Livermore, California, located on the far eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay Area, is known in scientific circles for the famed Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where controlled nuclear fusion was recently achieved after a 40 year effort. But Livermore came into its own in the mid 1800’s as a railroad town. The Western Pacific rail line that connected the Bay Area to the transcontinental railroad passed through the Livermore Valley and over Altamont Pass on the way to Sacramento. Altamont Pass is best known these days as the home of America’s oldest wind farm.
I was surprised to learn that Livermore has a long and colorful wine history. Many wine enthusiasts are familiar with story of the 1975 Judgment of Paris, a French wine competition that made Napa wines famous and respected when Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars took first place in their respective categories. Less known is that Charles Wetmore, who had been growing French varietals in the gravelly soils of the Livermore Valley, entered the Paris Exposition of 1889 and won several gold medals. It is reported that Wetmore’s Cabernet stock was imported from the famed Chateau Margaux vineyards in Bordeaux, France. These vines eventually became the source for the popular Cabernet clones 7, 8 and 11.
Livermore has been producing excellent wines since, save for a brief hiatus during prohibition. James Concannon and the Wente family have been keeping the flame lit since the turn of the 20th century. Despite the early Cabernet fame, Livermore now specializes in Petit Sirah and Chardonnay.
Following our standard formula of visiting at least one large and widely distributed winery followed by several small, artisanal ones, we started our journey at Concannon.
Concannon has a large tasting room with a vintage tin ceiling and plenty of space for guests. Across the courtyard, you’ll find another large room dedicated to club members. There’s also a large lawn that’s popular with picnickers. We found Concannon’s service and wine to be first rate, and brought home a lovely Livermore Valley Merlot and a Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir.
We left Concannon and proceeded east on Tesla Road (named for the same inventor as the electric car company) to Greenville Road, where we found a collection of smaller wineries. Our first stop was 3 Steves Winery which we chose for no other reason than one of the three Steves is a friend of a friend. As the name implies, the winery is owned by three guys named Steve, who have nicknames printed on their business cards so you can tell them apart. Our friends’ friend Steve Ziganti is named “Gray Beard” for his full salt and pepper beard. The others are “Vertically Challenged” Steve (the other two are taller) and “He Really Exists” Steve who is less often seen at the winery than his partners.
3 Steves specializes in locally grown Chardonnay and Cabernet, but the star of our visit to their intimate tasting room was a bottle fermented brut sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
The remaining stop was McGrail Vineyards, also on Greenville Road. McGrail has a large and lively tasting room and a sprawling lawn with valley views. The specialties are Cabernet, Chardonnay and Petit Sirah, of course, because this is Livermore. All the wines are skillfully crafted, but I especially enjoyed the estate Cabernet, with grapes sourced from McGrail’s own 16 acre hillside vineyard, stocked with prized Clone 8 vines.
If you happen to be in the East Bay and want to try something different, with historical relevance, I recommend packing a picnic and heading to Livermore.