Wine, that is …
There’s always something to do in the San Francisco Bay Area, even on a rainy weekend. One of my favorite options is a wine country visit.
While places like Sonoma and Napa spring to mind when thinking about California wine country visit, they’re not the only regions of the state with impressive vineyard credentials. Eager to try something new, but harboring special affections for Sonoma and Napa, Mr. TWS and I headed east across San Francisco Bay to an area that has really been off our radar — the Livermore Valley.
Livermore proudly claims to have been wine country since 1849. That’s when the first commercial vines were planted, but Spanish missionaries were actually growing grapes there in the 1760s. Now there are over 40 wineries in the valley, including many small, family-owned operations. We visited two Livermore Valley wineries as well as downtown Livermore.
We made it a priority to visit the oldest continuously operated family-owned winery in the country, Wente Vineyards. Founded in 1883, the winery is managed today by the Wente family’s fourth and fifth generations. Chardonnay fans might be interested to know that the Wente family introduced chardonnay to California in 1884 and in 1936, Wente was the first California winery to produce a wine that was labeled “Chardonnay”.
Wente has two tasting rooms. The Estate Winery and Tasting Room is the main facility where tours are available, as well as special tastings in its historic sandstone caves. Being quite hungry, we opted to visit the smaller Vineyard Tasting Room after first having lunch at The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards which is adjacent to it.
Donna, Lindsay and Merle spoke knowledgeably and passionately about Wente’s wine and history as they poured several wines for us, including the Small Lot and Nth Degree limited edition vintages. The Nth Degree wines, handcrafted by winemaker Karl Wente, are only available for sale to club members. The Nth Degree Cabernet Sauvignon we tasted lived up to the slogan of “taking wine tasting to the Nth Degree”.
We came home with bottles of the 2008 Small Lot Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2009 Reliz Creek Pinot Noir (which we paired with the Mad Men Season 5 premier on Sunday night).
Time for lunch
At The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards, Mr. TWS savored the unusual combination of flavors of his entree of olive oil poached albacore tuna salad with grapefruit, chicories, crispy avocado and caper emulsion. Although my eye is often drawn to burger options at lunchtime (and the burger being served at the next table looked delicious), I wanted to experience something a little different off of Chef Matt Greco’s menu. I ordered the cheddar polenta verde with housemade andouille sausage, grilled scallions and poached eggs. It was even more scrumptious than it looks.
Perched on a hilltop with a lovely view of the valley’s agricultural landscape, McGrail Vineyards is a family owned winery.
Their specialty is Cabernet Sauvignon and their 2008 Reserve was the San Francisco Chronicle’s 2012 Red Sweepstakes winner. Like Wente Vineyards, McGrail’s wines are produced with sustainability in mind.
Although we arrived very near to closing time, Kristen assured us that we would not be feeling any stress at all. Indeed, we were extremely comfortable chatting with her and other wine lovers at the bar. Mr. TWS and I agreed on a bottle of the Casa de Vinas Petite Sirah 2009. Incidentally, the Livermore Valley was the birthplace fifty years ago of the Petite Sirah varietal.
With our winery visits complete for the day, we headed to downtown Livermore, where several historic buildings still remain and where restaurants, shops and wine tasting rooms contribute to the city’s increased popularity.
The Winemakers Pour House was a good choice for a little dessert and live music. I really enjoyed violinist Jim Hurley and his band mates playing what they call new acoustic jazz while we ate the Brie and Apricot Croissant –– homemade apricot chutney with red pepper flakes and brie melted inside a toasted croissant.
After an on and off rainy day, we caught this beautiful sunset.
Will I be going back to the Livermore Valley? Of course! There are about 40 more wineries to experience.
What a great day! And I love your clever title!
Thank you — seemed so appropriate!
Weather has been brutal around here. However, I LOVE the title of this post – so clever! I’ve never spent much time in Livermore though.
Head over to Livermore sometime before it gets too popular, Jeremy. 🙂
40 wineries! And that in a town I’ve never even heard of! The things I’ve missed out on in California. Sounds like a fabulous weekend outing. Love the sunset shot.
Thanks, Sophie. I knew of Livermore, but had never spent time there. I certainly didn’t think of it as such a great wine region.
What a fantastic weekend – like a mini Luck you. The wine selection looks amazing and the food looks to die for! Thanks for sharing your photos. You’ve inspired me to do a little more with my weekends 🙂
It’s amazing how many new places to go we can learn about in our own areas that make great weekend getaways.
Wente is one of my favorites! 🙂 I haven’t tried the restaurant yet, and I plan to. They have a summer concert at their vineyards that I hear is a lot of fun.
Definitely try the restaurant — everything on the menu looked wonderful. I think they have all kinds of events there — good reasons to go back.
You know, switching from a burger to cheddar polenta verde isn’t exactly a small jump. It does look delicious though.
We’re completely surrounded by wineries up here in Kelowna, yet neither Lori nor I know the first thing about them. Maybe you and Mr. TWS should come up here and teach us a little. I’ll buy the burgers!
I’ll hold you to that burger! Would love to do some wine tasting with you and Lori up there. 🙂
Isn’t pouring wine a great way to spend a rainy day? Clever title 😉 Chardonnay is my preferred wine, so I will keep this winery in mind – thank you for the tip. I don’t know about the green polenta with sausages though;)
I think the polenta verde was maybe more delicious than it looks in the pic. 🙂 Wente’s Chardonnay is very nice!
You know, I would try it anyway 😉 I am a hopeless foody 🙂
What a wonderful day and great title. Love all your exploration within your own state and your road trips.
I just wish I had the time to see more here in the Bay Area — there’s so much!
I like your headline – and the photos and description of a wine area so different from what I have seen in Europe.
I’m hoping to do some wine tasting in Italy one of these days! 🙂
Hadn’t heard of Livermore but do know of the Wente wines. I’m all for wine tasting – rain or shine.
I’m with you 100% on that, Leigh. Maybe we could do a little wine tasting if you come this way.
I’ve never heard of LIvermore Valley but this sounds like a perfect place to spend a day rain or shine. Your sunset photo is gorgeous!
Thanks, Laurel. We don’t often see sunsets like that where I live, so it was a real treat.
I love your title for this article! I went wine tasting in Solvang last year and it was raining too. I think it’s perfect wine-drinking weather. 🙂
All weather is good wine-drinking weather, but rain does make it cozy.
I’ve always wanted to explore wine country, It sounds like a relaxing and enjoyable day.
I always look forward to wine country getaways. Do come explore sometime!
What a fantasic trip on an otherwise dreary day. I’ve never heard of Livermore Valley either but thanks to you, it’s now worth looking into the next time I go up there. I have to look for these wines too. Love the sunset and mural pictures.
Thanks, Mary. I was pleasantly surprised by the mural. Just another thing I didn’t expect in Livermore. Now I know better.
I haven’t heard about Livemore before and about 40 wineries in the same palce! I think neither in Yuscany therea re so many! It’s worth going and having a look or better having a glass of wine!! 🙂
Sounds like I’ve done a little bit to help put Livermore on the map for some folks. Glad that I finally made it over there.
Love the title, Cathy. Certainly attention catching. I don’t drink alcohol, so the wine theme isn’t of much interest to me, but I have to say that I enjoyed the story and the composition of your marvellous pictures.
Thank you, Inka. Your comments mean a lot to me.
I have never been to Livermore, and did not even know they have winery there. The tuna salad looks soo good! :D~~~
Mr. TWS says it was delicious. He hadn’t had albacore tuna served that way before.
You know, many times we’ve passed through Livermore and we never even bother to stop. But having a winery so close there might be enough reason to explore this side of the bay next time. Cheers!
Give it a try, Jill. It’s really convenient as long as you don’t drive there during workday rush hours!
A very interesting post, Cathy, and especially in my case, as we went to some of the vineyards in Livermore in 2007. Thoroughly enjoyable! Nice to see you in that first photo, too!
So you beat me to the Livermore wineries, Andrew! Glad you liked the pics, too. 🙂
I’m hoping to make it down to San Francisco this summer, I’ve bookmarked this post because all of the food looks so delicious and I can never turn down wine.
Let me know if you’ve got time to get together while you’re here. Food and wine are wonderful things.
I just love the Napa/Sonoma area, but can’t believe I’ve never been to Livermore! It looks really charming, and I like that the vineyards you visited are interested in sustainability. Nice photos!
It really was a new experience for me, too. Never gave Livermore a thought for vineyards. Nice for a change of pace.
That food looks amazing and I like the look of the town. I’ve never ventured outside SF when visiting that part of the world – looks like I’ve been missing out.
There’s a lot of great places to explore outside of the city of SF. It’s just a matter of how much time you have.
Love the title! I’ve never heard of Livermore but it looks like a wonderful alternative to busy Napa and Sonoma. I really hope to get back to the region someday.
Thanks, Andrea. I was rather pleased with the title myself (I admit, blushingly).
Wow! Thank goodness for the Wente’s introducing one of my very favorite wines–Chardonnay! And your pics really bring to life the delectables you enjoyed at lunch. My mouth is still watering despite the fact that I just finished my lunch. ; ) Loved your photos of the historic downtown too and that sunset is STUNNING! Thanks for introducing me to new vineyards outside the renowned Napa and Sonoma valleys.
Chardonnay is my favorite wine (Pinot Noir for reds) so I was delighted with that bit of information, too. So glad you stopped by the blog — appreciate your nice comments!
Nice little slice of life there. Wine, food, nice little main street, live music, great sunset. Have to admit…I’m drooling over the food more than the wine. Both Mr and Mrs dishes look delicious. I love Andouille sausage. Yum.
A winery near a town called Livermore? Ha, you couldn’t make that up!
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Very impressive vine yards. The photos of the food is absolutely amazing. The poached tuna salad at Wente Restaurant is really mouth watering. Thats something that I can try.