Napa and Sonoma have been the toast of wine aficionados for years, but one of the oldest wine regions in California lies to the southeast, in Livermore Valley. Vineyards here have deep roots too, producing award-winning vintages as early as 1889, when Cresta Blanca won a gold medal at the Paris International Exposition.
A century later, despite creeping suburbanization, Livermore wine country is thriving, offering tours and tastings at more than a dozen places. When I packed for a weekend visit earlier this month, I left room in my suitcase for a few bottles that I knew would be hard to find in Southern California.
My introduction to Livermore Valley was a bit delayed because of Friday afternoon rush-hour traffic from the Oakland airport. My husband, Paul, and I were stuck on eastbound Interstate 580 for more than two hours on a trip that can take as little as 40 minutes.
From the car, I could see that Livermore wine country isn't as scenic as Napa's. The landscape is mostly flat, with bare, rounded hills off in the distance. But once we got off the freeway, we found few cars and tourists, which is refreshing for anyone who has fought the crowds in Napa.
Few tourists, unfortunately, means few noteworthy places to stay near the wineries. I was glad I had made reservations at the 10-room Purple Orchid Inn, one of the few B&Bs; in an area dominated by chain hotels catering to business travelers.
First-time visitors may be amused to find that the Purple Orchid, built in 1997, is a giant log cabin. At 9,000 square feet, it's the largest structure of its kind, according to owner Karen Hughes. I suspect it's also the only one with a swimming pool, afternoon wine and cheese, French toast with Grand Marnier sauce for breakfast and a full-service spa.
Our room ($170 a night plus tax) was nicely decorated and had a fireplace, a Jacuzzi bathtub and a view of the olive orchard that Hughes planted. (To offset the wave of housing tracts flowing east from San Francisco and Oakland, Livermore regulations stipulate that 90% of some smaller developments like the Purple Orchid be devoted to agriculture.)
Hughes sells the olive oil and uses it in the spa. I enjoyed a relaxing, exfoliating body treatment that involved a gritty paste of olive oil and Dead Sea salt. I smelled like a salad until I showered, but my skin was as soft as a baby's.
Our dinner reservation was at Wente Vineyards, which was packed. Wente owns 60% of the vineyards in Livermore Valley and has become the hub of local entertainment with its restaurant, golf course and tree-shaded grounds, used for weddings and summer concerts starring the likes of Willie Nelson and the Buena Vista Social Club.
The Wente Vineyards Restaurant has the elegant but low-key ambience of a country club, contemporary American cuisine with an Italian twist, and a staggering 400-bottle wine list. We opted to compare a flight of Italian varietals against a flight of Chardonnays. The Chardonnays won hands down.
As the sunset turned the hills to gold, we shared an appetizer of smoked salmon bruschetta tufted with sweet onions. Paul's braised pork risotto was sublime, as was my seafood stew, a melange of fresh mussels, halibut and salmon in a fragrant saffron-tomato broth. For dessert, the "peach gooey cake" was irresistible, topped with muscat ice cream and caramel sauce.
Saturday morning, Hughes gave us a list of her favorite wineries, many of which are strung along South Livermore Avenue and Tesla Road. (The Livermore Valley Winegrowers Assn. has a Web site, http://www.livermorewine.com, with descriptions of wineries and a helpful map.) With our innkeeper's recommendations in hand, we started with the biggest wineries and worked our way down.
At Wente we tagged along on a tour of the winery, which ranks 24th in California in terms of volume of wine produced but No. 1 in the percentage of bottles shipped overseas (more than half), guide Jerry Motto said.
I learned that it takes scores of stainless steel tanks, thousands of oak barrels and a grape crusher the size of a swimming pool to turn out between 400,000 and 600,000 cases of wine a year.
In the tasting room, Motto demonstrated proper tasting technique, from swirling the wine in the glass to boost aroma, to sloshing it around in your mouth. With so many wines to taste in so little time, Paul and I decided to make this a "sip-and-spit" day.
Like Wente, Concannon dates to the 1880s. It produces much less--around 90,000 cases a year. Outside we found a grassy picnic area and a grape arbor where I plucked sweet, juicy Tokay grapes from the clusters hanging overhead.
In the tasting room, the bar was outfitted with the essentials (spit bucket, water, crackers), plus one extra: M&Ms.; Arlo Ketchum, the tasting-room guru, explained that chewing M&Ms; helps before sipping a full-bodied red wine, such as Concannon's signature Petite Syrah. The chocolate tricks the mouth into experiencing what the wine tastes like when enjoyed with a steak.
Ketchum said Concannon was the first to develop the petite syrah grape and, in 1961, became the first to bottle it. I bought a '97 Petite Syrah for $23.95, vowing that I would follow Ketchum's instructions and resist opening it for at least two years. Older Petite Syrahs were going for around $50 a bottle.
At Stony Ridge Winery, Paul and I shared a roasted lamb sandwich and a buttery bulb of roasted garlic. Stony Ridge produces 20,000 cases of Italian-style wines, made mostly with grapes from other regions. Even though I planned to buy only wines made from Livermore Valley grapes, I made an exception for Stony Ridge's Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.
I picked up another distinctive Cabernet at Cedar Mountain Winery, which produces only 7,000 cases a year, and a rich Chardonnay at the Retzlaff vineyard, the baby of retired Livermore chemist Bob Taylor. Taylor's son, Noah, is the cellar master and signs each bottle--3,000 cases' worth--that the winery produces every year.
During the winery hopping, I asked for dinner suggestions. The consensus was that we should drive 20 minutes west to old-town Pleasanton and choose what struck our fancy.
Pleasanton's Main Street is lined with turn-of-the-century storefronts and Victorian houses. Some buildings house antiques stores, and many have been turned into restaurants.
We settled on Bruno's, a lively Italian pizzeria with a sidewalk cafe and a glass-domed back patio filled with locals out for dinner on a balmy Saturday night.
Our pasta and salad were fine, but I was disappointed that Bruno's served only a few Livermore Valley wines. Paul reassured me that because I'd picked up a half-dozen bottles that day, I could enjoy them once I got home. The only problem: How would I cram so many into a carry-on suitcase?
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Budget for Two
Round-trip air fare, L.A. to Oakland--$251.00
Car rental, two days--41.28
Purple Orchid, two nights--404.60
Lunch, Stony Ridge--10.75
* Purple Orchid Inn Resort & Spa, 4549 Cross Road, Livermore, CA 94550; telephone (800) 353-4549 or (925) 606-8855, Internet http://www.purpleorchid.com.
* Livermore Valley Winegrowers Assn., 1984 Railroad Ave., Suite A, Livermore, CA 94550; tel. (925) 447-9463, http://www.livermorewine.com.