Surprisingly, out there in the Tri-Valley suburbs, just past Livermore’s tract homes, more than 40 wineries are busy making darn good wines. They’re less touted only because they aren’t in Sonoma-Napa, and many still offer free tasting. And should you be in the market for a new house, it’s still possible to buy a home surrounded by a vineyard that is maintained by a winery (no more mowing the grass).
But you don’t have to actually move to Livermore to enjoy the area’s bounty. Just hop in your vehicle, drive for an hour, and there you are. The free wine tasting helps make up for the increased cost of gas.
Secure a map in advance from the visitors’ bureau, so that you can find your way around the confusing maze of roads. It will also help you plan an efficient visit.
For your itinerary, plan on visiting three or four wineries a day. And vary the program. For instance, try one big winery, one mid-sized venue (maybe just because you like the name), and someplace really small or out of the way. Carry a cooler with an ice pack to store purchases; wine is damaged by high temperatures. If kids are along, bring some plastic wine glasses and a bottle of grape juice, so they can “taste,” too.
Many wineries have picnic areas. Plan to take a tour, taste, and then purchase a bottle of your favorite wine to drink with a picnic lunch.
Alternatively, you can just go where the wind blows you.
The Bent Creek tasting room is set back in among vineyards, with an oak-dotted ridge as a backdrop. The winery makes reds—owner Pat Heineman describes its most popular wine, Petite Sirah, as “a monster”—and two well-liked ports. A sheltered patio provides tables for picnicking and a great view.
Tamas Estates produces only Italian wines, including Pinot Grigio and Barbera. The Sangiovese, an easy-to-drink red table wine, is particularly tasty. All the wines are bottled with a trendy, Very Now screw cap. So you save extra money here because you don’t have to travel to Italy to taste its famous varietals.
La Rochelle focuses on Pinot Noir. Its relaxing tasting room offers a flight with a paired food platter; reservations are not necessary. Steven Kent has an incredibly enthusiastic owner-winemaker, Steven Mirassou, who makes a delicious “Merrillie” Chardonnay and Vincere. Picnic tables shaded by several olive trees are available here. Tiny Charles R, located on an old mining trail, is definitely way out there. The winery makes both reds and whites as well as a Portuguese-style dessert wine, and it also provides a scenic picnic area.
A bigger gun
One of the larger small wineries, Garré specializes in small lots of high-quality wine and uncommon Bordeaux blends. In addition to a cafe that serves lunch daily, the winery has two bocce ball courts and occasionally schedules cooking demonstrations.
The really big guns
Established in 1883, Concannon is one of the oldest continuously operating wineries in the country, and it was among the first to make big reds. Retail sales and marketing manager Jim Ryan says, “We do environmentally friendly things because it makes a better wine.”
Most of the wines are sold only at the winery, but the Petite Syrah is available in all 50 states and 17 foreign countries. Wines all are contained in heavier than usual bottles featuring a pressed image of the property’s front gate.
Tasting occurs in a barn-like brick-and-redwood room. An 1896 Victorian on the property, with fish-scale siding, was bought in 1966 for $2. It is owned by John Madden, and the 2004 movie “Dead and Breakfast” was filmed within. Plans are to use it as a stage for Shakespeare performances. Picnic tables are available under an arbor of table grapes that are at their sweetest in September.
The area’s largest winery, Wente claims to be “California’s oldest family-owned and continuously operated winery,” with fourth- and fifth-generation Wentes carrying on the business. In addition to making a killer 2004 Crane Ridge Merlot—it is smooth and gives a big buzz—Wente schedules summer concerts under the stars (in the past, Ringo Starr, Huey Lewis, and Seal have played here), offers an 18-hole public golf course designed by Greg Norman, and has an excellent restaurant with tree-shaded terraces that are heavenly in good weather. And it has a real cork tree on the property.
As you can see, there is more to do here than can be done in one day. You’ll just have to plan another visit sometime soon—before everyone discovers this quieter, gentler wine country.
Carole Terwilliger Meyers is the author of Weekend Adventures in San Francisco & Northern California (www. carousel-press.com) and Miles of Smiles: 101 Great Car Games & Activities.