California Dreamin’

Courtesy Darcie Kent.
Wine & Dine columnist Doug Paulding meets with vintners from Livermore Valley wine country, just east of San Francisco, which could be called one of the birthplaces of the California and, by extension, American wine world.

There is never a shortage of surprises in the wine industry and I experienced a rather profound one recently.  I received a media invite to meet some winemakers from Livermore Valley, California, over lunch at the wonderful Villanelle restaurant just south and west of Union Square in Manhattan. Livermore Valley wine country, just east of San Francisco, could be called one of the birthplaces of the California and, by extension, American wine world. Robert Livermore planted the first wine grapes in the region in 1846. In 1883 Carl H. Wente and James Concannon founded the first wineries in the region and are both five generations in, producing great wines for the palate and the wallet. 

At this luncheon were five winemakers and Chris Chandler, the executive director of the region. A few of these winemakers were from long time wine families and a couple of them had other careers, a passion for wine and an idea that the time was ripe to morph into the industry. Karl Wente, Darcie Kent and Steven Kent Mirassou are from families with deep wine roots. And Rhonda Wood and Phil Long are newbies in the region and the industry, both exhibiting palpable excitement and energy in their lives and with their wines. 

Karl Wente told me his family’s first vintage was in just after the Civil War and they have never missed a vintage of production since. Early on, the Wente family became known for Chardonnay and imported cuttings from Europe to establish their vineyards and today nearly 80 percent of all the Chardonnay vineyards in California trace their roots back to the Wente clone. They also brought in grape cuttings from Château Margaux in Bordeaux to establish Cabernet Sauvignon in Livermore. James Concannon also imported Cabernet into Livermore and today 80 percent the 80,000 acres planted to Cabernet can be traced to the Concannon clone. Obviously, the region was one of the birthplaces of the California wine industry and has had a profound effect on the entire wine industry. And 87 years before the now famous “Judgment of Paris” – a 1976 Parisian contest that established the excellence of California vintages — Charles Wetmore won the top prize at the International Paris Exposition with his Livermore dry white wine.  

The Livermore Valley has some elevation, gravelly, well-drained soils and the perfect setting for the oceanic influence that creates long hang time for the grapes, imparting structure, flavor and nuance to the fruit and ultimately the wine. It is hot to the east of the region and, as the heat builds during the day, it draws in the cooler air from the Pacific, causing a rapid evening cooldown. These dramatic diurnal temperature swings help to create deep and layered wines. I asked Karl Wente if global warming would ultimately hurt the region.  “No, it won’t,” he said. The hotter it gets, the more cool air gets drawn in from the ocean. It appears to naturally self-regulate the temperatures.”

So, how were the wines? Each of the producers there seemed to have his favorite pet grape. Phil Long poured a 2018 Pinot Blanc. A previous vintage won the best white wine in Livermore. Phil has embraced the concept of creating unmanipulated wines and letting “the fruit do the talking.” His Longevity 2015 Grenache showed generous dark fruit with a subtle oak influence and big aromatics wafting out of the glass. Steven Kent Mirassou, of Steven Kent Winery, said he was “unabashed and passionate in his love of Livermore and the wines.” He poured his Lola, a wonderful white blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon vinified separately and then blended to his desires. Great fresh citrus notes with white flowers combined with a silky mouthfeel made this a winner. 

Artist Darcie Kent poured her 2017 Victories Rosé made from Malbec. Some of her wines’ proceeds are donated to charitable organizations. Some of the proceeds of this Rosé help Axis Community Health in Pleasanton, and Livermore, California. This wine danced, with fresh strawberry flavors and a backbone of lemon citrus for balance – a lovely wine.  Rhonda Wood, of Wood Family Vineyards, retired from a career as an airline pilot, to pursue a dream and a passion. She poured her well-crafted 2014 Para Mas Amigas Chardonnay, which showed good fresh grape flavors, balanced citrus with some pear and hints of stone fruits. Meanwhile, the 2016 Wente Charles Wetmore Cabernet Sauvigon showed big hearty red and black fruit, notably blackberry with some finely ground black pepper. Look for it. 

The Livermore Valley has a few producers with thousands of acres of vines and many with 10 to 20 acres. There are 80 grape-growing families and 50 wine producers. The big boys (Wente) produce 400,000 cases of wine per year while there are many that contribute 100 to 500 boutique-style cases. But it is clear the entire region is in a collaborative path to excellence. Sharing ideas, techniques and solving problems in person or over the phone is a regular thing. Of the five producers at the table, only Wente Vineyard wines can be found in the New York metro market. But all of them have online sales available. You will be satisfied, I promise. 

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