It may have only one-tenth the growing acreage of Sonoma County, and about one-seventh as many wineries as Napa, but the Livermore Valley has a longer history of viniculture-by roughly 50 years. Spanish missionaries planted the first wine grapes in the area in the 1760s, and up until Prohibition it was the leading wine region in the state. In contrast, vines didn't come to the Sonoma coast until Russian settlers began cultivation in 1812, while Napa's crop got its start in 1836, thanks to homesteader George Yount, of Yountville fame.
Fast forward to 2008, and Alameda County's once-sleepy wine country is now coming of age.
"Last June our membership totaled 38 bonded wineries, and in just eight months that number has grown to 43," relates Chris Chandler, executive director of the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association (LVWA), the organization that brings growers, vintners, area businesses, and individuals together to promote the region and its amenities.
Some of the local operations are now being run by the descendants of the original founding families. Wente Vineyards, established in 1883, lays claim to the distinction of "California's oldest family-owned and continuously operated winery," and is now managed by the members of the fourth and fifth generations. Concannon Vineyard, run by Jim Concannon, the founder's grandson, dates back to the same era. At the opposite end of the spectrum are McGrail Vineyards and Les Chenes Estate Vineyards, whose Cabernet and Rhone varietals, respectively, were both planted at the turn of this century, in 1999.
The American love affair with wine is obviously one reason behind the trend, but the region's topography is an equally important force driving the new cultivation. Unlike the north-south orientation of many other grape-growing regions, the Livermore Valley stretches from east to west, Chandler points out. This accident of geology allows the Bay Area marine effect (i.e., fog) to sweep over the hills and blanket the area, creating the ideal grape-growing conditions of cool nights and warm sunny days.
As for the "terroir" that imprints its characteristic taste on each vintage, the local soil is "primarily gravel with excellent drainage, a type that reduces the vines' vigor and increases flavor concentration in the grapes," notes the LVWA web site. Whether red or white, the wines crafted in the region bear their own Livermore Valley appellation. Falling within the larger Central Coast appellation, this designation was awarded more than 25 years ago, a badge of honor among enophiles.
Its lower profile on the wine scene makes Livermore Valley wine country an inviting place to visit. "We hear people say there's not as much traffic here" compared to the more renowned wine regions, says Chandler. "You can still visit a tasting room here and talk to the winemaker. For someone who's tasting, talking to the person who actually crafted the wine, finding out what decisions went into that bottle, is a fascinating story."
Add to that a very vibrant social scene, and you'll want to grab the car keys for a nearby excursion. For more information on Livermore's wineries and events, including the upcoming Livermore Valley Wine Country Golf Championship in early April, visit www.livermorewine.com .
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