Though chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon are the most popular wine varieties sold in the U.S., many people don’t realize that the California birthplace of both of these delicious wine grapes is the Livermore Valley wine region. Called a ‘hidden gem’ by Forbes, and only a short drive from San Francisco and Silicon Valley, this historical region is home to the first California wine to win a competition in Paris, France, with an 1884 vintage from La Cresta winery.
“We are a unique wine region, because we are home to grape growers, cattle ranchers, and brilliant scientists and engineers who work at Lawrence Livermore Labs and near-by Silicon Valley,” said Heather McGrail, CEO and Owner of McGrail Vineyards.
Indeed, on a recent visit to Livermore, during a seafood and wine dinner at Murietta’s Well Winery, I sat next to an engineer who told me about a house robot he was developing at a Silicon Valley technology company. He also described how he and his wife had been coming to Livermore Valley for years now to buy locally grown, sustainable wines, and to relax.
Livermore Valley – a Natural, Green, Historic Haven to Relax
Being so close to the fast-paced work schedules and crazy traffic of Silicon Valley and San Francisco, the Livermore Valley wine region is a restful green oasis filled with vineyards and 50+ wineries.
Two of these wineries hold a prominent place in California wine history – Concannon and Wente – due to being the birthplace of California cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, respectively. At a legacy tasting on the grounds of Concannon, these two historic wineries and others came together to discuss their history.
“Concannon Vineyards was started in 1883, and our founder imported cabernet sauvignon vine cuttings from Chateau Margaux in France in 1893,” said James Foster, Concannon Senior Director of Winemaking, during the tasting. “UC-Davis took samples of these vines and renamed them clones 7, 8 and 11. Today wineries across the state use these clones, meaning that 80% of all California cabernet sauvignon has come from these vines.”
The original ‘mother vineyard’ can still be visited on the Concannon estate in Livermore. Nearby, Wente Vineyards, also has a ‘mother vine’ vineyard of chardonnay.
“Wente was founded in 1883, and in 1912 my great-grandfather imported chardonnay vines from France,” explained Phil Wente, Vice-Chairman of Wente, during the tasting. “Over the years he hand-picked vines that showed pronounced flavors and that is how the Wente chardonnay clone was developed.” Today over 75% of all California chardonnay stems from the Wente clone.
Another historic winery present at the tasting was Fenestra, started in 1976 by San Jose State University chemistry professor, Lanny Replogle, who explained that “we purchased the historic Ruby Hill winery built in 1881, and restored it.” Today Fenestra produces complex cabernets and GSM blends.
Rhonda Wood retired from a fast-paced schedule as an airline pilot, and started Wood Family Vineyards in 1996 in her backyard. “I planted 18 vines and produced 50 cases, growing to over 8,000 cases today,” she said. Wood specializes in merlot and red blends.
Dancing The Night Away at Livermore Wineries on Weekends
Perhaps it is due to its proximity near the frenzied pace of Silicon Valley and San Francisco that during the week, the tasting rooms of Livermore Valley are usually not crowded. But during the weekends this all changes, as many wineries host live bands, dancing, dinners, and of course, delicious wine and innovative wine cocktails.
One of the most unique venues is the Almost Famous Wine Co., started by Darcie and David Kent of Darcie Kent winery. “We discovered this old building and decided to remodel it into a night club,” explained Darcie. Today the club is packed almost every Friday and Saturday night with people dancing the night away to live bands, and drinking wine.
There are many other Livermore wineries that also host weekend music and/or dance events late into the evening. These include McGrail, Wood Family, Longevity, Las Positas, Garré, and Del Valle. This is a unique aspect of Livermore Valley wineries that can’t be found in other wine regions, which usually shut down their tasting rooms at 5pm.
Award-Winning Wines from Livermore Valley
Given its position as one of California’s historic wine regions, it may not be surprising the Livermore Valley wines frequently win top awards at wine competitions. At the 2023 San Francisco Chronicle wine competition, Livermore wineries took home 174 medals, including Best of Class in 8 categories, with 3 – not surprisingly – in the cabernet category.
Wineries which have a tendency to receive 90+ scores from wine critics include Darcie Kent, Cuda Ridge, Steven Kent, McGrail, and Wente. One of the most surprising to me was a non-oaked chardonnay produced by newcomer, Pruett Farms. It was bright, crisp and delicious with notes of rich golden apple, honeysuckle blossom and a bone dry finish.
“When I retired from Silicon Valley, my wife and I decided to purchase an old winery and farm house built here in 1881,” explained owner, Bob Pruett, at a recent tasting. “What amazes me about Livermore Valley is how friendly and collaborative everyone is. It is quite different from the competitive high-tech world. Here, everyone helps out when needed.”
Pruett includes a chicken motif on his wine front label as a tribute to the free-range chickens that feed amongst the vines in their vineyard, and occasionally jump straight up in the air to steal a grape. “The hens seem to enjoy eating grapes,” said Pruett, “and sometimes I see our roosters plucking grapes and giving them to the shorter hens as a gift.” Who knew roosters were so chivalrous!