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Livermore Stories: Darcie Kent Vineyards

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This is the first in a series called "Livermore Stories," which takes a look at the most exciting wineries in this wine growing region east of San Francisco.  More than 50 wineries now call Livermore Valley home, and the wines have never been better, and the wineries have great stories to tell. 

Darcie Kent is back.  "I'm still learning Cabernet Franc," says the Livermore Valley vintner as she's sorting beautiful grapes just picked from her home vineyard during the 2013 harvest.  "This is just a luscious, luscious berry, it's one of my favorite wines."

I first met Darcie in 2002 when she was just launching her namesake label, Darcie Kent Vineyards.  At the time, she was making only one wine, a Merlot, which is was what was planted in her home vineyard.  "We were doing a rip-roaring 50 to 100 cases out of my garage," she says.  We taped a story for the NBC TV show I produced, In Wine Country, about Darcie's home and her great decorating tips.  She's not only an accomplished interior designer, she's a fabulous artist who creates colorful large canvases depicting vineyard scenes and such.  She has plenty of inspiration from the gently rolling hills of Livermore Valley.

One of her paintings became her first wine label.  It's a single vine, with swirls of blue sky and bright red and orange sun.  Darcie loves color, especially the color purple.  Perhaps that's why she's drawn to Cabernet Franc, with its bright purple hue.

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Not long after her wine label's debut, Darcie Kent Vineyards became part of The Wine Group portfolio.  Her husband David had become president of the company and he and Darcie were not able to hold the bond on the winery.  So Darcie sold it to The Wine Group for $1.  "For all practical purposes it was going to sit there and stay there and do nothing." That's because they knew that when David retired they planned to buy the label back.

And that's exactly what happened.  Now Darcie Kent Vineyards is back in her hands.

However, Darcie's brand didn't just sit and do nothing within The Wine Group.  Fate intervened when The Four Seasons wanted a fine wine brand for their hotel restaurants.  "All of a sudden I was the house wine for The Four Seasons," she says.  Due to the demand, they had to come up with more wine.  Darcie had a few caveats for expanding her label.  "I want to be involved in all of the blends, the vineyard selection.  I have to do the labels and I want the wines to be very food friendly.  I want a European style and I want Julian Halasz to be the winemaker."

All of Darcie's demands were met.

Now that she's running the label again, one of the first things Darcie had to do was find a new home for the wines.  When the Cedar Mountain Vineyards winery went on the market, Darcie knew that was the perfect spot.  Cedar Mountain owners Earl and Linda Alt had helped Darcie get her fledgling winery going.  Darcie also helped them out, pouring in their tasting room.  "I  just felt it was so serendipitous that we were able to make this our new home.  It all comes around."

Darcie Kent Vineyards moved into the winery in February 2013.  "They were a tank-driven program, we're a barrel-driven program, two different styles of winemaking so we're slowly transitioning the winery." That transition means rebuilding to focus on small lot, single vineyard wines from estate vineyards.

Darcie plans to add open top fermenters and more barrels.  They've also started construction on a new building that will house the bottling line and lab.  The winery building will be converted to all barrel storage.

There's a 100-year-old red barn on the property as well.  Singer Bing Crosby once owned it, and before him, boxing world heavyweight champion Max Baer trained in it.  The red barn is being restored to serve as production space for the winery.

While there are estate vineyards with vines of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc growing, Darcie's planning to replant the 20 acres to 15 acres of Cabernet,   and she'll keep the Sauvignon Blanc.  "The fruit we're getting is really pretty," she says.

Darcie's converted the Alt's house (they lived on the property) into her tasting room and wine gallery. The official opening was on July 4th.  "Independence day," says Darcie.  "It's a little symbolic."

This is the first time she's had her own gallery to show her work.  "Since we've been open in July we've completely turned over the art, almost everything is sold,"  Darcie says.  "It's shocking to me, I really didn't expect that."

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She's been experimenting with a painting technique called Tempera, where Darcie applies metal leaf under acrylic paint.  "It's dynamic, changing with the light.  I'm having a lot of fun with this technique."

Also hanging on the walls of the tasting room gallery, the menu from the 100th First Ladies Luncheon in Washington, D.C. on May 9, 2012.  Her 2010 De Mayo Vineyard Chardonnay from Livermore Valley was selected to be poured at this annual charity fundraiser.  Darcie said the First Lady wanted wines from female vintners.

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"It was like better than anything I've ever experienced in my life," Darcie says.  "When we walked in to this room set for over 2,000, every waiter was holding my wine and on every big screen it said Darcie Kent Vineyards.  I thought it was a reception for me, I mean it was very, very cool."  Darcie and her two daughters Kailyn and Amanda got to meet Michelle Obama too.

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That De Mayo Chardonnay, with its tropical fruit notes, and rich, creamy mouthfeel, is one of a dozen single vineyard wines now in the Darcie Kent portfolio.

While the fruit for the Gruner Veltliner, a deliciously crisp and bright food friendly wine, comes from the Rava Blackjack Vineyard in Monterey, most of the Darcie Kent wines are made with Livermore fruit.  Darcie loves Gruner and wanted to make one in homage to her family's winegrowing roots.  She is a fourth generation vintner, whose family still makes wine in Switzerland.  Her great-grandfather immigrated to the United States and settled in Missouri, where he opened Alpine Winery, which held the 62nd winery bond in the country.  Just like Darcie, her great-grandfather also painted the labels for his wines.

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"I paint artwork for each specific varietal," she says.  "I'm trying to express the terroir but I'm also trying to express the flavors."  The colors go from cooler to warmer as you go through the wines from the Gruner, which has greens, blues and purples, to Chardonnay, with gold tones, to Merlot with shades of orange, to rich reds, orange and purple for Syrah.

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I've always been a fan of Darcie's Merlot, and I love how she's now blending it with Cabernet Franc and Malbec.  She considers this her top of the line wine, named Crown Block.  "It's our icon label and this wine has matured so much through the years."  All the fruit comes from her home vineyard, now planted to these three varietals.  The wine is complex, powerful and spicy, but it is soft and elegant at the same time.

The Infinite Stone Cabernet Franc comes from a section of the Crown Block vineyard which is a southern facing, rocky hillside.  "That portion of the vineyard produces just as many rocks as it does grapes," Darcie says.  The wine has beautiful floral aromas and silky tannins.  This 2010 vintage is the first time Darcie Kent has made a Cabernet Franc, and it's now my favorite of her wines.  We tasted the 2011 Cab Franc out of barrel and it has beautiful fruit and lots of complexity.  I can't wait to try it once it is bottled.

Even with all of this, Darcie's just getting going.  Once construction on the new building is complete, she's planning to expand the Wine Gallery to offer tasting experiences with food pairings.  A live music series at the winery is also in the works.  And, one day she hopes to open the tasting room and Wine Gallery seven days a week.