livermore-hills

A Visit to Livermore Valley Wine Country

By Christy White • Photos by Annie Tillis • Map by Nikki Goddard

windowA few years ago when I was dating a guy from Pleasanton, my Oakland and Berkeley friends often asked dubiously “Pleasanton?” as they glanced at each other in alarm. “You could never live in Pleasanton.” I had to agree that the eastern Alameda County town seemed far away, a tad… well… suburban, and filled with cavernous shells of homes on big tracts of land where I assumed no one knew their neighbors. I simply couldn’t imagine myself and my kids leaving Oakland for such a place . . .

. . . until I realized Pleasanton is the doorway to Livermore, our very own East Bay wine country. Suddenly, I saw the ridgelines, the light, the tree-lined roads, the golden hills, all with new eyes. And even as the dating situation fizzled, this place called out to be explored.

It took me a while to get there, but on a warm day this spring, I left Oakland around noon and arrived a mere half hour later in Livermore, where a strong breeze undulated the Technicolor green leaves of Chinese pistache trees lining Railroad Avenue. I passed hillsides terraced by the hooves of cattle, window boxes spilling over with red geraniums, the old Railroad Saloon, a Jim McGrail for Mayor sign posted on a ranch fence. The rolling hills, still green that May morning, were dotted with majestic green-black oaks and shone like watered silk stitched with wide tracts of grapevines. Turning onto Tesla Road, I found the way lined with Chinese Scholar trees (some people call them pepper trees) and California buckeye laden with graceful spikes of pink-white, fragrant flowers.

My destination was Wente Restaurant, which is located next to the Wente Vineyard Tasting Room at 5050 Arroyo Road. Soon the 130-year-old estate’s vineyards, water tower, olive groves, and golf course came into view. I parked and wandered the grounds among bone-white rustling sycamores and herbaceous borders before entering the posh restaurant with its very effective air-conditioning. Lunch consisted of grilled swordfish with a fusion sauce of coconut milk, cilantro, jalapeño, peas, and avocado; fresh-baked poppy-seed fennel rolls; and half a glass each of a bright 2012 Wente Louis Mel Sauvignon Blanc and the Wente Livermore Valley small-lot GSM (traditional Rhône blend of grenache, syrah, and mourvedre), which was silky, balanced, and peppery. Finishing with strawberry panna cotta and cappuccino, I scurried off to beat the traffic home. Exploring Livermore’s tasting rooms would happen another day.

Wente Restaurant and Vineyard Tasting Room: wentevineyards.com, 925.456.2305

A week later, I called Tami Kelly at the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association, asking for recommendations on the most interesting up and coming wineries in the area. I set out with her list and a sidekick, my dance partner, Diego, although I guess I was his sidekick, since we were riding his shiny teal and chrome Harley.

3 Steves Winery

First stop was 3 Steves, run by—you guessed it—three guys named Steve. We parked the bike, steadying ourselves against the strong breeze blowing over the bluff as we took in the expansive views in every direction.

Inside the tasting room, two of the three Steves were pouring. Steve Burman—aka “Vertically Challenged,” according to the company business card printed with all three vintners names and nicknames—said he was working at the Ford Motor Company in Pennsylvania when the company sent him to earn an MBA at Stanford. Bad move on their part. Berman reluctantly returned to Ford, grew restless, and headed back to California for a job at Sun Microsystems

Then he bought a house in Livermore. Like many properties built after implementation of the South Livermore Valley Area Plan of 1993, this house had some grape vines growing on the grounds. The framers of this conservation-oriented plan recognized the superiority of the valley for viticulture, even recognizing that the land and climate here “mirror the famed Graves region of Bordeaux, France.” The plan created incentives for developers to both preserve and expand the vineyards.

Just for fun, Burman made some wine from his grapes. It was, in his words, “The. Worst. Wine.” Undaunted, he out-sourced for subsequent experiments and then learned of an opportunity to go in on some land with some investors, two of whom happened to be named Steve. The three Steves banded together and got serious about wine making.

Gesturing out the window, Burman lauds the Livermore Valley climate: “We’re due east of the bay, further inland, yet we have these coastal breezes. We get this hot sun during the days, and we get coastal fog, so it inevitably cools off in the evenings, which is perfect for the grapes.” He pours tastes of the Steves 2012 Sauvignon Blanc made from fruit grown on steep hillsides assailed by strong breezes. “These grapes are thick-skinned. They gotta be. They need deep roots and thick skins to survive.” He asserts proudly that the wine won both best sauvignon blanc and best white wine in the 2013 Tri-Valley Conservancy Uncorked Wine Competition.

The land is good, but, according to Burman, what makes Livermore really special is the people. I was to hear this time and time again on my visits.

Left to right: Steve Burman, Steve Ziganti, and Steve Melander  outside their 3 Steves Winery.

Left to right: Steve Burman, Steve Ziganti, and Steve Melander
outside their 3 Steves Winery.

The Steves bought their land in May 2013 and were able to open the winery by July. “When escrow closed and we finally got our land, we had a porta potty and that was it,” says Berman. “Our neighbor, Dick Bartlett at Charles R Vineyards, came right over that day with his backhoe and farm truck and dug us a septic system. We didn’t even know him. This year, we helped him with his crush. We loan trucks to each other, we help each other whenever possible.”

Steve Ziganti ambles over. Tall, with a grey beard, he’s nicknamed, you guessed it, Grey Beard. “There’s no competition here,” Zigante says. “All of the winemakers help each other.” Leading us into the barrel room, he says they were recently in need of neutral white barrels. “I went online and discovered they were $200 per barrel. I called Karl Wente. He gave us what we needed for $50 a barrel and had his crew hand select them. When we needed neutral red barrels, Concannon, the second largest winery in the country, came through for us.” When asked if this could have occurred in Napa, Zigante says, “It’s too competitive in Napa. There’s too much money.” He points out, much of Napa is now corporate-owned. “Napa’s Sterling Winery was bought by Coca-Cola!”

Burman adds, “In Livermore, you get to meet the winemaker. In Napa, they’re too busy for that. Plus, there are huge crowds, significantly higher tasting fees, and fewer grape varieties. There’s more fruit to choose from in Livermore.”

The local wines have been gaining acclaim recently. “Two out of the last three years, Livermore Valley wines have won the Red Sweepstakes,” says Burman, speaking of the prestigious award sponsored by the San Francisco Chronicle. This year, the 3 Steves took it away for their 2011 dry-farmed Ancient Vines Zinfandel. They learned the good news when their neighbor at Nottingham Cellars—27-year-old Collin Cranor—raced over to notify them. “He’d been monitoring the Internet, and when he saw we won, he came right over to congratulate us. Colin didn’t even mention he had won the award himself the previous year. He was so modest.”

3 Steves Winery
5700 Greenville Road
Winemakers: Steve Burman, Steve Ziganti, and Steve Melander (whose nickname is Really Does Exist)
Number of cases produced in 2013: 2600
Favorite bottle: 2011 Cienega Valley Ancient Vine Zinfandel (Steve Z); 2011 Cienega Valley Cabernet Franc (Steve B)
Tasting hours: Friday–Sunday, 11:30am–4:30pm
3steveswinery.com, 925.997.7736

 

Nottingham Cellars and Vasco-Urbano Wine Company

It’s a family affair at Nottingham Cellars and Vasco-Urbano Wine Company. Left to right are father and son Jeff and Collin Cranor inside their tasting room on South Vasco Road.

It’s a family affair at Nottingham Cellars and Vasco-Urbano Wine Company. Left to right are father and son Jeff and Collin Cranor inside their tasting room on South Vasco Road.

The man sometimes referred to as Livermore Valley’s youngest commercial winemaker, Collin Cranor, appreciates the region’s past and calls up Livermore’s pre-Prohibition culture both in his winery’s name—Nottingham, a passing moniker for the area in the 19th century—and in the label designs for his Vasco-Urbano wines, just unveiled in June.

Katie Boyd, who was pouring in Nottingham’s humble South Vasco Road tasting room on our visit, tells me that Cranor spent a lot of time in the Livermore library while he was developing the branding for his 2013 Rhône-style wines. He happened on a copy of Vasco’s Livermore, 1910: Portraits from the Hub Saloon by Anne Marshall Homan and Richard W. Finn. With permission, he was able to use the caricatures of Livermore personalities by Portuguese artist Vasco Urbano Loureiro on his labels. He matches the characters to the personalities of his various wines. “For example,” Boyd says, “the GSM Awakening is pretty powerful, so he’s the sheriff. Speck is the ice house and soda shop owner—you know, something fun,” she adds as she pours the neon-pink 2013 Speck Grenache Rosé into our glasses.

Cranor has no specific education in wine. He started making it at age 20 with his father, Jeff Cranor. The two founded Nottingham in 2009 and very soon after began racking up coveted awards. (Collin’s mother and sister work for the winery as well.)

“He’s very talented but modest,” says Boyd. “The winemakers all meet every month, and many people bring what they think is their best wine. Collin always brings his worst. He’s always focused on how to make the wine better.”

Cranor says they initially bought grapes from other regions, but in 2007, they tried an experiment, making one cabernet with fruit from Rutherford and another with fruit from Livermore. “The Livermore version was the same quality, if not better. I thought, ‘Was this just a great year in Livermore? Did we mix up the barrels?’ We had better results—more fruit, more structure, not as green, more blackberry—these were richer wines.” In 2009, father and son changed the plan and now work exclusively with Livermore fruit.

Nottingham Cellars and Vasco-Urbano Wine Company
2245 S. Vasco Rd., Unit C
Winemakers: Collin and Jeff Cranor
Number of cases produced in 2013: 12,000
Favorite bottle: Supremacy
Tasting hours: Thursday–Sunday, noon–4:30pm or by appointment
925.294.8647; nottinghamcellars.com/wine

 

Big White House Winery and John Evan Cellars

2014-06-14-12.38On the two Steves’ recommendation, we paid a visit to their neighbor, John Evan Marion at Big White House Winery. Marion rents from the 3 Steves. “They’re my landlords, but really they’re my buddies and colleagues,” he says. “We share equipment and tanks. I helped them move some equipment last week… This is one of the great things about Livermore Valley. Everyone knows everyone here. Pat Heineman over at Bent Creek Winery was my principal twice in school.”

Another very young man—Marion got his winemaking start in 1998 at the age of 15. He’s a third generation Livermore winemaker, as well as the third John in his family to take up the craft. “My grandpa [John] helped my dad [John] so much, I think you’d say that counts,” he says. Marion’s father, who is a physicist by trade, made wine as a hobby. “They were allowed to make 100 gallons per person per year before they had to be permitted. So my dad would make 100 gallons, and my mom would make 100 gallons.” They made cabernet sauvignon, mourvedre, and viognier.

The winemaking started at a big white house in town, but Big White House Winery is now housed in a brown clapboard barn. The tasting room is awash in color from dozens of oil paintings by Marion’s sister Laura Marion, some that were done for the labels on her brother’s wines, which document the winemaker’s relationship with his budding family. “My upcoming cab, due to be released June 7, is the fourth in a series that tracks Christina’s and my relationship,” says John. “We have one to represent our meeting, one to represent our engagement, one to represent our marriage, and yes, a… 10{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91} petit,” he pauses for effect, “syrah to represent John IV,” he says, gesturing to the infant in the baby carrier.

Marion, like Cranor, has an interest in the region’s history. “Livermore was the California wine region before Prohibition. It’s only been for a short time now that we’re back to the same levels of wine-making we were at pre-Prohibition.” He says Mondavi brought wine to Napa. “After World War II, the public wanted beer. It took a while for wine to become popular again. We were the 18th winery in Livermore. A couple have closed down, so we’re 16th now. We’re in the older third, and we started in ’98. That should tell you something.” There are now 54 wineries in Livermore.

Big White House Winery and John Evan Cellars

6800 Greenville Road
Winemaker: John Evan Marion
Number of cases produced in 2013: 1200 for BWH and 350 for JE
Favorite bottle: The 2011 John Evan “La Famille des Amoureux” Cabernet Sauvignon, which features the winemaker with his wife and new son on the label.
Tasting hours: Friday–Sunday, noon–4:30pm and by appointment
johnevancellars.com, 925.449.1976

 

Cuda Ridge

Larry and Margie Dino outside their Cude Ridge winery on Arroyo Road.  (Photo courtesy of Cuda Ridge Wines)

Larry and Margie Dino outside their Cude Ridge winery on Arroyo Road.
(Photos courtesy of Cuda Ridge Wines)

Vines were leafing out tenderly in the May sunshine as we rode up to the former olive mill on Arroyo Road where Larry Dino’s Cuda Ridge winery has been situated since 2013. There’s no ridge here, to speak of: The name was inspired by a purple 1970 Plymouth Barracuda muscle car that the winemaker and his wife, Margie, drove by the day they lost their bid on a winery they hoped to buy in Windsor. “I said, ‘If I can’t buy this property, I’ll buy this car.’” He did, and then spent the next three years rebuilding the vehicle, which his wife took to calling his mistress. “When we bottled our first home wine, we thought of naming it Dino’s Vino. … A buddy of mine who was there knew Margie hated the car. Just to hassle her, he said, ‘This is to Cuda Ridge Wines.’ And the name stuck.”

Like Steve Burman, the Dinos bought a house in Livermore with a yard planted in grapes. In this case, it was petit verdot, a dark red Bordeaux cultivar. “Bordeaux and Rhône varieties do well here,” says Dino. “It’s exciting because winemakers are allowed to show their own creativity. Being here gives us flexibility. Napa could grow different varieties well too, but they don’t. Napa cabs tend to be bolder, with higher tannins, and a dusty quality. Livermore cabs are less tannic. They’re fresh, clean, with more acidity. Napa cabs are tasting the same, there’s not a lot of variation. They’re all striving for a Napa-style taste profile.”

the namesake ’Cuda, parked beside the grapevines at the Dino’s Livermore home.

the namesake ’Cuda, parked beside the grapevines at the Dino’s Livermore home.

The decision to go into fulltime wine production came in 2007 when Dino was laid off from BEA Systems as the company was sold to Oracle. The couple rented a garage on Cedar Mountain Road, a facility that seems to have become an incubator for fledgling Livermore wine makers. There they produced 300 cases and got bonded. “The timing was perfect. The region has jumped from 15 to nearly 60 wineries.” In addition, Dino says the recession helped them grow. “We started in ’07. People were looking for day trips, less expensive ways to spend time. Livermore has lower tasting fees than Napa and Sonoma, and it’s much closer.”

Cuda Ridge Wines
2400 Arroyo Road
Winemaker: Larry Dino
Number of cases produced in 2013: 2100
Favorite bottle: 2012 Cuda Ridge Cabernet Franc, Livermore Valley
Tasting hours: Friday–Sunday, from noon–4:30pm and by appointment
cudaridgewines.com, 510.304.0914

 

Caddis Winery

Just back from their honeymoon in July, Chris Sorensen and Courtney Garcia of Caddis Winery were back at work, moving a press bought from Larry Dino into the rented garage on Cedar Mountain Road. (Chris’s mother made the sign.)

Just back from their honeymoon in July, Chris Sorensen and Courtney Garcia of Caddis Winery were back at work, moving a press bought from Larry Dino into the rented garage on Cedar Mountain Road.
(Chris’s mother made the sign.)

Newlyweds Chris Sorensen and Courtney Garcia of Caddis rival Cranor for youngest Livermore winemaker status. I met them in front of their makeshift winery, the same rented Cedar Mountain Road garage where Larry Dino launched Cuda Ridge. The ephemeral tasting bar is just a plank laid across a couple of barrels. Behind it, a dozen racked barrels age the couple’s zinfandel, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, and tempranillo. (The winery is named for a type of fly whose presence indicates an especially clean lake or river.)

A Livermore native, Sorensen’s entrée to the wine world was his first job: sticking labels onto bottles in high school. “I fell into the wine business at 15. I liked it. It wasn’t what the others in high school were doing.” He studied viticulture and oenology at UC Davis. “I like that the work is tied to the change of seasons and that you’re always having to figure out how to improve.” Sorensen now teaches a wine class at Las Positas College in Livermore.

The couple’s small-lot wines are all made from Livermore Valley fruit, with one exception. Their Sonoma Double Dog Zin—named after two beloved bulldogs, Junior and Roxie—was sourced from the 150 vines at Garcia’s parents’ home in Sonoma. “They never knew what to do with the grapes. My dad even tried to make jelly,” says Garcia, who is mourning her father’s recent passing. “He was with us every step of the way, the pick, the harvest, the bottling, the press.”

Success at Caddis thus far centers on their Livermore-sourced Caddis 2011 Tempranillo, which scored a double-gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle competition. This Spanish cultivar produces grapes that are noted as first to ripen, smallest to be harvested, and rare in Livermore Valley. “The grower had a deal fall through. He was going door to door, seeing who might want to purchase the grapes,” says Sorensen, who initially declined, but then called the grower back and purchased the lot.

Sorensen and Garcia don’t have enough wine yet to justify building a real tasting room. “We’d run out!” They say they don’t want to take out business loans. “We want to grow organically. A lot of wineries come and go… You can make money, but you have to do it slow and steady. Our wines are winning awards and getting noticed.” So for now, look for Caddis wines in Livermore at the First Street Wine Company, The Pour House, or Concannon’s Underdog Wine Bar, where Diego and I enjoyed a glass before heading home.

Caddis Winery
7878 Cedar Mountain Road
Winemakers: Courtney Garcia and Chris Sorensen
Number of cases produced in 2013: 300
Favorite bottle: The wine-club-only Double Dog Zinfandel
Tasting hours: By appointment only
caddiswine.com, 925.380.6219

 

Page Mill Winery

Dane Stark gets ready to share a glass of Angela’s Cuvée at his Page Mill Winery.

Dane Stark gets ready to share a glass of Angela’s Cuvée at his Page Mill Winery.

As I make my way up the long gravel driveway to Page Mill Winery, a big, lean, boyish-looking man with scruffy blonde hair emerges from beneath a canopy, greeting us energetically with a warm smile and outstretched hand. Dane Stark, as I learn, grew up in a winemaking family, and has never worked in another profession.

When Stark was a child, his father dug a space for a big winery under the family house on Page Mill Road in Los Altos Hills. Then he began trucking in grapes from all over California. While in college, young Dane signed up for an exchange program in Bordeaux, where he studied oenology. On graduation, he came home to make wine with his dad, but keeping the home winery going when his parents retired didn’t pencil out for Dane and wife Angela. The couple looked to other California wine regions and chose Livermore Valley, setting up to become Livermore winery number 24.

Stark says it was the location, not the grapes, initially. “I was making chardonnay with fruit from Alexander Valley, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and Santa Maria Valley. Those were the places you went for the grapes.” Then, on a whim, he decided to experiment, making a chardonnay with Livermore Valley fruit. “If you had asked me in ’04 if I could have ever made a chardonnay like this with Livermore fruit, I would not have believed it. It surpassed my wildest dreams. It really opened my eyes to Livermore Valley.” So wowed was he that he severed a 23-year relationship with his Paso Robles grower. “I fell in love with the local fruit. We went from 0{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91} Livermore fruit to 90{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91}. It was that good.”

Stark is particularly proud of his sauvignon blanc, one of Page Mill’s pillars and the wine with the biggest production. “I was striving for a sauvignon blanc bulls-eye. I found it here. It’s a particular expression of this valley that is unparalleled. Livermore is an ancient riverbed—deep and rocky—and it’s seriously windy. Vines are like people. They’re at their best when they struggle a little but get the rest they need.” He offered me a taste of a cloudy chardonnay in the middle of its malolactic fermentation. “We’re writing an epic poem. Every day, we’re adding lines to it. It’s gotta rhyme and be pretty. This is my 25th harvest, and I’m just getting started.”

Page Mill Winery
1960 S Livermore Avenue
Winemaker: Dane Stark
Number of cases produced in 2013: 3,500
Favorite bottle: Angela’s Cuvee, Dry Rosé
Tasting hours: Thursday–Monday noon–4:30pm
pagemillwinery.com, 925.456.7676

 

 Wente Winemaker’s Studio

2014-06-14-14.40Famous for being the oldest continuously operated family-run winery in the country, Wente Vineyards is the granddaddy of wineries in Livermore Valley, producing 750,000 cases annually with 60 employees just to staff the tasting rooms. Their brand new Winemaker’s Studio at 5565 Tesla Road showcases their five winemakers: Karl D. Wente, Brad Buehler, Claude Bobba, Andrew Lynch, and Elizabeth Kester, but the studio plays a special role for visitors.

“Wente’s mission is to highlight Livermore Valley as a wine region and to make wine education fun,” says studio manager Lindsay Knight, as she shows me the facility’s interactive learning stations and talks about the classes which allow students to learn about wine aromas, how to pair wines with food, or how to blend their own wine.

A giant topographical map displays Northern California American Viticultural Areas, and for the first time I understand the wind tunnel everyone had been speaking about and how close Livermore actually is to the bay. Knight points out Wente’s Arroyo Seco vineyards—800 acres of vines in Monterey County—and indicated the deep ocean trench in Monterey Bay, explaining that this deep water is why Monterey is so much cooler than the surrounding area. A small barrel of chardonnay with a clear window on one end allows visitors to get a visual on “sur-lies” chardonnay, while an aroma station nearby invites them to test their scent recall. Fabric swatches—five for red and five for white—mimic mouth feel. “Napa is doing things like this, but they’re generally not open to the public,” says Knight.

wentewinemakers.com, 925.456.2385

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