Sunday, December 6, 2009

My Two Favorite Livermore Valley Wineries Revisited

In the past two years of going to wine festivals and other wine events in the Livermore Valley (an area to the east of San Francisco), of the 40 or so excellent wineries that make this area well worth visiting, two new wineries in particular have stood out from the crowd: Longevity, and Cuda Ridge. I stopped by both at the Livermore Holidays in the Vineyards festival this weekend, and it reinforced my high opinion of each of them.


Winemaker Phil Long and his wife Debra and their small staff turn out some truly wonderful wines. What distinguishes them in my mind is that they create wine pleasures in both red and white -- since I'm a red-wine guy, it takes a lot to make me drink whites very often.
Phil produces a very tasty Chenin Blanc, one of this country's most overlooked wines. Chenin Blanc used to be popular as a regular table wine decades ago, but that popularity, as often happens in wines, ruined it: Everybody jumped on the bandwagon, and it didn't take long before the word Chenin Blanc could only be found
in jug wines, and the varietal was mainly grown as blending filler for other low-end jugs. A great grape, turned into swill. A wine to conjure with in France, made a laughingstock here. What a pity.

A few California winemakers are reviving Chenin Blanc, in small quantities, and it couldn't happen to a nicer grape. Phil's $18 version is a good example of the new generation: tasty, round, food-friendly, it's the kind of white wine that red drinkers like, the kind people describe as "a white to drink if you're tired of Chardonnay."

Phil also does a tasty Viognier ($18), and a surprisingly enjoyable Chardonnay -- another of those "The Chard for people who don't like Chard" wines! ($21)

Of course, I'm a red drinker, so it's Phil's reds that really light my fire: His $23 06 San Francisco Bay Merlot is delicious, his $22 06 Contra Costa Cabernet silky, and his $18 Lodi Barbera is much better than almost any Barbera's you've had lately.

He says his upcoming 06 Contra Costa Syrah is terrific, and I believe him. (He also says the 07 Syrah coming up behind it will be even better!) They also do a Rhone blend that's currently sold out.

Find Longevity Wines at and order some up today. It's a small operation (500 cases, on their way up to 2500), and its wines sell out early as people like me are discovering them. You can also find it in stores in the Livermore area if you're from around here. Best of all, join their Club and get reds, whites, or mixed four times a year.

Cuda Ridge

Larry and Marge Dino specialize in Bordeaux-style blends, and other blends inspired by Bordeaux -- but with a California twist in how they taste -- a twist that's very, very good! If you are anywhere near their place in Livermore, you've got to go to , find them, and make any excuse you can to visit and taste. You'll be happy you did.

They use all Livermore Valley grapes, and are another small winery producing over 500 cases at the moment, with plans to grow to 1,000 cases -- still not enough to expect to find it in wine shops outside of California (but in many states you can order online, thankfully). Otherwise you'll find them in restaurants around the Livermore area.

This weekend I again tried their Merlot and their Cab -- deceptive labels, since they really are the Dino's interpretation of a Right-Bank Bordeaux Blend (meaning, mainly Merlot) and a Left-Bank Bordeaux Blend (meaning, mostly Cabernet). Each is delicious -- a steal at $22 and $30 respectively. Here's the thing: When you choose a Bordeaux, you're looking for a well-rounded, balanced blended red wine with character, depth, and subtlety. But no matter that you pay (within reason) for a French Bordeaux, you are often disappointed -- truthfully, aren't you? So often that brand-name second-tier Bordeaux is just flat and bland and plain -- sorry, I mean: Subtle and sophisticated. Yeah.

What you're really looking for is what the Cuda Ridge Merlot and Cab give you: Balance, rounded mouth-filling taste, and a nice finish that tells you that you've just had something good. Forget $75 French Bordeaux -- save your money and please your taste buds much more with this stuff.

Cuda Ridge also makes a $26 Cab Franc that is better than any I've had before -- rich and smooth, without the harsh edge you often find in this varietal. As with all Cuda Ridge wines, this is a blend, with a bit of Merlot, a bit of Cab, and a bit of Petit Verdot to fill it out -- and nicely done!

Petit Verdot is an interesting grape, little known here, and used almost entirely as a blending grape in France. Well, wait until you taste the Petit Verdot from these guys -- rats, it's sold out. Next release is in February at $28 -- but they are only making 11 cases. The bastards! That's illegal, innit? This stuff is absolutely delicious in the barrel -- though you know how deceptive barrel tastings can be: That gorgeous fresh fruit is so delightful, but it changes once you bottle it. Whether that change is good or OK, one can only tell by trying. Which I plan to do. (One visitor averred that this Petit Verdot would age well, but the idea of holding onto tasty wines for a few years is expecting more willpower than I've ever demonstrated in any area of my life, I'm sorry to say.)

We visitors also got a barrel swig of their newest wine, a Livermore Valley Zinfandel that's wonderful and also different from a typical Zin -- as always, they blend it, in this case with some Cab and some Petit Verdot (they loved the Petit Verdot in there, but tried adding Merlot and that flattened the taste -- Merlot crashes right into Petit Verdot somehow and neutralizes its high notes; so they tried a pinch -- like a couple percent -- of Cab, and that did the trick). The result is a Zin that's more like an interesting Bordeaux than a regular fruit-forward, dense Zin -- the kind I like, you understand, but this one is very different. It won't replace Rosenblum Rockpile Zin in my heart of hearts -- but I may have to build an extra shelf to on side to accommodate this one, because dammit it's just good. It will come out in the February time frame too, I believe.

I'm going to try to get these two winemakers to come show their wares to our BAWDY wine group one of these months soon. I know I sound like a shill for these two wineries, but I'm not - I don't get anything from either of them, not even a free bottle of wine -- but I do get a wonderful wine experience that I enjoy so much I want to spread the word and the flavorful fun to everyone else. If you manage to get your hand on one of these delicious wines, you'll be telling everybody you meet, too, trust me!

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