In Northern California wine country, Napa Valley and Sonoma County get all the attention. Another wine region I love is Livermore Valley, an easy drive from San Jose and Silicon Valley, and 35 miles east of San Francisco. Livermore boasts 50 plus wineries and is still growing, with about eight new wineries that launched in the past 5 years.
Why do I love LV wine country? Great wines are a big draw, but what's even better is that most wineries are small and family owned. That means you have a good chance of the winemaker or owner actually pouring your wine, which happens rarely in Napa or Sonoma (unless you make an appointment, but I digress). Because these wineries are not as well known, you don't get huge crowded tasting rooms or bus loads of tipsy visitors. The roads are not clogged with tourists as they are in Napa Valley, especially in the summer. There's plenty to do besides taste wine, from playing golf or bocce ball to biking and eating well.
Livermore Valley is one of the oldest wine regions in California, with Wente Vineyards and Concannon Vineyard being two of the originals. The appellation is known for Petite Sirah, a deeply hued, rich and complex wine. But you'll also find beautiful Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet What's even cooler is that several wineries are making unexpected varietals, from Gruner Veltliner to Verdelho. I think you'll find great value in these and other Livermore Valley wines; prices are very reasonable for quality equal to many Napa and Sonoma wines.
My list covers some of the most exciting wines coming out of the valley that you should be drinking now. They are also wines worth the trip to try in the tasting room.
Concannon Vineyard 2008 Petite Sirah, Captain Joe's, Livermore Valley ($36). Concannon was the first winery to bottle Petite Sirah as a single varietal. Prior to that PS was a blending grape. This wine is powerful and rich with jammy black fruit. Crooked Vine 2010 Chardonnay, Livermore Valley ($24). 100% of the fruit is from Livermore Valley, and it's a very good example of LV Chards. Crooked Vine's Chard has tropical fruits and pear balanced with just a little oak and vanilla.
Darcie Kent Vineyards 2010 Gruner Veltliner, Monterey County ($18). The fruit comes from the Rava Blackjack Vineyard in Monterey, but it's a beautiful bottle of Gruner, with lots of lime and a floral nose. Darcie Kent is also well known for Livermore Valley Merlots.
Fenestra Winery 2011 Verdelho, Silverspoon Vineyards, Lodi ($15). A burst of citrus and tropical fruit flavors, a crisp wine with good acidity. While the grapes come from Lodi, Fenestra produces an interesting blend called Semonnay, a blend of Chardonnay and Semillion with Livermore Valley fruit.
McGrail Vineyards 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Livermore Valley. The McGrail Cab is complex, juicy with black fruits and has a soft, smooth finish. Unfortunately it is currently sold out. This wine took top honors as the Red Wine Sweepstake Award winner at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and has flown off the shelves. But the 2009 reserve Cab ($39) will be released on July 14. If you can't wait, the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon is available now ($36) and is drinking very well.
Nottingham Cellars 2011 Viognier, Monterey County ($18). I am so happy about this wine, as I'm a huge Viognier fan and have not seen a Livermore winery making one, until now. This Nottingham Cellars wine is so good I can overlook the grapes being sourced from Monterey. The 2011 is just being released, and has everything I love about Viognier, including white flowers, peach and nectarine.
Nottingham Cellars 2010 Awakening GSM, Livermore Valley ($36). A double dip for Nottingham but this is one of the best red wines I've had from LV. Rising star winemaker Collin Cranor makes a fabulous Rhone blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mouvedre. This is his first effort at making a GSM and he hits a home run, with lots of fruit, including strawberries, and spices like black pepper.
Occasio 2011 Pinot Gris, Del Arroyo Vineyard, Livermore Valley ($20). You don't find much Pinot Gris in Livermore, but you should seek out this bottle from Occasio. A perfect wine for sipping, it's full bodied yet crisp, with citrus and apple flavors.
Page Mill Winery 2008 Blanc de Blanc, Richlor Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley ($75). This is not the first sparkling wine to come out of Livermore Valley, but it is arguably the best. Page Mill's bubbly is a hands-on endeavor, from grape growing and harvest to hand riddling and hand disgorging. Yes, the price is a whopper, and the most expensive on my list, but think of this Blanc de Blanc as a tête de cuvée, the best of the winery.
Page Mill 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, Ghielmette Vineyard, Livermore Valley ($18). Ok, another double dip but I've always been a big fan of Page Mill Sauv Blancs and this vintage may be the best yet. You get crisp, clean citrus and a lingering finish. This Page Mill wine just won the top award as Best Sauvignon Blanc in the 2012 LIvermore Valley Uncorked wine competition.
Steven Kent Winery 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Livermore Valley ($48). I still remember when I tasted Steven Kent's Cabernets for the first time. Wow. Lots of fruit and layers of spice and earth, full bodied and lush. The 2009 will not disappoint and will turn you into a fan of Livermore Valley Cabs.
Wente Vineyards 2010 Nth Degree Chardonnay, Livermore Valley ($36). According to winemaker Karl Wente on his family's winery website, the vineyards and the winemaking and oak aging are all done to the Nth degree to bring out a strong sense of place in these wines. I have long been a fan of the Nth Degree Chard and this current vintage is a beautiful expression of what a 100% Livermore Chard can be. Silky and creamy with tropical fruit and not too much oak.