Wine Country Visit: When It Rains, We Pour

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.

Wente Vineyard Tasting Room

Wente Vineyard Tasting Room

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 Valley

Early Spring in Livermore Valley Wine Country

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.

Wente Vineyards

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.

Vineyards Tasting Room

Wente Vineyards Tasting Room and Event Center

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

Poached Tuna Salad

Poached Tuna Salad at Wente Restaurant

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.

Polenta Verde with Sausage and Poached Eggs

Polenta Verde with Sausage and Poached Eggs

McGrail Vineyards

Perched on a hilltop with a lovely view of the valley’s agricultural landscape, McGrail Vineyards is a family owned winery.

McGrail Gate

View from McGrail Vineyards

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.

Kristen at McGrail Vineyards

Kristen at McGrail Vineyards

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.

McGrail Tasting Room

McGrail Vineyards Tasting Room

Downtown Livermore

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.

Downtown Livermore

First Street in Downtown Livermore

Mural on building in downtown Livermore

Mural in Downtown Livermore

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.

Jim Hurley's band at The Winemaker's Pourhouse

Jim Hurley's band at The Winemaker's Pour House

After an on and off rainy day, we caught this beautiful sunset.

Early March Sunset in Livermore, California

Sunset in Livermore, California

Will I be going back to the Livermore Valley? Of course! There are about 40 more wineries to experience.

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54 thoughts on “Wine Country Visit: When It Rains, We Pour

  1. Sophie

    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.

    1. Cathy Post author

      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.

  2. Carol

    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 🙂

  3. suki

    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.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Definitely try the restaurant — everything on the menu looked wonderful. I think they have all kinds of events there — good reasons to go back.

  4. Steve

    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!

  5. Fida

    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;)

  6. Mary @ The World Is A Book

    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.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks, Mary. I was pleasantly surprised by the mural. Just another thing I didn’t expect in Livermore. Now I know better.

  7. Francy R

    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!! 🙂

    1. Cathy Post author

      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.

  8. inka

    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.

  9. Jill

    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!

  10. Andrew Graeme Gould

    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!

    1. Cathy Post author

      It really was a new experience for me, too. Never gave Livermore a thought for vineyards. Nice for a change of pace.

  11. robin

    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.

    1. Cathy Post author

      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.

  12. Andrea

    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.

  13. Jeff Titelius

    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.

    1. Cathy Post author

      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!

  14. Lisa | LLWorldTour

    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.

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