The Livermore Valley is a growing suburb of the greater San Francisco Bay Area. It is best known as the location of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, part of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.
Well before Livermore knew atom splitting, there were grapes. Planted first by German and Irish immigrants in the mid-1800s, the Livermore Valley is one of California’s oldest wine regions. Two of its founding families, Wente and Concannon, continue to work the land and make wine.
It is also a place of renewed invigoration and recognition. With small producers pushing the charge for higher quality, the wines are achieving new heights. —Virginie Boone
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Your cheat sheet to Livermore’s tradition-meets-trend vino scene.
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. —Virginie Boone
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, Occasio and 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
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.
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.
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.
Along with Livermore Sémillon, another of the area’s heritage grapes, the Sauvignon Blanc grown here often boasts streaks of minerality.
The Restaurant: Double Barrel Wine Bar
Smoked Salmon Tart
Courtesy executive chef Tony Murray and chef de cuisine Ashley Ullrich
1 prepared 9-inch pie crust
4 large eggs
1 cup milk
1 cup cream
1 cup Gruyère cheese, shredded
¼ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
2 small leeks, chopped
2 tablespoons rosemary, chopped
1 tablespoon flour
4 ounces smoked salmon, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375ºF. Bake pie crust shell for 10 minutes then remove. Reduce oven temperature to 350ºF. In a large bowl whisk together eggs, milk, cream, salt and pepper to taste. In a small bowl, mix together the Gruyère, Parmesan, leeks, rosemary and flour. Sprinkle the cheese mixture and salmon over the bottom of the warm pie shell. Pour egg mixture into warm pie shell. Bake on middle shelf until quiche is lightly browned and knife inserted 1 inch from the edge comes out clean, 40 to 50 minutes. Finish with either crème fraîche or a dollop of sour cream. Serves 4.
TateDog Wisner Vineyard Chardonnay (San Francisco Bay-Livermore Valley)
Mushroom Risotto Cakes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound Arborio rice
3 cups chicken stock
1 cup white wine
2 tablespoons onion, minced
½ teaspoon garlic, minced
Sauté garlic and onion in oil until onion is transparent. Add rice and stir until all rice is coated with oil. Add 1½ cups chicken stock and ½ cup wine and bring back to simmer while stirring constantly. Add remaining chicken stock and white wine and continue stirring until liquid is absorbed and rice is al dente, about 20 minutes. Spread out risotto to cool on sheet pan.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter, unsalted
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
1½ cups mushrooms, fresh, sliced
¼ cup parsley, fresh, chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
Heat oil and butter in sauté pan. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, approximately two minutes. Add mushrooms and sauté until mushrooms are cooked through. Remove from heat and add parsley and mix until well incorporated. Salt and pepper to taste. Cool completely on sheet pan.
Mushroom Risotto Cakes
1 each egg
6 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, grated
¼ cup heavy cream
Pre-made risotto (from above)
Pre-made mushroom mix (from above)
Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl and work with hands until a dough-like consistency is formed and all ingredients are evenly distributed. Form into two-ounce cakes and sauté in a non-stick pan until golden on each side and warmed through.
Owner Kristin Armstrong suggests BoaVentura de Caires Winery Livermore Valley White Table Wine. A blend of locally grown Albariño, Sauvignon Blanc and Orange Muscat, the wine is crisp in summertime tropical fruit.
The Dining Scene
For a long time the fine dining options in the Livermore Valley were so sparse that a family like the Wentes had to open their own restaurant at The Course at Wente Vineyards golf course.
The food scene has gotten better with more options and rising sophistication, keeping in line with the area’s growing reputation for its wines.
Winemaker Collin Cranor of Nottingham Cellars recommends Zephyr Grill and Bar in downtown Livermore for Martini Mondays and Wine Wednesdays featuring half-price bottles. “It has classic California cuisine, great ingredients, a great bar and the owner is there to open the door for you,” he says.
Steven Kent Mirassou of Steven Kent Winery says Uncle Yu’s at the Vineyard, an established and elegant Chinese restaurant, has the best wine list in town. To that end it offers a chef and sommelier’s tasting menu in addition to its regular fare. Wine pairings lean toward Chianti Classico and aged Port on top of exceptional locally made wines.
Mirassou also likes the Double Barrel Wine Bar, a recent addition to downtown Livermore. The restaurant is popular with local vintners and growers who love its historical setting in a 100-plus-year-old building and the views of the Tri-Valley hills.
The restaurant specializes in tapas made from the best nearby ingredients and wines from around the world—with a nod to the area’s best, of course. The list features wines of Steven Kent, Ruby Hill, Wood Family and others, in addition to a rotating flight of draft beers.
Double Barrel also offers live music every night and a wonderfully inviting back patio with fire pits. To highlight regional seasonality, the menu changes every eight weeks. Everything is made to order, from paella to desserts.
Locals especially love to come for Sunday Brunch, with a menu that features everything from omelets to antipasti, as well as a smoked salmon tart and crispy mushroom risotto cakes.
Brunch can be a challenge for wine pairings after a start of orange juice (acid) and coffee (tannins), or an order of maple syrup-swamped French toast or waffles. Still, a Mimosa or a rosé works well.
The house savory egg dishes are often sublime with a dry white wine high in acidity and low in oak, like a solid, bright Grüner Veltliner.
Favorite Farm-to-Table Finds
Eggplant: The Terra Bella Family Farm in nearby Pleasanton grows unusual varieties of eggplants and peppers, as well as heirloom tomatoes, melons and other fruit, much of which goes to local restaurants.
Olive oil: Victorine Valley Farms is a family operation focused on Tuscan-inspired extra virgin olive oil, harvesting Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino and Maurino olives from their own trees. It also makes flavored olive oils (including lemon, blood orange, garlic, wild mushroom sage and Persian lime) and balsamic vinegar. In the Livermore area since 1881, Olivina makes olive oil, fig and blackberry balsamics and olive oil soap.
Salsa: Flaca’s Salsa is made from a traditional family recipe inspired by producer Aurora Nava’s mom. Available
in mild, hot and salsa verde, Flaca’s also sells homemade chips, mostly through the Livermore Farmer’s Market.
Winding Your Way Through Livermore
Danville is gateway to Mount Diablo, a 3,849-foot peak and namesake state park. From the summit, panoramas sweep from the Golden Gate to the High Sierra to the Central Valley. Dublin has the Iron Horse Regional Trail, an old Southern Pacific Railroad route; while Livermore holds The Course at Wente Vineyards, a stunning 18-hole golf oasis designed by Greg Norman.
Livermore Wine and Cycle Tours is the answer if you’re looking to see the vineyards on two wheels. If it’s hot, cool yourself at Lake Del Valle, a 4,395-acre regional park and five-mile lake with hiking, kayaking, fishing, swimming and boating. It is also a great way to hook on to the 28-mile Ohlone Wilderness Trail.
Part of the transcontinental railroad dating to 1866, the Niles Canyon Railway runs excursion train rides between the Niles Depot in Fremont and Sunol, many on steam locomotives. The schedule occasionally features tastings of Livermore Valley wines.
For the eco-curious, the Altamont Pass Wind Farm extends off both sides of Highway 580 near Livermore. And Rolling Stones fans will remember the area as the site of the infamous Altamont Free Concert at the Altamont Speedway, the moment when, many believe, the peace-loving “flower power” era of the 1960s ended.—Virginie Boone
Drink Local: Cucumber Watermelon Lemonade
Recipe courtesy Sauced BBQ & Spirits, Livermore, CA
Bartender Anthony Butler built this refreshing cocktail for guests to enjoy while lounging al fresco in downtown Livermore where the weather is near-perfect most of the year.
In a shaker, muddle 1 slice of watermelon and 3 cucumber slices. Add ice and 1½ ounces Pinnacle Cucumber Watermelon Vodka, 1 ounce Hiram Walker Watermelon Sour Schnapps, 1 ounce fresh-squeezed lemon juice and ½ ounce of simple syrup. Shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with watermelon and cucumber slices and serve. —Brandon Hernandez
And Don’t Miss…
The largest stretch of rustic wildness in the East Bay, Ohlone Regional Wilderness encompasses 9,737 acres of wild land accessible only on foot or horseback. The centerpiece is the Ohlone Trail, a remote canyon-traversing path through two watersheds and three regional parks, including Del Valle. In winter, waterfalls abound, while in spring the wildflowers are breathtaking. A permit is required to hike the trails or camp.
How winemaker Karl Wente chills when off duty.
When he’s not making wine or doing yoga, fifth-generation Livermore Valley winemaker Karl Wente is usually playing guitar with plenty of friends. They jam from the porch of his comfortable family farmhouse on the sun-strewn Louis Mel Vineyard, where neighbors are few and far between.
Those who have hung out at Karl’s say he is an amazing home cook, professional on every level except attitude, which settles characteristically at laid back. With his days spent managing 3,000 acres of family-farmed grapevines and overseeing the production of 600,000-plus cases of Wente wines, he does need, after all, to relax.
Recreate the Region
The food includes cheese and Triscuits, as well as flatbread. “For the flatbread I’ve been doing thin-sliced potatoes and truffle oil with hummus as the base,” Wente says.
“It’s temperature and light dependent,” he explains. “If light and warm enough, we sit outside on the front porch facing west, just slightly angled to the north. The sun sets through the diversity of trees on the property, with many of the species planted by Louis Mel [one of the Livermore Valley’s most important early wine pioneers] himself in 1912—California oak, eucalyptus, sycamore, pine, olive, cherry, and of course grapevines.
“If cold or dark, we move inside to my living room, which is designed to be a classy grip and rip place to play music. Tuned instruments are intermingled with artwork on the wall and percussion instruments are strategically placed throughout the room so that each person in attendance is enticed to play.”
“We do our own jamming.”
“The wine always includes that which has been bottled and not yet released to see how the wines are progressing post-bottling. If not drinking the above-mentioned wine, I have various beers on tap from the newly founded Altamont Brewery brewed around the corner from my house, supporting local!”
Karl’s cooking philosophy: no measuring, no timers. Be there and in the moment.
Spread hummus on flatbread.
Cook or fry thin-sliced potatoes separately in olive oil.
Layer potatoes in a round baking pan or skillet and put cheese of choice on top.
Drizzle with white truffle oil, salt and pepper, and bake in oven until cheese starts to melt.
Put the entire potato round on flat bread. Bake flatbread with potatoes until browned.
Slice like a pizza and serve.
Explore California’s other wine-growing regions >>>
- 1All in the Family
- 2Livermore Valley: Food
- 3Livermore Valley: Travel
- 4Livermore Valley: Entertaining