large wooden door opened we were rewarded with a decent Sangiovese. Disappointingly that was about the best we had. I wasn’t keen on the Merlot or the Tempernillo. It was pretty place though with outside bocce courts and a cafe. It was cheap too, and they were very welcoming.
Next was the McGrail Vineyards, which was literally across the road from Garre, and idyllically situated on a hillside about 1,000 feet above sea level. There was a lovely garden where we lunched and knocked back a variety of wines made on site. There was a cheeky rose and a nice oaky Chardonnay but the general favourite was a red blend called Shamus Patrick.
Our final stop was at one of the two most renowned Livermore Valley vineyards. One of those is Concannon. The other is Wente, where we spent a good two or so hours and probably overstayed our welcome, although if we did, Sid our tasting guru didn’t seem to mind.
Interestingly, and I wish I knew this before, but both Concannon and Wente declare themselves as America’s oldest ongoing continuously family owned vineyard!
Wente was huge with its own golf course, concert venue and lavish restaurant. The estate grows a number of varietals and we were entertained by Sid in the estate tasting room, which was cavernous, but allowed us and other groups to up the volume and fun. We ran through the wine card from Riesling to Chardonnay and from Pinot Noir to a very tasty, although my taste buds were being stretched at this point, Syrah called 9th Degree, which I think was my fave.
Wente was our last stop and we got back on our school bus and hit the Friday evening traffic and headed back to the streets of San Francisco, and some beer to wash down the grapes.
Other than Wente, and I would assume Concannon, Livermore Valley offered a slower paced and lower key wine tasting experience, but equally you are probably going to have your wine poured by a winemaker or the vineyard owner, which will rarely ever happen in Napa or Sonoma. It was also very pretty out there with golden-beige hills surrounding the Valley. On our way back to the city as the sky darkened the colours of those hills changed to a mustard brown making me think again of the poor people in places like Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Santa Rosa. I truly hope that they regain their beauty again very soon.