A Day in San Francisco’s 3rd Wine Destination: Livermore Valley

Fall colors in the Livermore Valley (Courtesy - Livermore Valley Winegrowers Assoc.)

Fall colors in the Livermore Valley (Courtesy – Livermore Valley Winegrowers Assoc.)

GetCurrentFast.com Travel Guide™

This travel guide presents the top things to do in the Livermore Valley region during a day trip at a leisurely pace. Although it is filled with many practical travel tips, we wrote this guide to be “A good read even without the going,”™ so enjoy this virtual trip.

A barrel tasting underway in the Livermore Valley (Courtesy - Livermore Valley Winegrowers Assoc.)

A barrel tasting underway in the Livermore Valley (Courtesy – Livermore Valley Winegrowers Assoc.)

Those of us that know the San Francisco region well, call it one of the best kept secrets in the wine industry. The premier wine lover’s magazine, Wine Spectator, calls it the “California Crucible” because the old and the new are coming together in a very exciting way here.  The founders simply called it The Livermore Valley, named after rancher Robert Livermore.

The ranch became a landmark and place to stop during the California Gold Rush of the mid 1800’s. The main pass out of the region is now home to one of the first wind farms in the U.S. Back then, it was simply one of the easiest routes going from The Barbary Coast to the Sierra’s. The geography, of course, is not just an incidental for wine makers. The Livermore Valley is one of the few in California with an east-west orientation. And although it’s inland, the relative close proximity allows the region to benefit from the cool sea breezes at night. The big variance between the daytime and nighttime temperatures also allows winemakers great latitude in the varieties of grapes grown and how a wine is crafted.

The Course at Wente Vineyards, an 18-hole championship golf course designed by Greg Norman is adjacent to the estate vineyard and tasting room. (Courtesy)

The Course at Wente Vineyards, an 18-hole championship golf course designed by Greg Norman is adjacent to the estate vineyard and tasting room. (Courtesy)

The Livermore Valley is one of the oldest wine regions in California, with three other men, one of Irish and two of German descent playing leading roles in the early days. And yet, it was a fifth, an early winemaker by the name of Charles Wetmore, who garnered the region’s first international success with an entry in the 1889 Paris Exposition. Indeed, it was a harbinger of another international achievement, the phenomenal success of California wines in the famed Judgment of Paris blind taste test of 1976. However, between the competitions, Prohibition all but ended the viticultural hopes of the Livermore Valley. This was especially tragic since it was a Wetmore’s Cresta Blanca Winery and its 1884 white wine that won the Grand Prize at the Paris Exposition.

After Prohibition ended, it was Napa and Sonoma that eventually gained the upper hand in getting American wines identified with wine making excellence. But sample the offerings from the wineries we feature in this day trip, and you should quickly understand why the San Francisco Bay Area’s third wine region is worth a trip.

Original buidling from the Cresta Blanca Winery now registered as a California Historical Building and owned by Wente Vineyards (Wikipedia)

Original building from the Cresta Blanca Winery now registered as a California Historical Building and owned by Wente Vineyards (Wikipedia)

Today, the land on which Crest Blanca Winery harvested its grapes is now owned by the “First Family of Chardonnay,” the Wente family of Wente Vineyards. The moniker is well deserved since an estimated 80% of all Chardonnay grown in California today is related to the Wente clone. And while it was 13th century Cisterian monks of the Pintigny Abbey in France who are believed to have first harvested Chardonnay grapes for winemaking, it was the Wente family of Livermore Valley, California who first released a varietally labeled Chardonnay in the U.S. What better way to accent their worldwide credibility than by hosting an Annual National Chardonnay Day Toast each May.

The 1936 Chardonnay released by the Wentes was another harbinger of good things to come. In 1960, the Los Angeles Times and the Michelin Guide both declared Wente’s chard as the finest in the land. Today, the 5th generation family Chardonnays help make the varietal the most popular one in the U.S. More about the Wente family below.

Today, there are more than 50 wineries in the Livermore Valley area. Most are small production wineries peppered around the region rapidly gaining a reputation for its wines, restaurants, golf course, climate, and scenery.

A caveat: Two of the featured wineries in this guide are large producers (Wente and Concannon). Like their Napa and Sonoma counterparts, they sell wine around the world. However, some of their wines are only offered at their tasting rooms and to club members. So if you think you know a winery from what you can find at your local grocery store or wine shop, a visit can get you even better acquainted.

It’s important to note that the first winery suggested in this guide (Steven Kent) currently opens at noon (late for most wineries). However, the last of the 3 wineries (Wente) is open until 6:30 pm (also late for most wineries). So we suggest having a late breakfast or early lunch before embarking on this day trip with the last tasting just before dinner.

While you could easily spend a long time exploring the Livermore Valley and surrounding region, if you only have a day, this guide helps you make the most of it.

Winery Stop 1: Steven Kent Winery

Offices and tasting room at Steven Kent Winery, Livermore CA (Steven Howe - Wikipedia)

Offices and tasting room at Steven Kent Winery, Livermore CA (Steven Howe – Wikipedia)

“Steven Kent is producing today’s greatest Livermore Cabernets, wines that hearken back to the valley’s roots as one of California’s best wine regions.” This observation was made by a writer in Wine Enthusiast magazine. For its part, Wine Spectator magazine writes, “Steven Kent Winery… [is helping to lift the] undersung region to new heights.”

This comes as no surprise to the founder, staff, and followers. Striving to craft Bordeaux-style wines with the best of them, winemaker Steven Kent Mirassou, Jr. aims “to make Cabernet here in the Livermore Valley that rivals in quality the greatest red wines made anywhere in the world.” Based on the above comments from two of the premier publications in the industry, and our impression upon our last visit, he’s on target.

SKW, as it is also known, is the smaller of the 3 wineries suggested in this guide. So you may have trouble finding its wines locally. Make a stop there during a visit to the Livermore Valley wine country and none of tha will matter.

Reminder: Currently SKW opens at noon.

Winery Stop 2: Concannon Vineyard

Historic Ellen Rowe Victorian house at Concannon Vineyard (Courtesy - Cropped)

Historic Ellen Rowe Victorian house at Concannon Vineyard (Courtesy – Cropped)

Established in 1883, on its website, Concannon Vineyard uses the word “Legacy” where normally the word “history” would suffice. In this case, the choice in terminology is in recognition of the rich and long-standing Concannon family contributions in American winemaking.

Irish-born James Concannon (his birthday was on St. Patrick’s Day in 1847) settled in Livermore in 1874. A self-taught viticulturalist and winemaker, he and his wife Ellen raised a large family while helping elevate the quality and stature of American wines. Today, 3rd and 4th generation vintners, Jim and John Concannon, continue to build upon the family legacy. It includes the following accomplishments:

  • First successful American winery founded by an Irish immigrant
  • First California winery to craft Bordeaux-style wines
  • First professional female winemaker (Katherine Vajda, 1950)
  • First ever Petite Sirah released (1961)
  • Concannon rootstock (Concannon Clones 7, 8, and 11) were planted so widely in the past by California wineries that they serve as the “backbone” today for California Cabernet
Early Livermore winemakers Carl Wente and James Concannon (Courtesy Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association)

Early Livermore winemakers Carl Wente and James Concannon (Courtesy Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association)

“Captain Joe”, one of James and Ellen’s 10 children, guided the winery through the Prohibition era by releasing and selling sacramental wines to churches, in particular the Archdiocese of San Francisco. This was permitted as an exemption under the Prohibition Act. Quite understandably, this inspired numerous creative uses for sacramental wines, and may help explain reports of thefts throughout the U.S.

But like many family businesses, becoming the leader of the company is not a birthright. Jim Concannon’s profile underscores this for his family. It points out that at one time or another Jim “held every title from water-hauler to winemaker.” He’s most proud of “continuing the family legacy” and points out, “our future rests on continuing to be innovators and making the best wines possible from this remarkable, rocky soil” of the Livermore Valley.

Today, that rocky soil is being put to some creative uses. In addition to producing grapes that go into making some of the best wines in the region, Concannon Irish Whiskey has recently been introduced. The whiskey gets its distinct flavor from being finished in wine barrels.

The main gate welcomes visitors at Concannon Vineyard in Livermore CA (Courtesy)

The main gate welcomes visitors at Concannon Vineyard in Livermore CA (Courtesy)

Concannon Vineyard also claims to be the “America’s oldest continuously operating winery under the same family label and stewardship.” This, as you shall see below, is a bit of semantic brinksmanship with another historic Livermore winery,Wente Vineyards. Some might call it a bit of Irish blarney with more than a wee bit of truth to it. The full story is that in 2002, while the Concannons still are at the helm, the Concannon brands were sold to The Wine Group which owns and manages other wine and spirits brands. As part of the deal, Jim and John Concannon were retained to continue what they do best: create world-class wines. This allows them to creatively lay claim to being the oldest family winery.

Regardless, if you are planning on a later dinner, consider a light snack or lunch at the Underdog Wine Bar, located on the Concannon Vineyard estate. (See listing below.) Or take a glass of wine from the tasting room out to the expansive lawn area adjacent to the winery. Once seated, enjoy the 360 degree views of the surrounding area, and the discuss the merits of the Concannon claim vs the Wente claim.

Winery Stop 3: Wente Vineyards

Fourth and Fifth generation members of the Wente family (left to right) Phil, Carolyn, Karl, Christine, and Eric (Screenshot - Official Site)

Fourth and Fifth generation members of the Wente family (left to right) Phil, Carolyn, Karl, Christine, and Eric (Screenshot – Official Site)

In the very same year that James Concannon established his winery, C. H. Wente started his. While it is unlikely this happened on the same day and at the same time, it doesn’t seem to be of great concern to either. After all, both have an extraordinary record of achievement. For Wente’s part, and as noted above, Wente Vineyards is the home of the First Family of Chardonnay. Like Concannon and its Cabernet rootstock, many California Chardonnays are said to have roots in Wente clones (pun intended).

Despite the mostly good-natured jousting between competitors, the wine industry is a very collegial industry as witnessed by the support extended wineries by other wineries at the time of the Augest 24, 2014 earthquake in Napa. The response is the latest example of how the industry works together just as well as it breeds competition. This is not lost on Karl Wente, member of the 5th generation and lead winemaker. In fact, the Wente family seems to have a knack for striking the right balance between flexing its marketing muscle while remaining friendly competitors with other industry insiders.

The Diablo mountain range borders the Livermore Valley to the north (GCF)

The Diablo mountain range borders the Livermore Valley to the north (GCF)

“Ten, 20 years ago there weren’t a lot of people in the valley making wine other than us,” Karl told Wine Spectator magazine. “Now there’s a lot of great winemakers I get to taste with, and we pick each other’s brains, compare and talk shop.”

Karl’s handiwork can be enjoyed at the two tasting rooms located a few miles apart. The Vineyard Tasting Room, the historic one, is at the same location as The Restaurant at Wente, one of the most popular and highly rated restaurants in the region. (See listing below). This tasting room is currently open until 6:30 pm which allows for a more leisurely afternoon to enjoy the other two wineries suggested in this guide. However, make sure your visit is not on a date of an outdoor concert held at Wente. Their highly acclaimed concert pavilion is adjacent to the restaurant. Of course, if you wanted to attend a concert there, you can check out the lineup here.

The second Wente Vineyards tasting room is called the Estate Tasting Room. It is the more convenient of the two to the closest freeway, but it currently closes earlier at 5:30 pm. Still, it offers a lovely terrace and is much more spacious.

And of course, there’s the matter of which Livermore winery can lay claim to being the oldest family owned and operated one. As noted above, even though 3rd and 4th generation Concannons are still the vintners there, the brands are owned by a management company. Wente, on the other hand, is still owned by the Wente family. You decide.

Editors’ Choice Restaurants

Grapes near harvest at Concannnon Vineyard in Livermore CA (Courtesy)

Grapes near harvest at Concannon Vineyard in Livermore CA (Courtesy)

Although you may want to have dinner back at your original point of departure for this day trip, we do list some Editors’ Choice restaurants below. We carefully screened them as if we were making a recommendation to our family or friends. In most popular areas, particularly during peak seasons, we suggest making reservations or at least calling ahead for wait times. Arriving early is also a good idea, and can help make the meal more leisurely and relaxing. Of course, prices and menus are subject to change.

 

 

Editors’ Choice Restaurants Meals Price
Range
 Comments
(American food unless noted otherwise)
B L D
Cattlemens  $$-$$$ One in a small family owned chain of restaurants started by cattlemen, (who else?) operated under The Cattlemen’s Code
Restaurant at Wente, The (across the from the Wente Vineyard Tasting Room NOT the Estate Tasting Room)  • $$-$$$ Dine inside or outside, perhaps after late afternoon wine tasting at the Wente Vineyard Tasting Room
Terra Mia Cucina Italiana  $$ Southern Italian immigrants who support the Slow Food movement Italian-style
Underdog Wine Bar (on historic Concannon Vineyard Estate)  • $-$$ Small plates and beverages in an “urban oasis”

 

Map of Editors’ Picks from GetCurrentFast.com

 

 

Visitor Info

Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association

Visit Tri-Valley

Sources:

General: AAA Travel | America Strong | Fodor’s Travel | Frommer’sTrip Advisor, | WikiTravel | Wine Spectator, and other trusted sources

Local Facts & Trivia: 50States.com, and other trusted sources | Hiking (basic maps and reports are free): Trails.com and AllTrails.com

Restaurant Reviews: AAA Travel | Fodor’s | Open TableTrip Advisor | Urban Spoon | Zagat, and other trusted sources

Please travel and enjoy yourself responsibly —and at a leisurely pace.

Because it is subject to change, be sure to confirm the information in this guide
including the days and hours of operation for each attraction, restaurant, etc.

GetCurrentFast.com Travel Digest
A good read even without the going™

Copyright © GetCurrentFast.com by American Newzine, Inc. All rights reserved.

For info on republication and broadcast rights, click here.