Best Wine Tasting Experiences in the Livermore Valley

Grapes near harvest at Murrieta's Well Winery, August, 2010 (Photo credit:  M. Thomas)
Grapes near harvest at Murrieta's Well Winery, August, 2010 (Photo credit: M. Thomas)

Imagine Yourself...

Close your eyes and conjure up a vision in your mind of rolling hills, carpeted by orderly rows of lush green vines, accented by glints of shiny foil blowing in the breeze. Breathe in deeply, inhaling the scent of roses mixed with the slightly dusty summer breeze, and allow yourself to meander along the cobblestone paths which snake amongst the vines. Look a little closer, and note the clusters of pendulous, glossy fruit adorning each plant, just about ready to be harvested, crushed, aged, and turned into finely crafted wine. Now open your eyes. Where were you? In the lush, warm countryside of Bordeaux? Along a rural road in the celebrated Napa Valley? Or might you have been in… Livermore?

Livermore, considered the easternmost city in the San Francisco Bay Area, is perhaps most notably the home of two large national laboratories and a popular rodeo, but the Livermore Valley is also the location of one of California’s oldest and most thriving wine industries. The town’s namesake, Robert Livermore, planted the first commercial grapes in the 1840’s, but wine grapes were grown in the valley as early as the middle of the eighteenth century. Some of the area’s larger commercial wineries have been operated continuously since the late nineteenth century, when winemakers C.H. Wente and James Concannon first established their vineyards.

The Heart of the Livermore Valley Wine Country

Today, the Livermore Valley is an officially federally recognized American Viticultural Area (AVA), encompassing the cities of Livermore, Pleasanton, as well as eastern Castro Valley and Sunol. There are more than forty wineries in the area, ranging from vineyards that produce large quantities of budget priced wine to boutique wineries that specialize in very specific varietals aimed at the discriminating wine collector. The Livermore wine country is an ideal place to visit to learn about wine, or to discover more about this exciting, as yet largely undiscovered wine region. Livermore offers plenty of options for casual dining, free wine tasting, wine tasting tours, and recreation. Additionally, it is generally quite easy and inexpensive to book a hotel. Livermore also tends to be free of the types of crowds prevalent in the more famous wine regions; you can experience tastings at many of these rooms in a quiet, serene atmosphere devoid of distractions. Here are a few of my favorite wine tasting rooms to visit in the Livermore Valley, selected for the overall tasting experience, the value, and certainly not least, for the outstanding quality of their wines.

A Traditional Irish Blessing (from Concannon's website)

“May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be ever at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rain fall softly on your fields. And until we meet again, May God hold you in the hollow of his hand.”

The main gate at Concannon
The main gate at Concannon

Concannon Vineyard

Established in 1883, Concannon Vineyard is one of the area’s pioneering wineries. Concannon has operated continuously since its inception, even producing altar wines under Prohibition with a special dispensation from the Catholic Church. Concannon prides itself on this long-standing history, and one of winemaker John Concannon’s premier goals is to preserve the traditional wine-making practices of yesteryear. Many fascinating relics, photographs and awards from Concannon’s rich past are displayed in an artfully lit hallway adjacent to the tasting room and sparkling new wine bar in Concannon’s redesigned main building. The vineyard is the area’s second largest producer of wine, manufacturing twenty thousand cases per year. Concannon is known for being the first winery in the United States to bottle Petite Sirah, and this varietal remains the specialty of the house. Concannon Vineyard is centrally located on Tesla Road, which is the road along which you will find many of the other wineries on the Livermore ‘Wine Trail’. Concannon's wine club membership is quite possibly the best California wine club, and certainly the best deal in the valley; if you enroll in the program, you receive amazing discounts on wines, and will enjoy unlimited tastings for yourself and up to three guests in the tasting room.

Where to Find Concannon Vineyard

A markerConcannon Vineyard -
4590 Tesla Rd, Livermore, CA 94550, USA
[get directions]

Visiting Concannon is a pure delight. The grounds are lovely without being overly manicured, and there are plenty of picturesque spots to enjoy a picnic. Upon passing through a sunny courtyard where an antique fountain burbles peacefully, you will enter the spacious, airy tasting room, all natural light and gleaming wood. Concannon’s tasting flight is the most comprehensive in the area; five dollars will buy you a generous sampling of no less than eight well-crafted wines, and the staff has always thrown in an extra taste or two on the occasions when I have visited the tasting room. One time, the friendly host even engaged (and subdued) my children with samples of a delicious, velvety Cabernet-chocolate sauce. Concannon’s wines tend to be on the inexpensive side, but their complexity and subtlety rivals that of many far more pricy, elite wines. The tasting room staff is similarly pleasant and unpretentious, offering lots of information and enthusiasm without ever being intrusive or patronizing. It is always hard to recognize a particular star amongst Concannon’s offerings; their wines are uniformly high-quality, enjoyable wine, but perhaps unsurprisingly, my favorite wine at a recent tasting was the 2006 Captain Joe’s Petite Sirah, one of the two Petite Sirah wines offered on this particular wine flight. Captain Joe's is 80% Petite Sirah, and 20% Syrah, a coupling which cuts a bit of the potential sweetness of a pure Petite Sirah, resulting in just the right amount of berry flavor on a medium-bodied wine with a slightly earthy aroma. The 2009 Central Coast Riesling was also ebullient and palatable; with a pronounced overtone of pear, citrus, and a slight floral aroma, this would be an excellent summertime staple, perfect with barbecue, or with that picnic you enjoy on Concannon’s scenic property. Tours of the estate are offered on weekends, at 12:30 and 2 p.m., and the tasting room is open daily, year round, from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Alternatively, you can head to the on-premises Underdog Wine Bar to take refuge in one of the red leather armchairs, sample more than fifty wines available by the glass, and nibble from seasonal small plates prepared by chef Barbara Llewellyn. Underdog is open from noon to 8 p.m. daily. While you're there, please see if you can find out why Concannon chose this name for the wine bar; it remains a mystery to me.

 

Orderly rows of grapevines at Murrieta's Well Winery (photo credit:  M. Thomas)
Orderly rows of grapevines at Murrieta's Well Winery (photo credit: M. Thomas)

Where to Find Murrieta's Well Winery

A markerMurrieta's Well Winery -
3005 Mines Rd, Livermore, CA 94550, USA
[get directions]

Murrieta's Well Winery

If you depart from Concannon through its majestic gates, drive a short distance down Tesla Road, turn a corner, and traverse a short gravel road, you will discover another historic winery with a colorful, legendary past. This vineyard takes its name from a Spanish cowboy, Joaquin Murrieta, who watered his band of wild mustangs at the property’s well. Legend has it that Joaquin insisted that the water there was the finest, purest water in all the lands he traveled through on his voyages to Mexico. Murrieta’s Well has preserved the romantic Spanish feel of the architecture, with its staircase adorned with Mexican tiles, and the authentic-looking wood and stone construction of the main building. This enchanting ambience makes Murrieta’s Well a popular destination for boutique weddings and other small events. The tasting room itself is high-ceilinged and capacious, with a charming but tiny balcony off the tasting bar, where you can enjoy your wines as you overlook the vineyards below. Currently owned by the Wente family, Murrieta’s Well is a moderately small producer of distinctive wines with a concentration on creating skillful French-style blends of Bordeaux varietals, including their Red and White Meritage wines, and on blending different types of Spanish and Portuguese grapes. Murrieta’s tasting room offers two different flights, but sometimes only one is available, especially on weekdays or other times of low customer traffic. Each flight currently costs $10 for a tasting of five premium wines. Murrieta’s Well tasting room has very knowledgeable staff, but on a recent visit, one of the tasting hosts regaled us with constant opinionated and rather officious instruction about how to store, serve and enjoy wine, which was somewhat invasive to the otherwise tranquil tasting experience. The wines, however, were remarkable, particularly the 2008 Los Tesoros Livermore Valley Zinfandel, which had well-balanced tannins, burst with berry jam flavor, but had a spicy mid-palate and a soft oak finish.  Murrieta's Well tasting room is open daily during the peak season (from May through October), and Wednesday through Sunday during the off-season months, from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The historic well at Murrieta's Well Winery.  (Photo credit:  M. Thomas)
The historic well at Murrieta's Well Winery. (Photo credit: M. Thomas)

The Steven Kent Winery and the La Rochelle Winery

The Steven Kent Winery is another worthwhile addition to any wine tasting tour. If Cabernet Sauvignon is your preferred wine, you might want to make Steven Kent your first stop. Steven Kent Mirassou, the owner and wine-maker, has been dedicated to perfecting this varietal, combining different grapes from slightly different locations in the valley to create the perfect, balanced blend. While the behemoth Gallo company now owns the labeling rights to Mirassou’s last name, the rich tradition behind the famous Mirassou family name is reflected in the care and skill evident in Steven Kent’s wines. Steven Kent Winery produces several varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, including very limited productions of world-class, single-clone Cabernets, a single vineyard series, and somewhat larger amounts of wines blended and balanced from multiple local growing sites. Steven Kent is also a supplier of the Ritz Carlton hotel chain’s house wines.

Outside the Steven Kent Winery's tasting room (photo credit: S. Howe on http://www.cheers2wine.com)
Outside the Steven Kent Winery's tasting room (photo credit: S. Howe on http://www.cheers2wine.com)

The windowless tasting room at Steven Kent seems deliberately understated, with its faux-distressed walls and its tall, unadorned barrels used as tasting tables. The room appears to be engineered to bring the taster’s focus back to the wines, which are indisputably excellent. The tasting room staff is attentive but unobtrusive, introducing each wine with minimal description and fanfare, then retreating respectfully to let the taster enjoy the sample in relative seclusion. There are a number of tasting flights available at Steven Kent; the standard Barrel Room Flight currently costs ten dollars for a taste of four premium wines, often including two different Cabernet Sauvignons. At a recent tasting, the most surprisingly enjoyable wine of the lot was the whimsically named ‘Lola’, a Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend with superb finish and light citrusy notes; yes, that’s right, an admirable white wine from an avowed red wine enthusiast. The Reserve Flight will cost you twenty dollars per person, but will possibly garner you a few swallows of a rare and coveted single-clone Cabernet, along with three other small-lot wines. On weekends, you can reserve a place in advance at ‘The Table’ in the tasting room for thirty dollars, where you can sample some of Steven Kent’s most elite wines accompanied by artisan cheeses. Steven Kent’s tasting room is open weekdays from noon until 4:30, and on weekends from noon to 4 p.m. There is also a patio tasting option available which allows you to choose from among Steven Kent’s wines and those of the La Rochelle Winery, which has its operations (and its own tasting room) on the same property. While the La Rochelle Winery merits its own description, in short, it is another classy winery owned by Steven Kent Mirassou. La Rochelle has a passion for all things Pinot, specializing in Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc, mostly grown in partner vineyards with slightly cooler climates, but still owing their vision and heritage to the Livermore Valley. The combined Steven Kent-La Rochelle patio tasting is available from noon until 4:30 on weekends, weather permitting.

Livermore Valley Wine Country Events

The LIvermore Valley hosts a number of seasonal, annual events. Here are some of the most popular:

Barrel Tasting Weekend (March): An opportunity to taste wines straight from the barrel, meet winemakers and purchase futures.

LIvermore Valley Wine Auction (May): Silent and live auctions and gala events. Proceeds benefit children's charities chosen by the Valley's Winegrowers Foundation.

Taste of Terroir (July): An evening of paired wine and food, showcasing both the wine and culinary talent of the area.

Harvest Wine Celebration (Labor Day Weekend): By far the most popular (and crowded!) event, every winery participates in this festive wine tasting weekend of celebrating the wine harvest, including tours, music, and copious opportunities to enjoy wine.

Holidays in the Vineyards (December): Wineries celebrate the winter season with decorations in the tasting rooms and other events to promote a holiday mood.

Wente Vineyards

No article on the Livermore Valley wine country could be complete without mention of Wente Vineyards, the area’s largest producer, and among the nation’s top thirty largest wine producers.  Wente is as much a destination spot as a vineyard, with a championship golf course, a gourmet restaurant, a summer concert series with first-rate talent, and well-appointed event facilities.  But buried amongst all of these trappings is a serious winery which produces over forty different types of wine, including some rather unknown varietals and some small lot wines that are privately distributed only to members of the Wine Club. 

 

Wente has two separate tasting rooms on two distinct sites, the Estate Tasting Room at the historic Estate Winery site on Tesla Road, and the Vineyard Tasting Room, at Wente’s main facility on Arroyo Road, adjacent to the Event Center, Golf Course, and Restaurant.  Each tasting room has its attributes.  For free wine tasting, visit the Estate Tasting Room, which offers complimentary, five dollar, and ten dollar wine flights.  The Estate Tasting Room also tends to be less crowded than its sister Vineyard Tasting Room, which gets a lot of traffic from people attending large conferences and events at Wente’s main facilities.  Tours are offered daily, at 11 a.m., then hourly from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., and there are ample shaded picnic facilities on the remodeled patio area.  If you prefer the hustle and bustle of Wente’s Arroyo Road location, the Vineyard Tasting Room provides customers with two tasting flights, priced at five and ten dollars respectively.  Open daily from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., the Vineyard Tasting Room features the most extensive hours in the area, making it the optimal venue for finishing up a long day of tasting, perhaps followed by a meal at Wente’s award-winning restaurant as the sun sets just beyond the eighteenth hole. 

Wente Vineyards' Locations

show route and directions
A markerWente Vineyards -
5050 Arroyo Rd, Livermore, CA 94550, USA
[get directions]

Wente's location which includes the Vineyard tasting room, restaurant, golf course, and event center.

B markerWente Vineyards Estate Winery/Tamas Estate Winery -
5565 Tesla Rd, Livermore, CA 94550, USA
[get directions]

The Tesla Rd. Wente location houses the Estate Winery tasting room, and the Tamas Estate Winery

Wente Family Estates Legacy Wine Tour

Perhaps one of the most tempting options offered at Wente is its ‘Family Estates Legacy Tour’, which allows the guest to tour and taste wines at several of the Wente-owned vineyards, including both Wente sites, Murrieta’s Well, and Tamás Estates, located on the premises of Wente’s Estate Winery. There are variables, of course; you can choose to visit three or all four participating wineries, and you can select a red wine flight, or a mixed (red and white) flight. The tour ranges in price from $25 to $35 per person, depending on the variety of tour selected, and includes some special benefits for the day, including access to members-only reserve wines. The wine tour will keep you busy for two to three hours, so plan on making a day of this activity. It is worth mentioning that even if you don’t have the time or inclination to participate in the full Wente Legacy tour, the Tamás Estate Winery's tasting room merits its own visit. Tamás Estates appears to be Wente’s attempt at attracting a young, hip audience for their wines. Everything from the ticket-inspired labeling to the kitschy travel theme, even the screw top bottles, seems aimed at this clientele, but the tasting room itself manages to be elegant, even serene. The tasting room stocks a large selection of wine- and travel-related merchandise; browse there for some creative wine gift ideas.  The tasting room manager is vibrant, enthusiastic, and energetic, a bit like Tamás’ wines themselves. So if you need a break from all the French terminology or from the ever-so-slightly stuffy atmosphere of some of the more elite wineries, head over to Tamás’ Tesla Road tasting room for a taste of several wines that no one will hesitate to describe as ‘fun’.

Find Yourself...

So plan your next California wine country tour and take a trip to the Livermore Valley.  Once you have arrived in the area, locate one of these tantalizing vineyards, and pack a gourmet picnic lunch, perhaps a bottle of local wine. Find a welcoming spot to spread out your culinary delights, sit back, and close your eyes. Inhale the sweet scents of summer (or the crisper air of the other mild Californian seasons), relax, and picture those undulating hills with their bounteous crops. Let your imagination wander to the glistening fruit on those vines, to the ages-old process by which those grapes will become a kind of ambrosia, to the fine wines aging silently in oaken barrels in rooms weighty with the influence of history. Then, dare to open your eyes, and look at your surroundings. Realize that you have actually arrived in that place that you had previously only dared to dream about. You are in the scenic Livermore Valley, one of the most estimable, alluring, and hospitable wine regions in the world.

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