Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Taste of Northern California in Livermore’s Wineries

Livermore Wine Country Vineyards Northern California

There are over 100 wine regions in California.  With so many, it’s easy for a California wine region to get lost in the shuffle, especially in Northern California.  The Livermore Valley is one of California’s oldest wine regions and Livermore’s wineries range from small, family-owned operations to historic wineries that have been around for over a century.  Wine tasting in Livermore is to taste California’s wine history.

Rusted Wine Machinery at Charles R Vineyard Livermore Wineries Northern California

Livermore is a Northern California city located in the Tri-Valley area east of San Francisco and Oakland.  Livermore’s wineries are within easy driving distance of San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose.  Visitors to the Livermore wine region have over 40 wineries to choose from, small and large.  Unlike those in some of Northern California’s other wine regions, Livermore wineries are less crowded, less expensive, and provide a more intimate and educational wine tasting experience.  Tasting fees are usually waived with purchase and bottles of wine are many times within the $20 to $40 range.

Rolling Hills of Livermore Wine Country Northern California

During a recent visit to Tri-Valley, we went wine tasting at four Livermore wineries: Charles R Vineyards, Big White House Winery and John Evan Cellars, Nottingham Cellars, and Wente Vineyards.  These wineries illustrate the varied nature of Livermore’s wineries.  Some are small, some are big, some are in the midst of the vineyards of Livermore Valley, some are in business parks, some are new, and some have been around since the beginning.

Charles R Vineyards

Charles R Vineyards Tasting Room Livermore Wineries Northern California

As we approached the Charles R Vineyards tasting room it felt like we were going wine tasting in someone’s home.  The tasting room is nestled in amongst the tall trees at the end of a short dirt road.  Charles R Vineyards is owned and operated by the Bartlett Family and has been a part of the Livermore Valley wine region since 2002.  It isn’t unusual to see Mr. Bartlett in the tasting room.  Visitors to the winery can sample Charles R’s wines in the wine tasting room or enjoy them on the porch or the large back patio.

Charles R Vineyards Zinfandel Wine Diamonds Livermore Wineries Northern California

All of Charles R Vineyards’ wines are made with Livermore Valley grapes sourced from local growers.  Their lineup includes Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Port, and four of those are SF Chronicle award winners.  We enjoyed all of Charles R’s wines, but some of them had some unique features.  The Chardonnay is aged in different barrels, half in French oak and half in America oak, and then blended after aging.  The Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are grown in an organic vineyard.  The gold medal winning Zinfandel had something I had never seen before, wine diamonds.  Wine diamonds are caused by acid from the wine crystalizing on the cork.  I thought we had ended our wine tasting and had chosen two bottles to purchase when we were offered a tasting of the Port.  A small brownie is provided with the Port tasting.  The trick is to taste the Port, take a bite of rich chocolate brownie, and then taste the Port again.  I was sold and a third bottle of Charles R wine came home with us.

For more about Charles R Vineyards, including tasting room hours, visit their website.

Big White House Winery and John Evan Cellars

Big White House Winery and John Evan Cellars is a father-son winemaking operation.  John Marion has been making wine in his home, the Big White House, for over 20 years.  His son John Evan joined the family wine business when he was 21-years-old with John Evan Cellars.  The tasting room is a large, informal barn type structure with wine tasting in the front and barrels in the back.  The walls are covered in portraits which are original oil paintings by John Evan’s sister Laura Marion.  These portraits are also featured on the wine labels.  During the holiday season the tasting room also features an upside down Christmas tree hanging from the ceiling.

Big White House Winery and John Evan Cellars Tasting Room Livermore Wineries Northern California

Our tasting flight included 10 wines, seven from Big White House and three from John Evan Cellars.  The Big White House wines included Chardonnay, Viognier, Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel, and a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet and Merlot.  The John Evan Cellars wines included a Bordeaux blend, Cabernet, and late harvest Syrah.  My favorite was the 2011 Chateau Marion Bordeaux Blend with cherry from the Cabernet and spices from the Merlot.  I love that Merlot is making its way back into wineries after its assassination in Sideways.  A unique part of the wine tasting at Big White House Winery and John Evan Cellars is the barrel samples of wine that hasn’t been bottled yet.

More information about Big White House Winery and John Evan Cellars can be found on Facebook.

Nottingham Cellars

Livermore went through a few name changes before it became Livermore, named in honor of Robert Livermore who first began planting vineyards in the valley 20 years previously.  Livermore’s first name was Nottingham, named for the local Nottingham Post Office.  Nottingham Cellars is named as a tribute to the rich history of the Livermore Wine Valley.  Nottingham Cellars is a family-owned winery started by Jeff Cranor.  Jeff’s son Collin Cranor is now Nottingham Cellars’ winemaker.  Unlike the other wineries we visited, Nottingham Cellars’ tasting room is located in an industrial park rather than in the midst of vineyards, though the vineyards are very close by.

Nottingham Cellars Wine Country Map Livermore Wineries Northern California
Nottingham Cellars works with five different varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, and Petit Verdot.  My favorite of Nottingham Cellars wines was Ralphi’s Red Blend, so named because Collin looked like Ralphie from A Christmas Story when he was little.  Ralphi’s Red Blend is a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (yay for Merlot again!).

For more about Nottingham Cellars, including tasting room hours, visit their website.

Wente Vineyards

Wente Winemakers Studio Livermore Wineries Northern California

Wente Vineyards is one of the big guys of the Livermore Valley.  Wente Vineyards is the oldest continuously operating family-owned winery in America, established in 1883.  The first wine grapes were planted in Livermore Valley in 1840 and it became an important wine region in California with over 50 wineries.  But then Prohibition came, putting an end to wine production.  The only original wineries that survived Prohibition were Wente and Concannon, as they were allowed to remain for the purpose of making sacramental wine.  One of the great things about Livermore’s wine industry is the camaraderie between wineries and the desire for all to succeed, no matter their size.  Wente is a big part of encouraging the little guys and helping them to prosper.

Wente Vineyards Barrel Room Livermore Wineries Northern California

I was introduced to a wine that was new to me at Wente’s tasting room, Counoise.  The Counoise is a small lot hand-crafted wine.  The Small Lot wines are made from vineyards which are sustainably grown and hand-harvested.  Every step of the winemaking process is overseen by Karl Wente.  We also tasted the Small Lot Zinfandel, the Syrenity (a blend of Counoise and Syrah), and the Nth Degree Cabernet Sauvignon.  The Nth Degree line is also a line of small lot hand-crafted wines designed to reflect the terroir of the Wente vineyards.  We enjoyed Wente’s wines, but what we really loved was taking the wineblending class in Wente's Winemakers Studio.

For more about Wente Vineyards, including tasting room hours, visit their website.

Livermore Valley wine country provides tasting rooms and wines to satisfy all tastes.  Livermore is reclaiming its spot as an important piece of California’s wine history and legacy and is waiting to be discovered by more travelers.

Thank you to Visit Tri-Valley for hosting our visit to Tri-Valley and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.

Katherine Belarmino has been traveling for over ten years on a quest to see as much of the world as possible, experience new cultures, and sample other cuisines and libations. She also writes the travel blog Travel the World, which journals her world travels with her husband Romeo and seeks to encourage others to take the time to travel.