Tastes of Livermore Valley
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Last night I had a rather brilliant dinner. Sweet white corn shaved raw into a huge panzanella with walnuts, young greens and tomato-parsley dressing … a cherry tart for dessert. Most of the ingredients had something in common beyond tasting wonderful – they came from the Livermore Valley, just over the East Bay hills. With these good things, it’s a pinch to put together a memorable meal.
This fertile stretch of land comprises the cities of Livermore, Pleasanton, Sunol, Dublin, San Ramon, Danville and the eastern edge of Castro Valley. It’s a huge span that gets rustic and rural just a few minutes from the main thoroughfares. Many people driving through, like my vinophile friend who attended the annual Taste of Terroir event with me last week, don’t know much more of the area than what they’ve seen from the highway.
Then there’s my father’s take on the area, which he ties to Concannon and Wente. Back in the early 70’s they were two of only a handful of reputable American wineries together with places like BV and Inglenook in neighboring valleys. (I’ve recently been flipping through his wine notes from back in the day – what a different perspective!)
Livermore Valley is home to one-hundred-year-old Mission olive trees, but wasn’t consistently cultivated for agriculture in its more recent history. Now measures have been taken to reserve land for growing wine and olives and many varieties of sun-loving produce once more. Earlier this year, a drought tolerant Demonstration Garden Trail was dedicated.
You’ll find dozens of fine wineries, an array of worthwhile restaurants, and plenty of farms to pick the best corn and cherries of the season.
Here are my favorite summertime tastes of Livermore Valley:
Wente Vineyards – Some people know, others don’t, but if you haven’t visited Wente Vineyards you’re missing a fantastic experience. The Wente’s still run this keystone company. Special cave tastings include smelling butter, melons, apples, spices, and other flavor notes while tasting wines to enhance your understanding of their famous chardonnays. You can also visit for a meal at their stellar restaurant – one of the best winery restaurants in Northern California – for a concert, or to stroll around the grounds which are planted with crops destined with the kitchen. Karl Wente’s Nth Degree line is particularly rich in personality, and in addition to a handful of awards and 90+ point ratings, was titled Most Innovative Pairing at Taste of Terroir, together with the Restaurant at Wente Vineyard’s delicious lamb sausage bite, smothered with an curry barbecue sauce that made me want to run home and try to make some myself. Not to go on and on about awards, but Wine Enthusiast designated the Wente Estate Winery of the Year for 2011. I’m definitely not the only one who’s impressed. 5050 Arroyo Road, Livermore, 925.456.2400
Niles Pie Company pies made with fruit from Terra Bella Family Farms – If you’re not a local and able to pick up your weekly Terra Bella CSA box in Pleasanton, these pies are a tremendous way to taste the bounty of this special family farm. Terra Bella grows some of the best farmed tomatoes I’ve ever tasted. Seek them out whenever possible – they frequent several farmers markets. Niles is one of my favorite tiny towns of the Bay Area, where these pies are made from scratch. Various pick-up locations, 510.789.0393
Darcie Kent Petite Syrah – A lovely version of one of Livermore Valley’s signature grapes. Taste inside her Wine Gallery on the grounds of Concannon Vineyards where you can see her paintings of the single estate vineyards from which she sources grapes. 4590 Tesla Road, Livermore, 925.583.1552
Double Barrel Wine Bar – A welcoming place to sample wines by the glass and nosh on a bowl of steamed manilla clams. Not exclusively local, but great options to taste things that are hard or even impossible to buy. The Steven Kent Cabernet Sauvingon can be hard to get your hands on, and although it’s not from Livermore, it is cool to see Sean Thackrey wines on their list. (He’s a uber-small lot producer of cult fame from Marin.) Wood Family Cabernet Franc is another local pour. Their cocoa-rubbed pork belly on a potato gaufrette made to pair with McGrail Vineyard’s Cabernet Reserve was my favorite bite at Taste of Terroir, and was also named the Judges’ Best Pairing. 2086 1st Street, Livermore, 925.243.9463
Steven Kent – Not to be confused with Darcie Kent. This is his middle name – since wine giant Gallo owns Mirassou, his last name, he can’t use it on his own wine. The Mirassou Family are one of the valley’s wine royalty, having made wine here for a handful of generations. His top end wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, demonstrate his uncanny finesse. You have to buy 6 bottles at a time for most of these vintages, but you can arrange a tasting in the Reserve Room and sample the goods with one of the knowledgeable winery hosts. The 2009 Premier Cabernet poured at Taste of Terroir garnered the People’s Choice Award. 5443 Tesla Road, Livermore Valley, 925.243.6440
Les Chenes Estate Vineyards – Visiting the Dixons and their family winery is always a treat, especially on a lazy summer day. In front of the tasting room Candice shows her prowess for rose gardening, employing a gravity-driven watering system used at Lincoln’s Monticello. With his science background and the couples’ years of growing grapes where ever they lived, Les Chenes reasonably-priced wines are exciting to taste. There’s a great diversity of styles at play, you can try opposite ends of the red scale from Primitivo and Mourvedre Rose. I love the vinegar I had on a trip last year made on the estate, and several handmade mustards tempt the picnic basket. This is an easy place to linger. 5562 Victoria Lane, Livermore, 925.373.1662
Frog Hollow Farms – Always has something growing, but the world pays special attention to Farmer Al’s peaches, cherries, and Warren pears because they are just that outstanding. Each peach tree gets its own special treatment so the right amount of fruit of coaxed to ripeness – that means butressing branches and thinning young peaches, just a couple of the considerations. Tarts and jams and dried fruits made on the farm make standout gifts, but if you see any upcoming chances to visit the farm, take it. You can the goods online, in their Happy Child CSA box, and at local farmers markets, otherwise. 11435 Brentwood Boulevard, Brentwood, 925.634.2845
Organic Corn at Dwelley and Smith Family Farms – Really these should be separate entries, and both farms do much more than grow corn. But right now is the height of corn season and the sweet cobs I’ve been getting from these guys are having me munch on an ear sans cooking. Before I can even get to making dinner. So seek out Brentwood corn from these passionate organic farms is you can before the summer wanes. None of the corn varieties on either farm are genetically modified or designed to resist chemical pesticides. Most corn we eat these days is, as hard as it is to believe. I can’t resist tangentially mentioning that all those things we eat with maltodextrin, and many of those other modified starches and sweeteners come from that nasty, unpredictable GMO corn. I’m trying to make it habit to know I am eating corn when I am eating corn, which is actually not the easiest task… Brentwood is good corn central. And Smith is now doing Friday morning farm tours! Dwelley Farm: 515 Delta Road, Oakley, 925.634.6508, Smith Family Farm: 4400 Sellers Avenue, Brentwood, 925.625.5966
Unlike most Northern California Wine Country guidebooks, I included Livermore and Suisun Valleys in addition to the more famous counties, and you’ll find plenty more things to do and taste in Livermore in my wine country book.