A Leisurely Day in the Livermore Valley by Patty Burness

Instead of the usual trip north to Napa or Sonoma, why not head east from San Francisco 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 San Francisco Bay Area getaways – even if it’s just for a day. The verdant Livermore Valley has 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. Concannon and Wente 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. As soon as my husband and I exited the freeway, the landscape changed, and farm land and pastures quickly came into view. We cruised through the center of town on our way to the scenic Tesla Road area – most of the vineyards either line this road or are a short distance from it.
Historic Murrieta’s Well is where we started our adventure. It’s 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 the modern tasting room with its exposed beams and high ceiling. Local timber and gravel from a nearby creek were used in its construction. Highlights of our visit included 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.
The hip Underdog Wine Bar was our next stop literally minutes away since everything is relatively close. 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.

The epicurean experience started 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, wonton chips) we paired the 2007 Darcie Kent “West Pinnacles” Pinot Noir. And for dessert, the Concannon Petite Sirah Port was extraordinary with the Valhrona chocolate tart with coffee bean caramel and grey salt.
Tasting Concannon wines at the Vineyard tasting room was next up. (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. We loved the Conservancy wines. 100% 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 & Clover, a rich and complex Petite Sirah blend.
We savored Steven Kent & La Rochelle Wines at 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 three 2008 La Rochelle Pinot Noir (from the Russian River, Sonoma and Santa Lucia Highlands) exemplify the beauty of the handcrafted wines.

Our final stop for the day was 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. I tasted wine at the Vineyard Tasting Room and my husband played the Greg Norman-designed golf course. We then met up for dinner at The Restaurant.

Here’s the report from 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, I tried one delicious wine after another. Favorites include the 2008 Reliz Creek Pinot Noir, the 2007 Small Lot Syrah and both the Nth Degree label 2009 Chardonnay and 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon.

We enjoyed 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 was paired with a Wente wine (the wine list favors California though there was an Oregon Pinot Blanc and a Spanish Cava).
Luscious potato gnocchi was first up served with radishes, fava beans and sheep’s cheese in a green garlic broth and the 2009 Small Lot Pinot Rosé. Then the 2009 Nth degree Syrah was matched with the lusciously rich braised beef short rib, pearled barley risotto and glazed baby carrots. For dessert it was 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 beautifu, and the food and wine are always tempting. Definitely worth a visit.