Saturday, April 26, 2008

2007 Livermore Valley, CA, Harvest Wine Festival---yum!

The annual Livermore Valley Harvest Fest each September shows off 36 of the wineries in the Livermore Valley, which is due east about 50 miles from San Francisco, California -- it's relatively unknown to the millions of Wine Country visitors, who head up to the overcrowded and overpriced Napa Valley north of here, but the locals know and love it. In fact, Livermore Valley is site of the oldest winemaking vines in California. They are strong in Zinfandel, but also grow a wide variety of other grapes -- prices are reasonable, the wines often delicious, the area uncrowded, the wineries happy to see you. And it's a lot closer to the San Francisco East Bay area than Napa or Sonoma.

To give you the flavor, here's my report on my visit in September 2007. If you get a chance this coming fall, definitely try to find the chance to go! Visit

How It Works: There are 35 wineries participating - 35! You can't hit them all. You can't even drive among them without hitting something! So buy your ticket early, park at the main parking lot in Livermore (or take BART and the shuttle), then shuttle busses take you along the four or five routes to the various wineries. Your biggest problem will be deciding which route to take - I usually pick at random because they're all good. It's actually easier to take than the fabulous ZAP because the delays while you wait for the next shuttle let your body adjust to the last round.

There are tastings and munchies at each winery and often music and trinkets for sale. Most wineries also offer, for an extra five bucks or so, to let you try their SPecial Stuff in the barn in the back -- and invite you to buy wine or to buy futures. I've bought futures and been *very* happy with my selection. But you can have quite an afternoon just drinking the stuff up front without paying extra.

Some years it is very hot in the Valley; last year it was quite pleasant. No way to tell.

Anne-Marie and Rodney St.John-Brookes and I drove out to Livermore (California) for the annual Harvest Festival Sunday, and had a great time! It was hotter than hell -- nearly 100 -- but under shade there was a nice breeze that cooled everything just right.

We got to PageMill Winery, a new one transplanted from the SF Peninsula. Somebody we know from our BAWDY winetasting group was supposed to be a volunteer there but we couldn't find them. The PageMill wines don't do much for me. Sorry!

We were then supposed to visit Red Skye, one of wineries we tasted in the earliest days of the BAWDY group, with very good wines; but the winery was in a complex of several wineries that was so overwhelmingly crowded with cars that we couldn't find parking. There were only a few wineires like that -- the best-known names, like Wente; my advice is to use this kind of festival as a chance to visit wineries you *haven't* heard of. Livermore Valley is open most of the time, you can visit Concannon and the like any time you want.

We went to Retzlaff first; a few years ago I got talked into buying a mixed case of reds on futures at this festival, and boy did that turn out to be a good move. The Cabs, Merlots, and Cab-Merlot blends I got in that case tasted good, then every few months I'd open another bottle and it was noticeable better than before -- a little aging was treating the Retzlaff very well! I am down to two bottles and almost afraid to open them! So I again bought a case of futures, which at $312 isn't overpriced, and will pick it up in January when it's bottled.

We stopped by Fenestra to see how their True Red was tasting. True Red is a blend I discovered a decade ago. They call them "Lot X" where X is a number that increments each year. I had started with Lot 9 back then, and really liked it (and it's cheap -- under ten bucks). I discovered in this visit that up until Lot 11, the True Reds were a Zin-based blend (with Grenache, for one); after Lot 11, they switched to a fully Rhone-style blend. Zins aren't blended often, and I had really liked the old True Reds. But now the Rhone-styles I like OK, but not nearly as much.

We also visited two smaller vintners, Rios-Lovell and Cedar Mountain, both of which have lovely tasting rooms. Rodney liked Cedar Mountain's Sangiovese and Barbero; he wants to host a tasting of Sangioveses and Barberos and of course I encouraged him.

We then drove all the way out to Westover, out in the Hayward hills, because Anne-Marie and Rodney had never been up there, even though it's behind their house in the Hayward Hills,, on Palomares Road. At Westover's very nice facility, someone named Chambier Bechtel (!), Dir of Dev and Design for Tres Classique Specialty Foods of Sonoma, was selling the most amazingly delicious flavored olive oils and vinegars you have ever tasted! I bought four bottles -- and broke two of them putting them in my car. Sigh. Westover's wines were fine; they are most famous for bottling 20 different kinds of ports and dessert wines, probably more than anyone in California.

We then visited Chouinard, next door, where Rodney and I each bought a mixed case of reds (Alicante Bouchet, Zin, and red table wine) that was, well, ok, but mainly because it was at clearance sale prices. And I bought a case of surprisingly good Viognier, also on deep discount -- a steal at $4 a bottle. They also have a truly wonderful Chenin Blanc, as good as any American Chenin Blanc I've ever tasted. They also have an improbably mild and tasty Green-Apple wine(!). Their Gewurtz was good, and they actually have an "Ice Viognier" -- they cheat by putting the grapes in a freezer, because it simply doesn't get cold enough in California -- that, like a typical ice wine, was sweet and tasty and tangy.

But we ran out of time and steam before hitting all the others of the 36 wineries displaying their wares. Too Many Wineries/Not Enough Time! or Liver!

Next year, we promised, we'd keep track of what we saw so we can work our way through the rest of the list. Or maybe we'll just drive over to Livermore from time to time on our own - it's only, like, 30 minutes away!


SavvyTaster said...

I have a pre-release bottle of 1989 Retzlaff Cab in my cellar.

The Retzlaff's gave it to me when I toured the winery in 1992 or so, back when I owned Wine Business Insider.

The Livermore Valley wine country was just developing back then, and being mentored and incubated by the Wentes. Their stewardship -- seasoned with some wise financial self-interest -- saved the area from being another Bishop Ranch.

But back to Retzlaff. They were just starting back then and had a very, very small quasi-garagiste operation.

I look forward to opening this bottle one day soon.


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