Livermore is like a very near Napa Valley

By Susan Fornoff, San Francisco Chronicle
Friday April 05, 2002

LIVERMORE — The golf nut wants to go to Monterey. The wine lover lobbies for Napa. Yet, they agree on one thing: They want a magic carpet to drop them in the middle of some fun without having to wait behind lines of cars or people. 

So, abracadabra, they’re off to Livermore. Just 35 miles east of San Francisco, the Livermore Valley is a great place to get away from it all without really going anywhere. 

The golf doesn’t rival Pebble Beach, but it beats just about everything else in the Bay Area, with three well-groomed courses. 

The 21 vineyards offer a similarly wide mix, with mom-and-pop operations like Retzlaff neighboring bigger producers like Concannon, and a few new boutique wineries like White Crane. 

And though the restaurant and lodging lists are short, it’s a relief not to have to dig deep into the wallet for a meal or a bed. 

Hubby Marc and I, both of us golf nuts and wine lovers, set out on a dreary Sunday for the Purple Orchid Inn and Spa. 

Ten years ago, visitors had to settle for day trips to the Livermore Valley or stay in one of the hotels near the freeway. But then nurse Karen Hughes got lost delivering a prescription to a home-care patient and came across the property where the Purple Orchid now stands. While she was admiring the scenery, a pickup truck pulled up and a man asked her if she wanted to buy the place. Then and there, they wrote up a contract on the back of her home-care notes. 

Hughes built an upscale log cabin with six comfortable rooms and two suites, and worked touches like hand-carved doors into the theme of each room. Last year Hughes moved the spa into its own building and added two rooms and a conference center. 

A stay at the Purple Orchid includes a full breakfast and a wine-and-cheese cocktail hour plus spa discounts. 

After a serene drive into the golden vineyards our day began with brunch at the Wente Vineyards Restaurant. 

It’s difficult to spend less than $100 here on lunch or dinner for two with wine — Wente wines are marked up to two and three times what they cost next door in the tasting room. At lunchtime, Stony Ridge Winery offers the best deal in town, with a taste of Italy in the form of antipasti, soups and sandwiches in the $3-$7 range. 

But brunch seemed a sensible way to indulge at Wente — even with mimosas that cost $9.95. The coffee is plenty good, and the breakfast pastry basket alone is worth the trip, with an assortment of melt-in-your-mouth crumpets, croissants and scones for $8.50. We took our leftovers with us and found them every bit as good the next morning on the golf course. 

Tasting is always pleasant at Wente, where there are plenty of choices for both the white and red wine lover, and the shop surely has that wine-glass-covered tie you’ve been wanting. But we were eager to try something a little different, so our pourer suggested we head to Livermore Valley Cellars. 

LVC is a funky place; you get out of the car and pass Beverly Hill, a small garden alongside the tasting room, which has an inviting hammock propped in the front yard. Only 1,600 cases or so of wine are produced here each year, and principals Jim Denham and Tim Sauer seem to want you to try all of them. Our pourer, Eileen, didn’t ask if we were fans of any particular varietal, she just started pouring generously, right down the line of about a dozen bottles. 

“The philosophy here is that wine is supposed to be fun,” she said. 

We bought three bottles of wine before happily heading off to the former Ivan Tamas, now known as Tamas Estates. Here, Denise was the generous pourer, and our taste buds weren’t yet too shot to appreciate the Steven Kent Merrilee, Tamas’ premium label. 

Denise sent us to family-owned Cedar Mountain, selected one of America’s great Cabernet Sauvignon producers by the Wine Enthusiast. We arrived to a barrel tasting, with a nice spread, souvenir glass, live music and fine company for only $10. 

There was no dining out that evening, just an in-room pizza delivery as we slipped into our Purple Orchid robes, delved into the video collection and dipped into the hot tub to prepare for the next day’s golf. 

Breakfast at the Purple Orchid is hearty; we took ours in our suite because it has a table looking out into the olive groves. 

Truth be told, we would rather play at Wente than almost anywhere else. Just about every hole is memorable, and the tee times are spaced to create the sense that it’s just you and the golf course. But for about half the money, Poppy Ridge is a great alternative; like Wente, it has lots of vineyards and no houses around it, and the maintenance is top-notch. 

Even more affordable is Las Positas, but that course is near the freeway, on the way home, and weren’t quite ready to head that way yet. When we did, we enjoyed another of Livermore’s perks: The 40-minute drive home wasn’t long enough or congested enough to sweep away the vacation vibes, and we were content to know that we can easily return.