Although it’s easy to see why Northern California’s Napa and Sonoma valleys are so popular, their commercial success has come at a cost. The area’s quick expansion has meant that smaller wineries have mostly been swallowed up by larger, more commercially-viable estates. For this reason, if you’re looking for a low-key wine tasting experience in a smaller, family-run environment, the tri-valley may be your best option.
For a more personal alternative, the wineries in the Livermore Valley just east of San Francisco are just as good but definitely further under the radar. As part of the greater tri-valley area that encompasses the Amador, Livermore and San Ramon Valleys, Livermore Valley is home to some of the oldest vineyards in California.
The Prohibition of the 1920s resulted in many of the wineries shutting down, which dramatically shrunk the industry here. When the wine industry picked up again years later, Napa and Sonoma quickly overtook the tri-valley area in size and reputation. For the wine tourist, this is actually good news; Livermore still produces quality wines, but in a much more casual atmosphere – many of the wineries offer free tastings, and chances are you’ll be served wine by the estate owners themselves.
If you’re coming from San Francisco, take the 580-East until the turnoff to Livermore. Most wineries branch off Tesla Road that runs out of the city, so start by driving out to the furthest winery on Tesla Road and make your way back to Livermore.
If you choose this route, a good first stop is Boaventura. Run by husband and wife team Brett and Monique Caires, the estate is open for one weekend a month unless by special appointment. All wines are estate-grown and bottled, and there is a good selection despite the estate’s small size. The wine tasting menu varies from month to month, but you’ll typically be able to sample varietals such as the 2007 Green label, the 2005 Maroon label cabernet sauvignon, and the 2006 Nelson vineyard Syrah. The tasting room is housed in a barn constructed with wood salvaged from original houses that once dotted the area, and if you take your lunch with you, the green lawns outside make for an ideal picnic spot.
Back on Tesla Road, La Rochelle is a bigger estate owned by Stephen Kent who also owns the neighboring Stephen Kent winery. Although La Rochelle was only started in 1996, it produces an impressive range of handcrafted wines made with grapes sourced from Monterey, Santa Cruz, and the Russian River. The winery’s tasting room has tables and chairs so you can take your time while you sample, and depending on which tasting flight you choose, you’ll have the option to pair the wines with platters consisting of cheeses, quince paste, and truffle mousse.
A must-see after La Rochelle is the 126-year-old Wente Vineyards, the country’s oldest continuously operated family-owned winery. The estate consists of 3000 acres of sustainable vineyards that also house a restaurant, café, championship golf course, as well as a sweeping amphitheater lawn that is the venue for annual summer concerts. A highlight of Wente is the tasting tours through the estate’s wine caves. Originally constructed in the 1800s, the caves offer natural temperature control that is ideal for storing and aging wine. As part of the tasting selection, try the limited production small lot wines in the nth degree range that include a chardonnay, cabernet, merlot, syrah and pinot noir. These wines are not generally publicly available and are only sold on the estate itself and in a few selected restaurants around the U.S.
As a final stop before you reach Livermore, Concannon is as old as Wente, having been opened by pioneering founder James Concannon in 1883. The winery is known particularly for its Bordeaux and Rhone-styled wines made from grapes taken from vineyards in the San Francisco Bay Area and along the Californian Central Coast. Concannon was the first winery in the world to produce a petite syrah, from their 1961 vintage. Today, the vineyard is a historical landmark and the Concannon family home on the estate has been restored to its former glory.
If you take your time, visiting these four wineries is the ideal itinerary for a relaxed day. When you reach Livermore, stop for something to eat or to browse the shops before heading back to San Francisco, an easy 45 minutes’ drive away.
What and Where:
Boaventura Winery(9309 Tesla Road; 925-606-9672; www.boaventuravineyard.com)
La Rochelle Winery (5443 Tesla Road; 925-243-6442; www.lrwine.com)
Wente (5565 Tesla Road; 925-456-2300; www.wentevineyards.com)
Concannon (4590 Tesla Road; 925-456-2500; www.concannonvineyards.com)
For more information about Livermore visit trivalleycvb.com
Catherine Parker is a South African freelance food and travel writer based in the Bay Area. She moved to San Francisco from London in 2006.