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Cover Story - July 31, 2009

Day tripping, wine sipping

Livermore Valley wineries are right in our back yard

by Don Colman, The Everyday Wine Guy

Quick, think of a wine region. Most people say Napa, Italy, France, maybe even Australia. They are known for having the perfect climate, soil and rainfall to grow some of the best grapes in the world. But living in the Danville area, we all know that Livermore grows grapes although we may ask: How good can they be?

There are three main components that help wine grapes grow - geography, climate and soil. Geographically, Livermore is unique in Northern California. It is one of the only areas that runs east-west rather than north-south and is guarded by rolling coastal mountains. The east-west nature allows for the thick ocean fog to seep into the Livermore Valley, leading to an ideal growing climate.

As all residents of Danville know, this air flow creates hot summer days and cool nights. On top of that, the region has a cooling breeze, almost like an air conditioner. These winds are the reason for so many windmills on the Altamont Pass east of the Livermore Valley. In wine terms, this is Utopia as these conditions allow fruit to ripen beautifully.

Finally, Livermore's soil is primarily gravel. The better the drainage the less water the grapes have and the deeper the roots go searching for moisture. This leads to healthier vines with more dense and flavorful fruit.

The region is critical, as you either have great growing conditions or you don't. Very rarely will you find excellent wines from a locality that has poor growing conditions. However, the right geography, climate and soil do not assure you of a great wine; the other key ingredient to success lies with the winemaker, and Livermore has its fair share of talent.

The Livermore Valley has 47 wineries with a range of styles and flavors. This article is neither large enough to cover all of the wineries nor will it do justice to the stories behind each vintner. It can, however, be a starting point for day trips to the Livermore Wine Country.

Following is a sampling of 11 wineries, including a suggestion of one "must try" wine from each vintner.

Crooked Vine Winery

A beautiful winery that is perfect for a big event. Weddings, parties, corporate functions - they can do it all. Use the gorgeous courtyard, equipped with lights and a sound system, or try the barrel room, which includes a traditional bar. What about the wine? The Syrah ($30) is true to form. It is loaded with red peppers and berries, and enough tannins to pair well with big meat dishes. A well balanced and easy-to-drink wine.

Deer Ridge Vineyards

This winery is a mix of Scottish heritage and California decor. The building is gorgeous and efficient. You can see the entire operation in one building, which includes a stellar tasting room and banquet facility ideal for weddings, reunions or conferences. It even has a two-bedroom guesthouse that could be rented on a wedding night. Deer Ridge's Moonstruck ($36) is a real treat - a blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah, petite syrah and merlot that makes me think of "These are a few of my favorite things" from "Mary Poppins." The ingredients create a well balanced yet complex wine that every wine cellar must have.

John Christopher Cellars

This is a relaxing way to taste wine as it is located in downtown Livermore. People end up tasting a wine and then purchasing a bottle to drink in the courtyard. This tasting room is a well appointed, store-front style surrounded by other tasting rooms, shops and restaurants. This makes an easy add-on trip to other downtown Livermore errands. It produces a blend of petite syrah and syrah (called Quixotic, $28) that is fruit forward and very smooth, and that disappears as fast as the corks come out of the bottle.

La Rochelle

Another unique wine experience, across the parking lot from Steven Kent. Plan to spend some time here, as it does a sit-down wine and food experience, a perfect midday break. This lets visitors see how they can pair food with wine to enhance the overall experience. La Rochelle is known for its pinot noirs, which do not disappoint. The 2006 La Rochelle Santa Lucia Highlands ($40) is an unbelievable pinot - fruitful, smooth, balanced and worth every penny. There is no messing around; this is 100 percent pinot territory. This winery knows what it is good at and does it well.

Longevity Wines

I did not know what to expect, as Longevity is known as an urban winery. Guests pull into an industrial park and walk into a small but well appointed tasting room. The rest of the building is dedicated to pure wine making. The beauty of this is that it is quick and easy to get to and visitors can spend their entire time with the owners/winemakers. The petite syrah ($18) ranks up there with the best of them. It is full of blackberries and peppers and is very well balanced.

McGrail Vineyards & Winery

The winemakers at this small family-owned winery are a father-daughter team. They decided to be good at one thing and one thing only - cabernet sauvignon ($36). Their cabs are big, full bodied wines with lots of berries and earth flavors that rival those produced in Napa. McGrail has a spectacular tasting room, which opened in 2008.

Page Mill Winery

Originally from Palo Alto and now located in the heart of Livermore, this has a real old school feel to it. Wine is sampled in a barn surrounded by grapes. The barn is cozy, and lucky visitors will see the "watch cats" that sometimes lounge on the couches. Page Mill makes an outstanding sauvignon blanc ($17). The winery says it lets the grapes do all the work. It is a very flavorful wine that bursts with citrus and is a relatively small production - so get it early.

The Steven Kent Winery

A truly unique experience for wine tasting. At Steven Kent, no one lines up at a wine bar waiting to be served, but rather guests are shown to their own tables where they can talk with no crowds and be served by waiters. An added plus, La Rochelle is across the parking lot - two wineries with no driving. Steven Kent's cabernet sauvignon ($45) is out of this world! It is a cab that I would stack against some of the best in world, it makes a perfect special occasion wine. It is a medium- to full-bodied wine with the classic California cabernet sauvignon characteristics. Fruit forward with a smooth finish and just the right amount of tannins.

Wente Vineyards

The consummate winery, Wente has all of the benefits of a big winery but still has a small vintner feel. Wente is an integral part of Livermore Wine Valley history and it shows. Wente could be a day trip by itself. Start with a round of golf at its gorgeous par-72 course, have a gourmet lunch in its restaurant, make your way to the tasting room for some wine, and end the day with a musical show at Wente's summer concert series. On top of all of that, the winery consistently produces excellent wines. Its Riesling ($12) is refreshing, loaded with sweet apples, and very smooth on the finish.

White Crane Winery

Step back in time and visit this quaint winery. Visitors are completely surrounded by the vineyard as they make their way to a good old-fashioned tasting room with walls covered by awards. White Crane is becoming recognized by everyone for its quality; Barry Manilow has even hired it to produce a wine under his name. Its port is not nearly as sweet as some of those sugary aperitifs, which is a nice change, and it's a must-buy at approximately $40 a bottle.

Wood Family Vineyards

Make sure to call ahead for directions and save some time to go into the tasting room at Wood Family. Visitors love the feel of this winery as they are literally welcomed to the Wood home - the complete opposite of the generic tours too often found in the Napa region. Guests have a chance to sit down with the Wood family and hear their story. One highlight is a merlot ($22) produced from grapes that grow in the vineyard surrounding the house. The merlot is a beautiful blend of cherries with just a hint of sweet citrus fruit. The tannins give it a lovely chewy feel for a flavor-burst with every sip.

Livermore Valley Wineries are barely 30 minutes from Danville, which makes them the perfect destination for a summer day trip. Many people say the region reminds them of Napa about three decades ago, with wineries galore and owners excited about sharing their wares. Buy the wine, share the wine, and drink the wine, you won't be disappointed.

Until next time, cheers!

Don Colman, the Everyday Wine Guy lives in Danville and can be reached at everydaywineguy@hotmail.com

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