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Mar 2, 2011

Wine-seeking in California's Livermore Valley


California’s Livermore Valley is one of the state’s oldest and finest wine regions. First planted by Franciscan missionaries in the 1760s, it has produced award-winning wines on the world stage from the 1880s onward. Less than an hour from San Francisco, the Valley is a serene and beautiful place where craggy canyons and rounded hills give way to broad fields filled with vineyards and olive trees. And nestled into this bucolic scene are more than 40 wineries, many of which produce notable gold- and silver-medal winners.

And yet, inexplicably, the Livermore Valley remains ignored by most wine-seeking visitors to the San Francisco Bay Area (and even the majority of area residents), most of whom head straight to the state’s superstar wine-and-food destinations: Napa and Sonoma.

That may change with the publication of The Wine Seeker's Guide to Livermore Valley. Written by wine-and-travel journalist Thomas Wilmer,* the 236-page photo-laden book discusses 39 of the region’s wineries, including history, contact information, a regional map, and recommendations for restaurants and accommodations. There’s also an informative 60-page compilation of things to see and do in the area.

But mostly it’s about the wineries.

“One of the great aspects to visiting wineries here,” says Wilmer, “is that your wine will often be poured by the winery owner—who is likely to also be the winemaker!” He points out that the tasting rooms tend to be friendly and charge minimal (if any) tasting fees. As Wilmer notes in the book:
There are many savvy wine seekers who religiously trek to the valley for weekend getaways, day-trip tasting adventures, and the numerous annual festivals and concerts. Leisurely winding through the Livermore Valley Wine Trail—sans traffic jams and crowds—is rejuvenating and unforgettable.
Wilmer’s selection of wineries ranges from big players like Concannon and Wente, which produce a combined half-million cases per year, to boutique wineries like Las Positas Vineyards (750 annual cases). Both Wente and Concannon, by the way, rank among the earliest wineries in the state (the book’s two Forwards are written by Phil Wente and James Concannon).

If one factor dominates this book, it’s the lively writing.
As I rolled down the palm fringed lane to Michael Katz winery, I was mesmerized by the stately two-story, red-brick edifice that towered above. It was like a fortress, complete with plank cellar doors, shuttered dormers, and ridge-top cupola.

This elegant beacon of Livermore Valley was erected in 1887 and opened its doors as John Crellin's Ruby Hill Winery. Sadly, following years of abandonment and a fire in 1989, the bricks all came tumbling down. Fortunately the vintage bricks were saved, reassembled, and mortared back in place. Today, the painstakingly reconstructed building serves as the home of Mitchell Katz winery.
And so, readers, if you want to explore Livermore Valley, a great opportunity is coming up soon: Livermore Valley's 3rd Annual Barrel Tasting Weekend (March 19-20). With a copy of Tom Wilmer's book you can lay out a plan in advance, and then enjoy a day or two of wine tasting in this beautiful and historic valley. Have fun!

Learn more about the Livermore Valley Wine Country

Buy a copy of The Wine Seeker's Guide to Livermore Valley on Amazon

* I should note that Tom Wilmer is not only a respected travel journalist, but a good friend.

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