A Leisurely Day in the Livermore Valley
Instead of the usual trip north to Napa or Sonoma, why not head east to the Livermore Valley for a day of good food, delicious wines and great golf? It’s often overlooked as a destination, but should be high on anyone’s list of Bay Area getaways – even if it’s just for a day. This verdant region is only about an hour from San Francisco.
There is plenty of history here – Robert Livermore, for whom the town was named, was as interested in growing grapes in the 1840s as he was in raising cattle and horses. Wente and Concannon vineyards date to the early 1880s. And the Livermore Valley was the first in California to label Petite Sirah, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc as varietals. Exit the freeway and the landscape changes – farmland and pastures quickly came into view. Cruise through the center of town on your way to the scenic Tesla Road area – most of the vineyards either line this road or are a short distance from it.
Start your adventure at Murrieta’s Well, named for Joaquin Murrieta, a gold-rush-era outlaw who liked the water from the property’s artesian well. In the 1880s, cuttings from France were planted. Today, seasoned winemaker Sergio Traverso blends an array of exquisite estate wines.
Set amongst vines and flowers, the old stone winery building (dating from 1889) houses a modern tasting room with exposed beams and a high ceiling. Local timber and gravel from a nearby creek were used in its construction. Highlights of a visit should include the 2008 Anniversary Blend (Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo) and the Touriga Nacional 2009 (Touriga Nacional, Petite Sirah, Barbera) from the Los Tesoros de Joaquin label. The Spur (red blend) and the Whip (white blend) are the only two wines sold outside the winery.
Everything is relatively close, and the Underdog Wine Bar is minutes away. Designed more like a sleek lounge, this hip tasting room offers about 50 international wines by the glass. To complement the wine, the menu features small plates highlighting local ingredients.
Start the epicurean experience with the lively Cupcake Vineyards Prosecco (one of Underdog’s emerging brands). With the stunning ahi tuna tartar tower (served with cucumber, avocado, radish, cilantro, and wonton chips), pair the 2007 Darcie Kent “West Pinnacles” Pinot Noir. And for dessert, you’ll find the Concannon Petite Sirah Port to be extraordinary with the Valhrona chocolate tart with coffee bean caramel and grey salt.
Next try the tasting room at Concannon Vineyard. (The recently refurbished building houses Underdog as well.) It’s now the fourth generation of the family that is actively involved in all aspects of the winery. And Concannon has the boasting rights as the founder of America’s first Petite Sirah. You’ll love the Conservancy wines – 100 percent of the grapes are grown on land in the Livermore Valley protected by a trust that preserves it from urban development. New in this series is the 2009 Crimson and Clover, a rich and complex Petite Sirah blend.
From here, visit the Steven Kent Winery, known for single vineyards of Cabernet Sauvignon, and its sister winery, La Rochelle, known for Pinot Noir. But don’t overlook the delicious 2008 “Merrillie” Chardonnay, named for Steven’s grandmother. While at the tasting room, enjoy flights paired with a cheese platter. The 2005 Steven Kent Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2008 La Rochelle Pinot Noirs (from the Russian River, Sonoma and Santa Lucia Highlands) exemplify the beauty of the handcrafted wines.
Make your final stop at Wente Vineyards, where sustainability is integral to all of its operations and the smart way of doing business for the fourth and fifth generations of the family. Taste wine at the Vineyard Tasting Room and play golf on the Greg Norman-designed course. Then enjoy dinner at The Restaurant.
Here’s what you’ll find on The Course: The layout has everything – long holes, intimate three pars, doglegs, uphill treks and downhill glides. From several points on the course, there are wonderful views of the surrounding vineyard. Perhaps most notable is the eighteenth hole, which features a double fairway, spliced by a stream, followed by a carry over more water to the green. The key to full enjoyment at Wente is to play from the right set of tees, and there are six different tee boxes on each hole. The course stretches from just under 5,000 yards (red tees) to almost 7,200 (black). The conclusion: The Course should be on your list, whether you are a serious golfer or a golfer who is serious about good wine.
In the intimate tasting room, you can try one delicious wine after another, including the 2008 Reliz Creek Pinot Noir, the 2007 Small Lot Syrah and both the Nth Degree label 2009 Chardonnay and 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Savor wine-country cooking at The Restaurant – simple flavors and locally grown ingredients – in a beautiful setting overlooking the vineyards. The seasonal menu changes weekly. Each course can be paired with a Wente wine (the wine list favors California, although there was an Oregon Pinot Blanc and a Spanish Cava). Have the potato gnocchi served with radishes, fava beans and sheep’s cheese in a green garlic broth and the 2009 Small Lot Pinot Rosé. Then match the 2009 Nth degree Syrah with the lusciously rich braised beef short rib, pearled barley risotto, and glazed baby carrots. For dessert, have lemon pudding cake and the 2007 Small Lot Late Harvest Riesling – the perfect mix of delicate and sweet.
The Livermore Valley is down to earth, it’s friendly, and it’s close by. The October weather is usually beautiful, and the food and wine are always tempting. Definitely worth a visit.
Essentials: Getting There: Livermore is about one hour east of San Francisco. Routes 80 to 580 to Livermore.
Must Try: Vinturi: 877-846-8874. Wine and spirits need to breathe and Vinturi provides the right aeration. Travel size for wine comes in a cool case. From $39.95.