Livermore’s Quality Revolution

Livermore's Quality Revolution
Photos by Mark Lund

Sprawled southeast of the San Francisco Bay Area, the Livermore Valley is part of California’s Coastal Range. One of the state’s oldest wine regions, it has produced wine since the late 1840s. By 1889 Livermore won two gold medals at the Paris Exposition, including best of show, thanks to a pioneering grower named Charles Wetmore of Cresta Blanca.

An east-west running basin, the Livermore Valley captures Pacific Ocean fog in the morning, warms up during the day, then cools off again at night. This diurnal shift allows for a long, even ripening period. These viticultural conditions suit varieties such as Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, which root deep in the valley’s well-drained soils.

Past and Present

Above all, Livermore’s history interconnects with two large-scale family wineries, Wente and Concannon, both still going, and both known for producing a range of good wines at fair prices. 

Founded in 1883, Wente is one of America’s oldest continuously operated family-owned wineries. German  immigrant C.H. Wente began the business after learning the winemaking ropes from Charles Krug in the Napa Valley. He started out with 48 acres in the Livermore Valley. Today, fourth-generation siblings Eric, Phil and Carolyn Wente manage the winery and more than 2,000 acres of vineyards in the Livermore Valley. 

Eric’s two kids, Karl and his sister Christine, represent the fifth-generation with Karl as winemaker and Christine in charge of hospitality. Or, as a local magazine profile once put it, “She’s a little bit country, he’s a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.”

A rugby-playing chemical engineering graduate of Stanford University, Karl subsequently earned oenology and viticulture degrees at UC Davis, where he also honed his skills on the guitar. Aptly, he calls himself a “hardworking hedonist.”

Known for making quality wines at every price point, from Tamás Estates to Wente Vineyards, Murrieta’s Well and Nth Degree Wines, Wente was the first winery in the state to introduce Chardonnay; today more than 80 percent of California Chardonnay descends from Wente clones. 

The Wente family also maintains a golf course, restaurant and summer concert series in Livermore and, in 2011, released Entwine, the first line of Food Network wines.

Irish native James Concannon settled in Livermore around the same time as the first Wente. His heirs also produce affordable wines and continue the family’s legacy with Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon. The fourth generation Concannon, John, is now in charge, alongside his dad, Jim.

Concannon Vineyard’s Petite Sirah plantings date back to 1911 and the winery was the first to introduce America to a varietally designated Petite Sirah, in 1961. It remains, with Bogle, among the biggest producers of Petite Sirah in the state. 

New Stars Start to Shine

Around these two galaxies swirl several stars—newer, smaller producers nimble enough to try new things and gain new followers.
Their efforts have been encouraged by the passage of the South Livermore Plan in 1993, a limit on urbanization intended to restore vineyard land. 

Among the newer transplants to the Livermore Valley is Steven Kent Mirassou, who came to the area in the late 1990s, doubling down on the region and his singular vision of what he could do here with Cabernet Sauvignon. Culminating his vision: Lineage, a proprietary Bordeaux-style blend sourced entirely from estate-grown Livermore grapes, intended to stand up against the best Cabs in the world. 

Other notable newcomers include Cuda Ridge, Las Positas, McGrail Vineyards Nottingham, Occasioand Ruby Hill Winery. These newer producers have sparked a regional surge in quality and recognition in recent years, giving the world excitingly lush Chardonnay, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines. They have honed in on vineyard sites, clonal selections and cellar practices to better show the world what the Livermore Valley can do. 

Emeritus professor, winemaker and Livermore Valley historian John Kinney has said his goal when founding Occasio Winery in 2007 was to rediscover the terroir that placed Livermore among the world’s finest winegrowing regions prior to urbanization in the 1960s.

Sourcing all of its grapes from the Livermore Valley, Occasio focuses on what Kinney terms the heritage grapes of Livermore—Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. A Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel may soon follow.

Rich Fruit and More

Kinney’s historical research into that heritage sheds light onto what truly defines the quintessential Livermore wine: excellent color extraction, minerality, and rich fruit and floral notes, particularly in Merlot, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. 

The vineyards in the region that interest Kinney and Mirassou the most right now include the great Ghielmetti, a 64-acre treasure trove of many red Bordeaux varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec that were planted originally by Napa consultants Cary Gott and Jim Regusci. Other leading properties include Casa De Vinas, which farms high-quality, low-yielding Cabernet Sauvignon by the Covarrubias family; Del Arroyo Vineyard, which has a higher elevation, five soil types and 14 different grape varieties; and Wisner Vineyard, another amazingly fruitful site for Cabernet Sauvignon that also grows lush Chardonnay grapes.

Steven Mirassou on Competing with Napa Cabernet

Steven Kent Mirassou of Steven Kent Winery is trying to do something very different in the Livermore Valley—focus on estate-grown Cabernet Sauvignon that can compete with the best in the world.

He aims to  do that with a Cabernet-based Bordeaux-style blend he launched in 2007, called Lineage, an ode to his family’s long California winemaking roots.

“I understand the immodesty of the goal,” he says. “But the way I look at it is that we only have a few vintages to work before our time has passed, and I would rather work as hard as I can to create something memorable and meaningful than to make ordinary wine.” 

The winery produces several other intense Cabernet Sauvignons, sourcing from the estate-farmed Ghielmetti Vineyard as well as Smith Ranch, the Home Ranch farmed by the Wente family, Folkendt Vineyard and McGrail Vineyard.

Winemakers Betting on Petit Verdot

For more than a century, Petit Verdot has been grown in the Livermore Valley. Yet only recently, a handful of local winemakers have begun to offer stand-alone, 100 percent Petit Verdot, traditionally a small part of a Bordeaux-style blend.

Because Petit Verdot is deeply colored and full bodied, Cabernet specialists typically only use a tiny percentage of the grape to add flavor, color or tannin. All on its own it can be a serious mouthful.

Winemakers like John Kinney at Occasio have found Livermore Valley Petit Verdot to be intensely floral, at times so much so that he’s refrained from filtering the wines in order to preserve the ephemerally intoxicating aromas.

Steven Kent Winery also offers a dark-plum-and-semisweet-chocolate flavored Petit Verdot, calling it an exploration of the limits of the concept of a blending grape. Other versions are made by Concannon, Cuda Ridge and Fenestra.

Livermore’s Top Varieties

Petite Sirah
Bold and meaty with layers of plum, currant, blackberry and faint vanilla, clove and spice, Petite Sirah has been in the area since the 1800s.

Cabernet Sauvignon
Wines of power and mid palate finesse, with aromas of black cherry, cassis, licorice and tobacco followed by soft layers of dark fruit, caramel and toasty oak.

Petit Verdot
On its own this favorite for Cabernet blending is intensely floral, harboring dark plum and semisweet chocolate flavor.

The majority of California Chardonnay derives from the Wente clone and the same is true in the Livermore Valley.

Sauvignon Blanc
Along with Livermore Sémillon, another of the area’s heritage grapes, the Sauvignon Blanc grown here often boasts streaks of minerality.

Published on November 24, 2015
Topics: California Travel GuideWine News + Trends