Episode 1 – Profile – The Livermore Valley Wine Country

The Livermore Valley California (Google Map)

This piece corresponds with this ten minute video on the area produced by Winexpression.

The Livermore ValleyA Rich History
Over a century ago, the Livermore Valley was the countries premier wine region. Robert Livermore came to the area in 1846 and planted the first vineyard in the area with the wealth he accumulated selling hides and tallow in Santa Clara, California. By 1882, over 1000 acres of wine grapes had been planted in the area, and in 1885 that number jumped to 3400. In 1889 Charles Wetmore of Livermore, and Gustave Niebaum from Napa, took wines to Paris for the 1889 International exposition for wine. Wetmore’s Sauternes style white wine won a gold medal, America’s first International gold medal for wine, and the area garnered recognition soon after. Up until prohibition Livermore’s wine business was growing and topped out at 50 wineries, but only two survived through the dry days of prohibition: Wente Vineyards and Concannon. Now, that number has finally grown again, to 34 wineries in early 2006.

The area can be compared to Napa turned on it’s side. The region extends 25 Miles long on an East to West notation and offers a climate similar to Napa, with hot afternoons and cool nights. The rocky soil in the area is similar to that of Bordeaux. There are different compositions throughout varying from deep sandy loam, to lean soil with a lot of gravel and rock, and redclay with rock and gravel. Charles Wetmore’s original site for his winery, Cresta Blanca, now owned by Wente Vineyards, is an extremely rare deposit of white limestone. The first Chardonnay vines in California were planted in Livermore in 1916. Now, about 80% of the Chardonnay vines in the state can trace their genetic roots back to a Livermore clone.

Why Not A Leader?

C.H. Wente, who came to the area in 1883 from Germany, made a marketing agreement with Louis M. Martini in Napa – Wente would produce white wine, and Martini Red. After prohibition, the majority of investors and entrepreneurs took to the increasingly popular Napa and Sonoma Valleys instead of Livermore. Growers still liked the rocky soils and the diverse Microclimates of Livermore, but most grew for quantity not quality, resulting in mediocre wines lacking the body and development of the neighbors to the north. Wineries that have recently purchased grapes from the area hide behind appellation names like “San Francisco Bay,” obfuscating the Livermore name. The region has been looked down upon, and struggles to garner press from the mainstream wine media. A single varietal still hasn’t stood out in the area, and most of the wineries are focused on different wines. But all of the elements are in place for that to change.

The Regions Stars

Steven Kent Winery

The Steven Kent Winery
Steven Kent Mirassou is a sixth generation winemaker from the oldest winemaking family in California, The Mirassou’s, who just celebrated 150 years of making wine in 2004. He and his father Steve created the Steven Kent Winery in 1996 to show the world that Livermore is capable of producing a world class Cabernet. The wineries slogan is “wines for those who know” and seems to be fitting, as it’s Collector’s Circle wine club is currently sold out with a waiting list still filling up. (Those interested in the wines can still sign up for the Future Release program, or purchase wines direct from the winery or website.)

Steven is a focused and engaged winemaker. His passion for his wine, the industry, and the region isn’t hard to miss. The website is simple and to the point with a focus on the wine. He has an amazing, well trained palate, and a poetic way of describing each wine. This isn’t to say he riddles the tasting notes with buzzwords, but offers an honest opinion on each bottle, and the flavors therein. His vineyard management style promotes quality fruit, and he only purchases grapes from growers that meet his strict requirements. New French Oak barrels with medium toast are used for every vintage to add depth of flavor, but also to avoid producing an overly oaked wine. The result? The wines and winery are being noticed and many of the wines are now starting to sell out.

For more information on the winery, visit http://www.stevenkent.com

Wente VineyardsWente Vineyards
Established in 1883, the oldest continuously family owned and operated winery in California has become a major player in Livermore. Often willing to extend help to new winemakers in the area, this winery is focused on good camaraderie in the region. The wines are available in over 100 countries with 20% of production going overseas. On a percentage basis, they are the largest exporter to foreign countries of any United States family owned winery. The winery controls 2000 acres in Livermore and 700 acres in Monterey.

The winery has become a popular destination, with it’s Summer concert series that attracts top talent every year like Boz Scaggs, Chris Isaak, Tony Bennett, and the Gipsy Kings; and with its Greg Norman designed Championship golf course that just hosted a PGA Nationwide Tour tournament. The Restaurant has gained recognition every year from Wine Spectator with a “Best Award of Excellence” and is honored regularly by other publications and journals.

The fifth generation of the family is very involved in the business. Karl Wente, 29, is the winemaker, and has spearheaded the new Nth degree program, a venture aimed at producing high quality, small lot wine. His sister, Christine Wente, has her hands deep in the business as well, serving as Vice President of Marketing, not a small responsibility. They work closely with the forth generation Wente’s, Eric, Philip, and Carolyn. One of Karl’s sayings is to think globally, but act locally, as the winery keeps its success in check. They do this by offering help to new vintners in the area, and by best practices in the vineyard, like sustainable farming.

For more information on Wente Vineyards, visit http://www.wentevineyards.com/

Tenuta VineyardsTenuta
In June of 2000, Ron and Nancy Tenuta invested $5,000,000 to purchase a 5,000 square foot home and build a 16,000 square foot winery in South Livermore. The winery is capable of producing 12,000 cases, but they only make 2-3,000 cases a year of their own wine, with the rest of their production for clients of their custom crush operation. Residents in the area that have vineyards on their property don’t always have the resources to produce wine. Tenuta fills that need with their facility, and the winemaking skills of Kirstin Nolte. Customers only have to handle the sales of their finished product and a few decisions along the way.

Kirstin came to Livermore by chance from South Africa, when her husband’s job moved them to Silicon Valley. With a different approach to the area than some of the other wineries that have been here for years, Kirstin is willing to experiment with different varietals, and wants to raise the quality of fruit available from growers. With a recent addition to the family, a love of art, and a demanding job, she has a very busy schedule, but that doesn’t stop her from making good wine.

For more information on Tenuta Vineyards, visit http://www.tenutavineyards.com/

Through the efforts of these and other wineries in the area that are focused on quality, Livermore finally has some nice wines to offer consumers. This is a wine region where most tasting rooms still don’t charge a fee, and where the owners or winemakers are the ones pouring the wines. You can find more information on the wineries of Livermore at http://www.livermorewine.com the website run by the Livermore Valley Winery Association (LVWA).

Full Disclaimer: I am not a club member at any winery, nor will I benefit from the sales of any of these wines profiled.

Update: Kirstin Nolte is no longer at Tenuta, and is consulting on high end wine for Deer Ridge Vineyards. Currently she sells art through her website, Art by Kiki.