Livermore Valley: California’s Other Wine Country

Content Produced in Partnership with Livermore Valley Winegrower’s Association

At dinner the other day, someone started out a conversation with me, “I thought you were a wine snob?”

I laughed because it was so far from the truth. “Why would you think that, just because I have a shirt that says, ‘rose all day?’”

Sure, I like a glass of vino as much as the next person but to say I’m educated about it is a stretch. Growing up with a mother who drinks Moscato with dinner, my palate is not exactly what you’d call refined. And yes, I gravitate towards sweet over dry too, let’s just say it’s genetic.

I’ve been to awesome grape-growing regions like New Zealand, Chile, and Napa Valley (which was more for a festival that paired wines with throwback ‘90s bands or as I like to call it Coachella for the 30+-crowd…Bottle Rock, it’s amazing, look it up), but I generally go the girly route and pick bottles based on pretty packaging and descriptions that sound fruity and floral. When I was invited to explore Livermore Valley (my first thought was, “Where? Do I need an extra liver?”) and then excitement about finally getting to step up my enology game.

Here are a few things I learned in Livermore and why you should visit this secret California wine region:

California Wine Country is Way More Than Napa Valley and Sonoma County 

90% of wine made in the United States comes from California, but for some reason, you only hear about Napa Valley, Sonoma County, and a sprinkling of others (Fun Fact: Napa only accounts for 4% of the state’s wine). California actually has six AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) from the North Coast to the Sierra foothills. Within these, there are 100+ regions that are each classified as wine growing areas. These areas thrive thanks to the cool ocean breeze, nutrient-rich terroir, and temperate valleys. In short? The California climate is prime for wine growing.

Where the Heck is Livermore Valley?

Livermore Valley is the part of the Central Coast. An hour east of San Francisco, it’s an easy day trip from both the Bay and Silicon Valley. While Napa Valley is getting hotter and hotter with global warming and fruit prices get more expensive, Livermore stays calm, cool, and collected thanks to its inland position. They were unaffected by the wildfires and many tourists who had planned trips to Napa Valley ended up in Livermore Valley instead as a happy accident….so it may not stay a secret for much longer.

Many of the vintners started as hobbyists who outgrew their backyards. Still, many remain small batch producers with only a few distributing so the only place to try some of these magical sips is locally in their tasting rooms. There’s a real community feel and the winemakers are happy to talk your ear off if you’ll let them.

Wine Tasting in Livermore Valley

Despite being one of the oldest wine regions in the country, the area is largely unknown to tourists outside of the Golden State. As such, it’s more affordable than some of the well-known hotspots and more humble (Read: great for non-wine snobs).

The first grapes were planted way back in the early 1800s. Livermore Valley was actually how California got on the world wine map as the first region in America to win an international gold medal for wine at the Paris Exposition. Tastings range from $5-10 at any one of the 50+ vineyards. Many are just a few minutes apart so you can walk, bike, Uber, hire a driver, or ride the wine trolley around town.

The birthplace of California Chardonnay, the most popular varietal in the state, over 80% of Chardonnay production can be traced back to Livermore Valley. They were also the first to create the Petite Sirah and Sauvignon Blanc so as you can imagine, the area’s wine history runs deep.

Standout Livermore Valley Wineries

Wente Vineyards – Essentially the godfather of Livermore Valley wines, Wente owns a lot of land, but the main tasting room is set right on a golf course. They have a gorgeous garden and regularly host events and concerts. The produce served in their restaurant is completely organic and treated with biodynamic formulas because they believe food has healing properties. They even taught me that the word restaurant means, “to restore” (which I love!). They hold big-name concerts throughout the summer with major headliners like Smoky Robinson and Matt Nathanson performing at intimate, four-course pairing dinners starts that start at just $99 a seat, which is truly a steal.

Try: Riva Ranch Chardonnay – Scoring 96 points at the San Francisco International Wine competition, it’s the perfect patio sipping white.

Wood Family Vineyards – A family-owned and operated tasting room founded by Rhonda Wood, this former commercial airline pilot is a badass babe who started brewing beer because someone told her it was good for breast milk while she was nursing (don’t try this at home). She eventually switched over to wine production and you can taste the heart and soul she pumps (sorry — had to), into every blend.

Try: Cabernet Sauvignon – A blend of grapes from two different Livermore Valley vineyards, the warm chocolate-cherry flavors are perfect for accompanying meat.

Retzlaff Vineyards – The only certified organic wines in the East Bay, the vibe at Retzlaff is backyard party with strung lights and live music. They encourage picnicking.

Try: Annette’s Crush Reserve – Made from their favorite estate wines, this Merlot – Cab blend is rich and creamy.

Darcie Kent Vineyards – Called a “wine gallery,” Darcie is both an artist and award-winning wine maker. Her Chardonnay has been served at state dinners hosted by Michelle Obama and Condoleezza Rice. They also partner with former NFL pro John Madden in production.

Try: Hoffman Chardonnay – Winner of three gold medals, it goes down easy and has a number of high-profile fans.

McGrail Vineyards – A family-centric barn space, McGrail has lawn games, food trucks, and views for days. It’s a place where the saying, “Love the wine you’re with” rings very true.

Try: Kylie Ryan – The “sassy” rose, named after Heather’s daughter, it is definitely bottled with love and features bright fruit notes.

Steven Kent Winery – A sixth generation winemaker, Steven’s family is one of the original winegrowers in Livermore Valley.

Try: Lola – A white Bordeaux blend, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion combine in a crisp, refreshing white that pairs beautifully with everything from salads to seafood.

Other Things to Do in Livermore Valley

I really liked Livermore Valley because like I said, I’m a casual wine drinker. I equate it to skiing where I can do a few runs before my ADD kicks in. There are some more unique wine experiences like the Winemakers Studio where you can make your own blend or test your nose at an aroma challenge. Murrieta’s Well also offers a “hike and wine tasting,” which is more like a casual stroll through the vines with an epic overlook.

When I plan trips, I look for destinations that are well rounded and can cater to my varied interests. Part of the Tri-Valley, the area encompasses seven cities (the main ones being Danville, Pleasanton, Livermore, and Dublin) which also boasts a beer trail, ice cream trail, classic California cuisine, great golf, museums, and outdoor recreation.

You can hike, bike, and even ride horses right through the vineyards. For a real adventure, they’re building a 44.6-mile connector trail between all the local neighborhood parks. Set to open in fall 2018, you’ll be able to hike or bike from Sycamore Valley to Del Valle to Ohlone Park, Sunol, and eventually Mission Peak in Fremont with plenty of wineries stops en route.

Livermore Valley Wine Events

The area hosts a number of special events throughout the year that are a great time to visit. I was there for Barrel Tasting Weekend (March), which offered a unique education on how different barrel oaks add flavors and complexities like seasoning to a food. There was a painted barrel trail and wine brunches (you can’t rose all day if you don’t start in the morning). Wine & Wags (June) is a chance to get outside with your furry friend and canine rescues. Taste our Terroir (July) is a three-day epicurean event that kicks off with a blind food pairing taste test. There are also garden lunches and haute winemaker dinners. It’s a must for foodies!

Are you a wine enthusiast? What’s your favorite growing region?

Want some general wine tasting tips? Check out this post.

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