While I had driven through it on Interstate 580 countless times in the past 22 years, I had never actually stopped there — even to get a coffee, let alone spend a couple of hours wine tasting. A friend’s wedding necessitated the trip, so it seemed like the time had come to check out one of California’s oldest wine regions.
While just an hour southeast from San Francisco, Livermore’s climate and topography are quite different from The City. From the highway, you see beautiful, seemingly barren, dry mountains, but most of the vineyards are located on the flatlands. If you’re ever tired of the June gloom or whatever July turns into in The City, Livermore often is sunny and in the 90s during the day.
However, as part of the larger San Francisco Bay American Viticultural Area — in 1982, Livermore itself became one of the earliest AVAs — it benefits from afternoon breezes and fog that rolls in from the coast.
You will find a lot of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay grown there, but sauvignon blanc, zinfandel and syrah also have a few stakes in the ground. While people clearly seem to enjoy these types of wines, I can’t help but wonder why Livermore, with its gravelly soil and climate, has hung its hat on these varietals instead of carving out a niche for itself with other grapes.
One answer is that the cost of land is lower than in, say, Napa Valley, where it’s more expensive to grow the same grapes.
One of the most age-worthy and complex white wines in California is Kalin’s Livermore semillon. I knew about this wine even before switching coasts back when George H.W. Bush was president. The soil is a natural for this grape, as the terroir has similarities to Graves and Pessac-Léognan in Bordeaux.
For years I’ve wondered why more winemakers do not make semillon here, and I can only come up with one reason: a lack of broad appeal or commercial viability. Now that there seems to be a penchant for exploring many types of wine grapes’ viability in California — at least among younger winemakers — I’m hoping this will change.
Tempranillo, sangiovese and the port grapes (with tempranillo being one) have been coming on line, and there could be potential. Quite a bit of port-style wine made from everything from chardonnay to touriga can be found in tasting rooms.
Considering its proximity to San Francisco and that most of the wineries are pretty close to each other, I’m surprised I do not hear more wine drinkers talk about taking trips east instead of north. While Napa and Sonoma offer more consistency of quality — and this I base on a couple of decades of experience, not half an afternoon of tasting — Livermore should not be overlooked.
Pamela S. Busch is a wine writer and educator who has owned several wine bars in San Francisco, including Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen.
Here are a few places to check out:
Garré Vineyard & Winery
7986 Tesla Road, (925) 371-8200
Notable: Garré Vineyard Chardonnay, 2012 ($22); Petite Sirah, 2008 ($23)
2245 South Vasco Road, (925) 294-8647
Notable: Fraser-Howard Chardonnay, 2011 ($28); Livermore Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010 ($54)
Rios-Lovell Estate Winery
6500 Tesla Road, (925) 443-0434
Notable: Estate Pinot Grigio, 2010 ($16); NV Reserve Port ($24, 375 ml)
The Steven Kent Winery
5443 Tesla Road, (925) 243-6440
Notable: “Merrillie” Chardonnay, 2012 ($34); Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010 ($48)