It’s no secret that we’re wine lovers as we have written about wine across valleys, mountains, lakes and mountains, from lesser known places like upstate New York, Japan, Israel (yes, they really do make wine – Lebanon too), Hungary, Austria, Calistoga and Carmel Valley to more known places like Chile, South Africa, Argentina and Australia.
When people think of California wines, they automatically think of Napa and Sonoma which we have covered several times, including wine pairing events. And, there’s no doubt, there’s plenty of delicious wines from both valleys however just a stone’s throw away lies Sierra Foothills, Paso Robles and even part of the Redwoods. But, heading east from San Francisco you’ll find yourself in Livermore Valley within an hour or so drive, so why not explore it?
You’re probably thinking there’s not much to explore compared to Sonoma or Napa, but what people don’t realize is just how large the region has expanded over the last few decades. Robert Livermore planted the first wine grapes in 1846 and in 1883, Carl H. Wente and James Concannon founded the first two wineries in the region. Today, there are over 50 wineries and around 60 vineyards, with Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon being the two most planted varietals in Livermore Valley.
While we didn’t have time to visit anywhere close to 50, we did have a few days to sample some gems run by incredibly gifted and genuine winemakers and proprietors. Let’s take a look.
The Lineage Collection
First up is a special spot that overlooks the Home Ranch Vineyard Estate, home of the Lineage Collection. If you sign up for one of their traditional tasting experiences, you’ll be greeted with a unique bottle of sparkling wine paired with the chef’s choice of caviar to kick things off. We were fortune to spend a couple of hours solo with 6th generation winemaker Steven K. Mirassou, who among other talents, has a very authentic way of speaking eloquently from the heart about his passion for wine, drawing one parallel after another to life’s eternal lessons. Steven and his family have been making wine since 1854 and the commitment from generation to generation is felt as you listen to him speak about their history, his life and the collective passion to making balanced wine that transforms not just how you think about wine, but life itself.
We started with the 2018 Mia Nipote sparkling Barbera before moving onto the single vineyard Cabernet Franc, which is 95% Cabernet Franc and 5% Merlot. They buy some of their fruit from other vineyards which btw, is pretty common for the region. Steven buys from Sauchau Vineyard and Ghielmetti Vineyards, which apparently is known for their incredible fruit. As another winemaker put it, “it’s hard to go wrong with Ghielmetti.” Based in the eastern foothills of the Livermore Valley, Ghielmetti provides Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. Sachau Vineyard, in the middle of the appellation, grows spectacular Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot.
They regard Lineage as an exotic, beautiful creature – in other words, “each year this so called creature takes on a different shape, and each variety plays a crucial role in its apotheosis. Their philosophy revolves around the idea that Cabernet Sauvignon provides the skeleton, adding the structure upon which the flesh of Merlot, the nervous system (and sex appeal) of Cabernet Franc, and the exotic coloring of Petit Verdot sit.”
“A really great wine is all about beauty and balance. Beautiful wine is a bottomless well of unlimited potential.” — Steven K. Mirassou
Steven believes that Cabernet Franc is the ‘sexiest grape’ out there. Each year, after the selected barrels of each variety are chosen (they declassify more than 90% of these lots) and the blend is made, Lineage is rebarreled and aged in approximately 50% new French oak for an additional 6-8 months. Their primary focus? Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Barbera.
I absolutely loved their Premier Cabernet Sauvignon however they only made eight barrels. Because the wine was so good, we ended up missing our second appointment and rescheduling it to the following day. Why? Because great wine can’t be rushed, especially with a proprietor as passionate and dedicated as Steven exudes.
Why wouldn’t we want more of his story and his wine? Their bottles are made from love and it shows. He told us of his family’s history, his own life story and why he sees wine as an example of how to LIVE your life. In other words, it’s not just about the wine. It never is, is it? When he spoke endearingly of his wife June who he lost to brain cancer, he spoke of their time walking in the vineyards saying that together, they “believed in sucking the marrow out of an experience because you never know when that time will come again.”
“Wine is a physical representation of how one can live. One can produce. One can create. Writing and winemaking are cut from the same mold — sharing ideas and digging deep into the emotions of love. You should always live emotionally from your heart. Wine is an example of creation from the heart.” –– Steven K. Mirassou
Behind us lay some of his vineyards, so we had a chance to get close to the grapes as well since everything that matters in life involves a deep connection to the earth. We learn this every day and teach it too.
We also tasted their 2017 Lineage which was 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc, although he says that the percentage blend changes every year. We truly loved our experience and you can bet we’ll be back. And oh btw, in the meantime, we’ll be tasting more of his wine.
Steven also has a book coming out in September called: Lineage: Life and Love and Six Generations in California Wine, a perfect title for his life experience as well as representative of his family’s history as well. It will take you into the heart of his calling: how it looks and feels to be in a vineyard heavy with grapes, awaiting the dawn and the throbbing pulse of a harvest about to begin. You can pre-order it on Amazon.
Of the book’s description, it’s described as a “raw truth, dirty jeans, arms deep in crushed grapes, heart pounding, dust in your nose, spirit in your mouth writing, flowing from a winemaker who sees crafting beautiful wines and combining them with healthy food as a way to serve others, to bring people together in joy and common cause, a noble calling that Steven Mirassou aptly terms “the true north” of our civilization.”
The Lineage Collection
5443 Tesla Road
Livermore, CA 94550
Another unexpected gem, McGrail Vineyards is a treasure for a myriad of reasons. Let’s start out with the fact that the owner is a woman — woot woot — and is taking over from her father who lived his life as both a policeman and lawyer before owning a vineyard. Heather McGrail is extending her father’s passion but with a gentleness, sense of care, connection and love that comes from the strong feminine energy she exudes.
The ambiance is also wonderful from the beauty and creative offerings in their gift shop and tasting room to the patio area where you can sample their wines with a bit of cheese, crackers and fruit or move over to the grassy area which faces a stage, which was being set up during our visit. Bands will be playing on the weekends over the summer — what a better way to spend a summer evening then sipping a great Livermore Valley wine while listening to live music. You can picnic on their lawns as well.
In the back of the patio, you’ll find wooden barrel after barrel which is another thing that makes McGrail unique. Although their focus is only on Cabernet Sauvignon, what sets each apart is the type of wooden barrel it ages in: American, French and Hungarian oak. For those of you who think that all oak is the same, think again. The same grape and aging process can taste very differently depending on what kind of oak it is aged in, adding to the texture, the tannins, acidity and smoothness to the overall taste.
Also in the back are a couple of couches among a comfy sitting area, surrounded by wooden barrels as well — we love, love the ambiance here.
Inside the tasting room, it’s a little different. You’re given four small glasses, marked with a 1-4, noting how you taste them. Again, all Cabs, but all with their own unique taste. From here, you can either taste in the tasting room or head out to the patio area to sample their reds.
Once you’re outside, you have the breeze of the wind (it tends to get windy in Livermore Valley) with the heat of a late May afternoon. Prefer not to sit, then you can stand around one of their countless wooden wine barrels scattered throughout the property, all of which have a great view of the land.
So, we started with the 2017 Patriot Cabernet Sauvignon, which is aged in new American oak and was made to support America’s “fallen heroes.” It has a deep, dark garnet color and is oh so yum, but you do taste more tannins than the other three. That said, when paired correctly, those dark berries, vanilla, anise and cocoa will be a perfect match.
We then moved onto the 2017 A Jo Elet, which is a bold Cab aged in new Hungarian Oak. Classic in every way, you get those deep cherry tones, but also cassis, spicy clove and nutmeg as well. There’s a hint of old world texture as well which you’d expect from Hungarian oak. You’ll also smell blackberry, fig, plum, cinnamon, oregano, white pepper and rose petals as well.
Moving onto my favorite, the 2017 James Vincent Cabernet Sauvignon, named after Heather’s dad. Why is it my favorite? It’s elegant beyond elegant with so much velvet smoothness, that your palette just wants more. Aged in French oak, which tends to be my favorite, this wine is oh so jammy way that we personally love about California Cabs. Think cloves, cassis, vanilla, nutmeg, dark cherries, cocoa and coconut. You could say that this Cabernet Sauvignon gem had me at hello.
Last up was the 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve which only retails at around $48 and was absolutely delicious as well. Very smooth and opulent, we picked up on the coffee, caramel, toasty vanilla and cherry flavors and aroma. And even a little tobacco to boot — two thumbs up.
Heather’s generosity and passion for wine came through with every explanation, detail and story, from the love that her father extended to her and her siblings to what they do as a vineyard to give back to the community including veterans and police who have died to protect others. Authenticity and love, when they come through with such vigor from a winemaker or proprietor, come through to the wine that is being produced. Remember, we are all connected and the art of making wine comes from love. Live your life emotionally as Steven Mirassou said just the day before. Why were we not surprised to learn that Heather’s father and Steven were good friends?
5600 Greenville Road
Livermore, CA 94550
Wente Vineyards is the most renowned winery in the Livermore Valley area. In fact, it’s so large that we got a little lost when we first arrived, winding up on their golf course at first — yes, they have a golf course, restaurant and other buildings for larger events. Below is their golf course, where we found several people queued up to play golf for the afternoon.
We were greeted by Kevin Gott who is well versed about wine and was our guide for the tour of the property. Tour first and then eat and drink, right? Founded in 1883, Wente Vineyards is the country’s oldest, continuously operated family-owned winery. The property is stunning; neatly manicured, it is set up to handle countless events, from weddings and anniversaries to other large celebrations. They’ve even had concerts here, including Josh Grobin as they can accommodate 1,100 people (yes, really).
In addition to the 2,000 acres that produces 26 different varietals in Livermore Valley, they also have 1,000 acres in Monterey county which they added in 1961. In other words, they’ve been around for awhile. The Wente family also purchased the land that the main facilities now sits on, once home of the Cresta Blanca Winery which was founded in 1882.
On the 2,000 acres, the Bordeaux varietals are grown — noble grapes, Rhône varietals such as Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. The latter is a deep, rich meaty wine you’ll find in the south of France, including the Rhône and Provence regions. They also produce Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon which the region is so well known for, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Zinfandel. For white varietals, they also have Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Rhône varietals such as Viognier, one of Kevin’s favorites.
Look at the stunning wooden carvings — do you recognize Bacchus?
Inside, we learn about the wine making process from Kevin as well as the history of Cresta Blanca and Wente as well as the connection between both.
They also offer special VIP wine tastings in some areas of the cellar as well as sit-down offerings as well — the ambiance is amazing.
Meet the Small Lot Artist Series Collection from Wente, which features art from a local San Francisco Bay Area artist each year. The artist has the ability to develop new pieces and/or apply a current piece to four of their Artist Series blends: GSM, Serenity, Sonata and Duetto. See below for some of the creative labels over the years — beautiful right?
Note that one of the labels (above lower right) says nth Degree which includes their higher end wines, which we had a chance to taste. Both their 2016 and 2017 nth Degree Cabernet Sauvignon are all about black currant, dried herbs, bay leaves, cassis and chocolate. You might say that it’s head winemaker 5th generation Karl Wente’s baby.
Inside the tasting room, the ambiance is as chic and fun as it is outside in the courtyard and patio area.
There’s no shortage of wines on display either, so its easy to get lost here for several hours. They also offer a variety of fun things to purchase in their gift shop, such as glasses, bags, accessories and more.
Notice the Rose pictured on the right below — in other words, regardless of what wine you fancy, Wente has you covered.
Who knew? They also have olive oil as well and in hindsight, I wished we picked up a few bottles. Living with an Italian, we go through a lot of it for cooking and of course, trickling it over Mozzarella, Basil and Arugula Salads.
Outside on the patio, you can taste as well — reservations required, at least that was the case when we were there in late May. You can get a charcuterie board with cheese to pair with your wine, which we’d recommend. Think guava mash, blue cheese, brie, popcorn with black truffle salt, chorizzo, prosciutto, apples, crackers, dried figs and beyond. Let’s just say that it is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.
We’d love to go back and sample some of the wines we missed the first time around — bravissimo Wente team.
5050 Arroyo Road
Livermore, CA 94550
925.456.2481 (for the grill)
Garre Winery & Restaurant
The ambiance is all about socializing here, both inside and out. There are two patio areas where you can drink wine as well as inside at the counter or around a table.
There is plenty of wood in the interior with many of their wines displayed throughout.
A wreathe made with their wine corks is found adorned on one of the walls of the tasting room.
Outside, there are plenty of trees and vineyards off in the distance in all directions.
A 2017 Cabernet Franc from Garre Winery sits on the left, next to three other red wines from Livermore Valley that we sampled a week before our trip. My favorite? It goes to their 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon that had a beautiful earthy smoky and leathery finish. Black cherry, red currants, raisins and other darker fruits fell upon the nose and taste buds and let’s just say that it was oh such a treat.
They grow all five Bordeaux varietals on the premises, which includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot. We loved the 2014 Sangiovese but our favorite goes to the 2014 Profound Secret Bordeaux Blend – oh so yum. They also grow Petite Sirah here as well. Anthony loved their 2018 Red Velvet Port as well, which we were surprised to find as an offering.
They have a lovely 2015 Cabernet Franc, which is loaded with red raspberry and bell pepper notes. We also loved the 2015 Primitivo which has a smoke and tobacco aroma and both their 2014 and 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon. Oh so yum! Those wishing for lighter pairings can go for their 2014 or 2015 Sangiovese.
Because they also have a pretty extensive restaurant here as well, the patio areas are quite large or you can opt to sit inside for those who wish to cool down on those hotter Livermore afternoons. Tables are well spaced out for those who still have concerns about dining inside as things begin to open up more and more.
Great appetizers to share for the table include their Antipasto Platter, Chipotle Honey Glazed Prawns, Sweet Potato Fries, Garlic Edamame, Fried Calamari and Baked Brie with a blackberry chipotle relish and crostini. Anthony’s Roasted Tomato Soup, which was a special on the menu the day we were there, was to die-for; although it had a bit of a kick, it was perfectly balanced and wonderful for a warm summer afternoon with just the right breeze.
We also sampled their epic Caesar salad and added some grilled salmon to it for a little added flavor – goes wonderfully with a sparling wine or one of their Chardonnays. When we were there, they had two 2019 Chardonnays, one fermented in 100% stainless steel and their Reserve which had aromas of golden apple, apricot and buttered popcorn – oh so delish!
They also had a lovely spinach salad with cranberries, apples, walnuts, bacon and hardboiled eggs. We topped ours with grilled prawns which they tossed in an ever so delicious molasses vinaigrette. It was a beautiful combination for a warm afternoon.
They offer a wine club as well — Nonna’s Family Wine Club to be precise. Rosa “Nonna” Garre provided the inspiration for Garre Vineyard and Winery and Rosa’s grandson Robert Molinaro and his family have continued the tradition.
Garre Vineyard & Winery
7986 Tesla Road
Livermore, CA 94550
Other call-outs go to some of the wines we sampled not at their wineries but at home paired with food and wine. We went with a grilled steak and asparagus for the 2018 Merlot from Wood Family Vineyards, and a variety of lighter dishes for two Livermore Valley chardonnays: the 2018 Finestra Chardonnay and the 2020 Chardonnay from Page Mill Winery. Dishes included grilled chicken, a shrimp and salmon salad and a side of roasted root vegetables.
It was all so delish – two thumbs up! Lesson learned that wine is all around us and when you head to California, stop thinking of just Sonoma and Napa Valleys for scrumptiously balanced wines. Remember that in the south, there’s great wines from lesser known places like Carmel, Paso Robles and beyond and within an hour or so from the SF Bay Area, Livermore Valley with over 50 wineries and 60+ vineyards.
Note: we were hosted by some of the wineries but all opinions expressed are entirely our own.