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.