SAN FRANCISCO, September 9, 2011 - Livermore Valley is a much overlooked wine region of Northern California.
The first thing you’ll notice is the beautiful countryside. Lush vineyards are surrounded by towering mountains with fragrant flowers and big open sky. You’ll also notice Livermore Valley’s family-like wine country hospitality. There are more than 40 wineries in the region, inviting you to explore their rich history in California wine making, visit their tasting rooms, take winery tours, check out a concert, and of course taste their award-winning wines.
Livermore Valley is closer to downtown San Francisco than most of the Napa and Sonoma wineries. Here there is a real down-to-earth feeling you might not get in the larger wine regions of California.
The rich history of wine making in Livermore can be dated back as far as the 1760s when Spanish missionaries first planted wine grapes to provide wine for church services, much like the wine regions to the north. Robert Livermore planted the first commercial vines in the 1840s. Then family winemakers James Concannon, Charles Wetmore and Carl H. Wente saw the area’s potential and likeness to rocky French soils, and founded their wineries in the early 1880s.
Well before the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 that put Napa on the map, Livermore Valley captured America’s first international grand prize medal for wine with Charles Wetmore’s Cresta Blanca at the 1889 Paris Exposition. But that was only the beginning. Livermore Valley wineries were the first to make varietal bottled Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and of course, Petite Sirah.
Petite Sirah is a grape with an identity problem. As both Jim Concannon from Concannon Vineyard and Charlie Kidd, the new winemaker at Las Positas, both told me, Petite Sirah is actually a grape called Durif. It’s just that Petite Sirah sure sounded a lot better at the time.
When Jim was 6 years old, he took his first attempt at winemaking. Huddled up in his room, he took some grape juice and some yeast and mixed them together. The way Jim tells it, there was a massive explosion, grape juice flying everywhere, seeping under his closed bedroom door. His dad, seeing this, opens the door, walks in and calmly tells him, I think its time we taught you how to make wine. The rest is history.
In 1961, Jim Concannon, his brother Joe and their then sales contact in Southern California, Denny Caldwell, upon the advice of Denny, decided not to use the grape only for blending, but kept it separate and bottled it as its own varietal. In 1964, Concannon released America’s first Petite Sirah. It became an instant hit, started flying off Denny’s shelves, and has been Jim’s favorite wine ever since. And it was no longer the secret ingredient in hearty red blends. Jim would say it was a little bit of the luck of the Irish. Perhaps it was fate. I think winemaking is just in his blood.
Let’s not forget about the Cabernet Sauvignon. Where would California wine be without it? Concannon introduced Cabernet Sauvignon clones 7, 8 and 11, which provided the backbone of Napa Valley’s Cabernet resurgence in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, nearly 80% of all California Cabernet Sauvignon is from Concannon clones.
Wente’s history is just as rich as the soil. Carl H. Wente purchased 48 acres of vineyard in 1883 and built a winery in the Livermore Valley. Wente produced the nation’s first varietally labeled Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. And today nearly 80% of all Chardonnay planted in California is derived from the Wente Clone.
The Wente Family were huge advocates for agricultural advancements in wine production throughout the years. Adding things like overhead sprinkler irrigation for frost protection, the centrifuge for filtering wine and stainless steel fermentation. Creating a nursery to supply other vintners with vine cuttings and rootstock, growing their vineyard to approximately 3,000 acres today.
The wineries have expanded by leaps and bounds from those early years. Concannon just finished a $30 million revitalization project that included a refreshed look to their wine labels, their property and a new state-of-the-art wine bar. And Wente, in addition to their fines wines and ever expanding vineyard, features activities such as unique outdoor concerts, an award-winning restaurant (featuring estate grown produce) and opened the Greg Norman designed golf course. Since 1883 both the Wente and Concannan families have owned and operated their vineyards continuously and today the fourth and fifth generations are still producing award-winning wines.
Wineries such as Wente and Concannon didn’t stop there when it comes to innovation and keeping a forward-looking eye to the future. Both wineries are Certified California Sustainable. This means that they actively practice sustainable vineyard management, endorsed by the California Wine Institute, which includes things like energy usage, environmental concerns, conservation of resources, organic farming, and socially equitable business practices (to name a few of the over 200 criteria). If you think about organic wines and biodynamic wines, those would be subsets of the larger sustainability picture.
If you think that only Napa, Sonoma or one of the other large wine regions in California have the wine, atmosphere, events and amenities that are what you love, you will be missing out if you don’t look to Livermore Valley. Not only is there robust wine history found here, you will also enjoy the flavorful wines, events, food and undoubtedly make new friends. It’s not just about drinking wine here. It’s about the lifestyle, sharing stories and ensuring that same lifestyle is here for generations to come.
Resources & Tips:
View a map of the Livermore Valley wine region.
Transportation: It is best to drive or hire a car while wine tasting in any region. Be sure to have a DD (designated driver) if you do drive.
Hydrate: Be sure to drink plenty of water! Drinking wine sip by sip by sip builds up quickly.
Relax: Take your time. Don’t try to do more than four wineries per day. I recommend two hours per location, really talk to the folks in the winery, and do allow time for food. Picnicking in the vineyards is an excellent way to get some food in you and continue to wine taste.
Here is a listing of available Concannon Vineyard wines.
Here is a listing of available Wente Vineyards wines.
Stayed tuned for the Part 2 article about the Livermore Valley 30th Annual Harvest Festival and the vineyards, wines and experiences of the festival. This article will include wineries to visit, tasting recommendations, where to stay and more.
Photography: Thanks to Stevan Nordstrom for the main image for this story. And to the Concannon and Wente families for access to their photo archives.
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