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Wine Routes: The Wineries of Hwy. 84 In Livermore

Just 30 miles from San Francisco, is an easy, uncrowded and rewarding place to go wine tasting. The lack of fame, boutique-wineryfication or crazy land prices keep the wines affordable. And the wine is good.

Livermore is one of the oldest wine-growing areas in California. Spanish missionaries planted its first wine grapes in the 1770’s. It’s also home to the United States’ oldest continually-operated, family-owned winery, Wente Vineyards, which was established in 1883. Just six years later, Charles Wetmore’s Cresta Blanca Winery became California’s first international gold medal winner, taking home a prize from Paris. And Livermore wineries were also the very first to produce varietally-designated wines made from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Petite Sirah. So why don’t we hear more about Livermore wine?

Livermore's gravelly soil is conducive to high-quality wine grape production and led Hugh Johnson to say that the area comes as close to the white wines of Graves as one can in California. Livermore Valley also features grapes of impeccable pedigree. Charles Wetmore planted Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon cuttings taken directly from Chateau d’Yquem in the 1880’s. Wente clones of Chardonnay, developed in Livermore from cuttings brought from France by C. H. Wente, are used for 80% of all Chardonnay grown in California. So it is neither terroir nor grapes that keep Livermore from the limelight.

The culprits were Prohibition and land development. When Prohibition was instituted in 1919, there were more than 50 commercial wineries in Livermore. During the dry period, that number declined precipitously. Much of the land was planted over to other crops or used for grazing cows and sheep. Then, starting in the late-1960’s suburban sprawl began to cover good vineyard land with houses and small businesses.

After California’s success in the famous Paris tasting of 1976, nearby Napa Valley increased acreage under vine dramatically. That couldn’t happen in Livermore because so much land was covered by buildings or zoned as non-agricultural. And while the number of its wineries has grown rapidly of late, Livermore still has fewer wineries than it did in 1919.

This article is the first in a series that will provide you with information on all Livermore wineries that make themselves available to visitors. Our first installment covers the six wineries located on, or very near, the segment of Hwy 84 which goes east from the 680 freeway near Sunol and then curves north through Pleasanton and Livermore to meet up with 580 at Airway Blvd. It is an easy route to follow, no matter which end you start at. There aren’t too many wineries; you can very easily cover the best of them in a single afternoon of tasting. They are close enough to the freeway that you can try one as a quick diversion from your trip to Costco or the Alameda County Fairgrounds. That said, Highway 84 is undivided, narrow and curvy in some spots. Drive carefully.

Tenuta Vineyards
If you start your trip from the 84/680 intersection, the closest winery is Tenuta Vineyards. To get there, you’ll need to turn off of 84 onto Kalthoff Commons. It’s a small road that arcs past a few large homes well-separated by land. Tenuta is toward the end of the road and surrounded by a small vineyard.

Tenuta Vineyards’ tasting sheet says “Give us 30 minutes and we’ll be friends for life.” The tasting room does feel like a place where local friends and residents would come by to chat with the owners over a glass of wine. When I was there, one of the proprietors was offering tours of the winery (in which they make their own wine and offer custom crush services). They rent the winery out for weddings and other events and also have a small picnic area just outside the tasting room door.
Open Friday - Sunday, noon to 5PM. Tenuta Vineyards, 633 Kalthoff Common, Livermore, CA 94550 - (925) 960-1006.

The next two wineries on this route are Fenestra and Thomas Coyne, which are located almost directly across the street from each other on Vallecitos Road. Both wineries are set back a bit and you’ll need to drive some distance on gravel roads to reach the tasting rooms. Both have plentiful parking in a gravel lots but require a 50-yard walk with a bit of a slope to reach the tasting room. (If you have accessibility issues, you can be driven right up to the doors.) These wineries are also what I would call farm rustic and situated in historic winery buildings. Tasting is amongst barrels in rooms full of character but absent any boutique accessory shopping. Both places have plenty of space for you to eat a picnic lunch though neither sells food.

Fenestra was founded in 1976 but their main building was constructed more than 100 years ago for the George True Winery. There are a handful of picnic tables somewhat protected from sun and rain by an overhead structure. If you do want to sit back and relax a bit, Fenestra will sell you wine by the glass ($4 - $7).

The vibe at Fenestra is casual and friendly. For big tastings such as the barrel tasting weekend I attended, many of the pouring stations are actually manned club members who work for a bit of wine.

Following a trend that seems to hold throughout Livermore Valley, Fenestra offers at least 19 different wines. Some are only for their club members (Fanatics). You won’t be able to taste all of the wines unless you go on a special open house weekend. The wines are, for the most part, varietally-labelled and feature grapes native to France, Spain and Portugal. Fenestra is one of the best wineries in the Livermore Valley and I’m happy to recommend those listed below.
Open Friday-Sunday, noon to 5PM. There is a $5 tasting fee that’s refundable with a purchase. 83 Vallecitos Road, Livermore, CA 94550 - (925) 447-5246.

Highly Recommended
2008 Chardonnay, Livermore Valley (A note on this wine, it is completely not fruit-forward and is not at all typical of California Chardonnay. It reminds me a lot of a good white Burgundy in that the dominant flavors are mineral, especially limestone, and nuts with lime, lemon, vanilla and a hint of oak adding complexity.)

2008 Torrontes, Lodi, $15
2008 Semillon, Livermore Valley. $12.50
2008 Viognier, Contra Costa County, $17
2008 White Riesling (off-dry), Arroyo Seco, $13
NV True Red Lot 24 Red Table Wine (includes 16 varietals), $10.50
2007 Pinot Noir, Livermore Valley, $NA
2006 Alvarelhao, Lodi Silvaspoons Vineyard, $19
2007 Grenache, $NA
2003 Zinfandel, Livermore Valley, $NA
2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Thatcher Bay, Livermore Valley, $34.95
2003 “Port,” Silvaspoons Vineyard, $17/375ml

Thomas Coyne Winery
Founded in 1989, Thomas Coyne Winery is housed in the vintage Chateau Bellevue Winery building which was constructed in 1881
. While well-kept, the buildings definitely have a vintage feel and sit comfortably in the middle of dusty farmland. The place oozes charm and character, as do the the vintage wine bottles and yellowed newspaper clippings on display. Watch for critters and critter-protecting speed bumps while driving in though.

Coyne doesn’t grow their own grapes but purchases them from various vineyards in Livermore, El Dorado and Contra Costa counties. However, one of their suppliers is the Detjens Vineyard which is located adjacent to Coyne. Most of the wines they make are based on either Bordeaux or Rhone varietals though they do have a few other things.

I tasted 26 of their offerings on barrel tasting weekend. The wines tend to have an Old World sensibility with complex flavors that aren’t overwhelmed by jammy fruit. Alcohol levels are moderate and they sometimes hold their wines quite a while before release. For example, they have a 2003 Syrah (recommended below) that is a brand new release. Like Fenestra, Thomas Coyne is one of the Livermore Valley’s best overall producers.
Open Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5PM. 51 E. Vallecitos Road, Livermore, CA 94550 - (925) 373-6541. They also have a tasting room on Blacksmith Square in downtown Livermore that’s open on weekends from noon to 6PM.

Highly Recommended
2006 Mourvedre, Contra Costa County, $20

2003 Quest (Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah & Petite Sirah), CA $12.50
2003 Syrah, Detjens Farms Livermore Valley, $14
2002 Merlot, Detjens Farms Livermore Valley, $20.00
2005 Cabernet Franc, Livermore Valley, $18
2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Livermore Valley, $20
2006 Petit Verdot, Lodi, $18
2006 Tannat, Lodi, $20
2005 “Port,” CA, $15 - 375ml
2007 Late Harvest (Botrytis) Viognier, $18 - 375ml

Ruby Hill Winery
Ruby Hill Winery is located 5 minutes north of these wineries, surrounded by a historic vineyard, an exclusive housing community and one of the better golf courses in the Bay Area. All are named Ruby Hill.

The winery is housed in a very large new building that is shared with the Casa Real event center (with a 550-person capacity). The massive tasting room provides plenty of room at the bar for guests plus a special area for club members. There is comfortable leather couches near a big fireplace too. The tasting room offers a large collection of gifts and accessories for sale, as well as prepared food.

Founded in 1887 and named after the red soil of it’s vineyard, the winery has had a long succession of owners, winemakers and styles. Today, Ruby Hill wines are made by Chris Graves who previously held winemaking and enology positions at nearby Wente Vineyards. The primary focus is on Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, but a broad selection of wines are available. When I visited, 17 wines were being poured at the main counter and there was Petite Sirah from a barrel plus more wines available only to club members.
Open for tasting every day from 11am to 5:30pm. Tours and barrel tasting are available by appointment. 400 Vineyard Avenue, Pleasanton, CA 94566 - (925) 931-9463

Highly Recommended
2007 Cielo Viola, Estate Reserve, 62% Zinfandel, 38% Petite Sirah (for club members only)

2006 Chardonnay, Anderson Valley, $13
2007 Pinot Noir Reserve, Monterey County (Arroyo Seco), $30
2006 Merlot, Monterey County, $27
2008 Petite Sirah, Estate Reserve (barrel sample, to be released in Spring, 2011)

Mitchell Katz Winery
The Mitchell Katz winery is located on the north end of the Ruby Hill vineyard
, however all of the fruit used in Mitchell Katz wines is sourced elsewhere. Founded in 1998, this 8,000 case/year winery focuses solely on single-vineyard bottlings.

Featuring a 40-foot long bar and a very high ceiling, the tasting room is comfortably large. The historic brick buildings tower handsomely over the vineyard. Mitchell Katz Winery is also available for private events.
There were 19 wines available for tasting on the day I visited. They included Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, three different Cabernet Sauvignon and two each Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Syrah. Most of the wines are priced below $20. I found them to be of a popular style that is light in body yet fruit-forward and somewhat sweet.
Open Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5PM and from noon to 6PM on Fridays. 1188 Vineyard Avenue, Pleasanton, CA 94566 - (925) 931-0744

Longevity Wines
At the other end Hwy 84, just a couple of minutes from the Airway Blvd. exit on 580, is Longevity Wines. Longevity is a departure from the typical Livermore Valley Winery in many ways. They have a very small tasting room with a boutique feel but are located in an industrial park. While many of the valley’s wineries are family-owned but operated by staff, Longevity is essentially a husband-and-wife operation. They also limit the number of wines they make to roughly ten. Overall production is just 500 cases. The benefit of this is consistent quality – all of the Longevity wines are well made.
Open Saturday and Sunday, from noon to 5PM. 2271 South Vasco Rd. Sutie B, Livermore CA 94550 - (888) 325-WINE

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, California (Contra Costa Cabernet with 22% Livermore Valley Merlot), $22
Zinfandel Port (barrel sample, release TBD)