Next time you find yourself in or around San Francisco with a free afternoon consider visiting Livermore. It’s an emerging wine region and as such it has the vibe of a place where things are being discovered. Where people are taking risks and having some fun while they’re at. Sure there are some established players, Concannon and Wente being the best known, but the region is also full of smaller guys, making some impressive wines, and trying to figure things out on their own terms. Which makes for a fun visit, even if you're a jaded wine professional like me!
Speaking of established players, Wente is the biggest producer in the region. 26th largest winery in the state in fact, but that shouldn’t prevent you from paying them a visit. It’s a great place to get introduced to the wines of the region, and to some wines from Monterey as well, where Wente has extensive vineyard holdings. You should try their Monterey Chardonnay: Riva Ranch and the Livermore Morning Fog, they are great values. For me the wine that made the biggest impression me was the 2011 Wente Cabernet Sauvignon Charles Wetmore Livermore 13.5%. It’s a classic Cabernet, a bit savory, not excessively rich or dense. It really speaks about the potential of Livermore and the deep gravelly soils found here, on very familiar terms.
Owned by the Wente family but run in a decidedly independent fashion, Murrieta’s Well occupies the vineyards of the historic Mal family: pioneers in the region during the second half of the 19th century. Since being purchased by the Wente family in the 1930s the property has been used as a storage facility for Wente before the Murrieta’s Well brand was established.
Able to play around in a way that smaller wineries simply can not, Murrieta’s Well produces two outside the box blends, but more importantly they experiment with a wide variety of primarily Spanish and Portuguese varieties in very small lots. For a lovely introduction to both the region and the house philosophy check out the 2011 Murrieta’s Well Zarzuela. A blend of estate fruit, as all the small lot wines are, this is an impressive blend of 32% Souzao, 22% Petite Sirah, 21% Tempranillo, 13%Barbera, 11% Graciano, and 1%Touriga. It’s kind of crazy but it unites Livermore’s past, present and future in a very attractive package!
I have to admit that I had lost track of Page Mill over the years. Known, at least by me, for their attractive Santa Barbara Pinot noirs, the entire winery moved from Santa Cruz to Livermore 11 years ago. Since then the winery has remained small, but has come to focus on Livermore fruit for nearly all of their needs.
A small scale family run operation, Page Mill is an intimate and welcoming operation. Its sits in contrast to the bigger polished operations like Wente both in the vibe as well as the wines produced. Case in point, their 2010 Page Mill Petite Sirah Estate Vineyard is rich, and complex with an old school quality to it. It feels hand made and reflects the state of Livermore today. A blend of the new and the old producing something that is comfortable and just so easy to like!
Livermore has a decidedly casual feel to it. The main drag, First Street, does have a certain wine country feel, but at the same time it’s a classic, small American town. Easy to park, and perfect for strolling, the street is lined with shops, the occasional tasting room, and lots of great dining options.
There are several Thai and Chinese restaurants here, with Uncle Yu’s at the Vineyard, just off First street, being the best known. All your favorite Chinese dishes are on the menu along with some innovative and unexpected riffs on the classic. A strong wine list will complete your meal.
Looking for something with more of an international flair? Consider the Zephyr Grill where cuisines of the world meet. the wine list is Livermore centered, pretty complete, and well priced.
Winery country visits are not all about eating and drinking right? If you have the time you should spend an hour to two working off some of those calories and in California that is generally easy to do.
Just to the south of Livermore one finds the Del Valle Park. A lovely and fairly pristine expanse of rolling hills surrounds Del Valle lake where you can take off for a leisurely hike, dip in the lake or even rent a boat to explore the placid waters. You can even take in some fishing, the lake is stocked with trout and catfish. What a lovely day you can have in Livermore. Visits a few wineries, take a walk around the lake, dip a pole and hopefully come up with some trout for dinner. Perfect with the local whites, and for capturing the essence of this undiscovered region!