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May 13, 2011 > Travel: Wine Country

Travel: Wine Country

By R.D. Huebner
Photos By R.D. Huebner

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area (or you're visiting) and you want to do some wine tasting, consider Livermore. Yes, Livermore is not just another pretty name, and Livermore wine country is a seriously overlooked alternative to the more famous Napa and Sonoma.

Proximity to the Silicon Valley makes it an easy day. Once you hit Highway 84 toward Livermore, it's like you're in a different world, a more bucolic world. I guess that's why Livermore is considered a "cowboy town." But don't let that name fool you. Livermore is full of Silicon Valley commuters who moved here looking for a simpler, less hectic life. The older ranchers and Livermore lab scientists make for an eclectic population where almost nothing surprises. Cattle and horses line the highway. The occasional deer, coyote, raccoon, and rabbit may appear on a hillside or in front of your car... be careful! If very observant, you'll see wild turkeys as well. The countryside will briefly give way to the ever-growing housing developments but don't be alarmed; a right turn at Concannon Drive will place you back in grapevine-covered countryside. Wineries are pretty well marked along the way. Besides the award winning wines made in Livermore, there are many more advantages to a wine tasting experience here.
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HINT: Scenic Highway 84 looks down upon the beautiful Tri-Valley and the ever-growing town of Livermore. But, you can also get to Livermore wine country from highway 580. Not as scenic but easier access for some.

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Another great advantage of Livermore Wine Country is the lack of traffic compared to Napa and Sonoma. Even on weekends there are only a handful of cars at any given winery, and ample parking. The exception is an event like a wedding, barrel tasting or the annual wine festival. On that subject, consider one of the beautiful venues in Livermore if you are throwing a party or wedding.

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HINT: There's a huge Portuguese influence in Livermore so study up on your Portuguese grape varieties. Grapes you may never have heard of like Mourvedre, Alvarelhao, and Tempranillo are fun for a change. Don't worry though, there's plenty of Cabernet and Pinot Noir to go around.

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At quick glance there are over 50 wineries in Livermore and believe me, unless you have built up a high resistance to alcohol, or you "taste and spit," it's not advisable to visit more than four on any given trip without a designated driver. The healthy pours and heavy emphasis on reds will have you lightheaded after one or two tasting rooms. In fact, there are several places that taste over 10 wines on any given day. Join a club and receive free tasting and even more generous pours. I have a friend who's a member of one of the nicest wineries and our pours were such that six "tastes" made up about three full glasses. Oh yeah, there are tasting fees of about $5 but that's half of Napa prices. Moreover, buy a bottle of wine and your tasting fee is waived.

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HINT: If you're interested, most of the wine makers work the wine bar at their respective wineries. They are more than willing to talk to you and tell you (almost) all they know.

I won't name specific wineries in this article because, frankly, you can't go wrong trying a few different ones each time you visit. However, I will tell you about a few things I've discovered and maybe it'll be like a scavenger hunt for you. There is one winery on your way into Livermore that offers 12 to 20 wines for tasting on any given day. Another winery has a fantastic wine maker who is in his early 20's. One winery behind gates and by invitation only, has fantastic reds and a wonderful staff. Yet another has pourers that will describe in detail the various aromas of the wines including descriptions like "leather" and "cigar box."

If you prefer to be left alone, that's OK too. Unpretentious winery workers are a refreshing change from the wine snob who is surprised that you did not identify the "hint of cassis" in "his or her" freshly released Chardonnay. You won't find wine snobs here. In fact, it's common for a pourer to recommend another winery ("with a to-die-for Chardonnay") down the road for your next stop.

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HINT: For a little fun, stop the pourers from describing the wine before you taste and try to discern the flavors and scents by yourself. Then have the pourer confirm or deny your tastes.

Speaking of stops, the best way to plan a trip to Livermore for wine tasting is to get a map, easily found by Googling "Livermore Winery Map." Of course you can visit the big wineries of Livermore like Wente and Concannon, but it's more fun to discover new wines that you can't buy at Safeway. Many times the best wines will be released in limited quantities so you'd better get that Petit Syrah "to die for" while you can. Use the map to select target wineries but don't be afraid to stray from your original plan. You can simply return later and pick up where you left off. Most long term residents of Livermore will tell you that they've been wine tasting for years and still have not visited all the wineries.

Some wineries have picnic grounds and restaurants. At least one has a bocce ball court. You'll see where the owners place their priorities. Most live on the premises and most upgrade their wineries before they upgrade their homes. Consider utilizing the beautiful picnic grounds at some of the wineries; bring cheese, crackers, caviar, fois gras, plus chocolate to nibble with the darker red wines. Also bring bottled water. Most of the grounds are kid-friendly too but remember the tasting room is not a playhouse.

Livermore residents will tell you that they used to go to downtown Pleasanton for evening time strolls and dinner, but for years Livermore has been upgrading its downtown. Today, you will rarely see residents traveling anywhere but downtown Livermore for dinner and drinks. Livermore is an ethnic mecca for food: Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican, Greek, Italian, Indian, Swiss fondue or just a good old fashioned burger can all be found within a three block area of downtown. Consider having a nice meal there after wine tasting. You'll find many of the wines you've just tasted on the menus. Some restaurants reduce their corkage fees for Livermore produced wines so don't hesitate to ask if you can open that special Petit Syrah you just purchased.

Livermore is definitely a good alternative to Napa for wine tasting adventures. Great wines, good people, no traffic, no snobbery, and delicious food can make for a filling and fulfilling day.

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