Category Archives: Wine Regions

The Perils of Price

By Kareasa Wilkins

It is a well-known fact that there is little freedom in terms of winemaking in most of the historic wine regions of Europe. Appellation laws put out by the government set strict guidelines as to what grape varieties can be planted, what training systems can be used in the vineyards, methods of winemaking, ageing requirements, and final levels of alcohol. While in many cases, this is a result of centuries of study as to what methods will produce the best wines in a particular area, it can seem rather limiting for innovative or rebellious winemakers who want to experiment with something different.

            The “new world,” and particularly California, has been a haven for experimental winemakers who want to try something different. Indeed, “flying winemakers” from Europe and around the world often come to California to work a harvest, and some even end up staying and opening up their own wineries or participating in joint ventures with the locals. Yet in spite of its image as an “anything goes” wine area, the most famous region in California is arguably as restricted as Europe. But it’s not the government that inflicting the limitations here; it’s the market. Napa Valley is the most expensive agricultural region in the Americas. They say that in order to make a million dollars in Napa, you have to start with at least a billion. And if you’re going to have any return on investment, you have to produce what brings in the profits.

            The Napa Valley was once home to a wide range of grape varieties: Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Gamay and more. Then, in 1976, the Judgment of Paris tasting happened. This was arguably the most important event in California, or indeed United States wine history. This tasting, organized by Steven Spurrier, the renowned British wine critic, took place in France and pitted the famous French wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy against Cabernet based blends and Chardonnays from the Napa Valley. Much to the amazement of the world press, Napa Valley came out on top, with Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay and Stags Leap Wine Cellars’ Cabernet Sauvignon taking the top spots. After this tasting, Napa Valley came to be recognized as a first-rate wine region, and people have been flocking there ever since to get a taste of its nectar.

            Yet the Judgment of Paris had its unintended consequences as well. With the top wines being Chardonnay and Cabernet, these varieties suddenly became the darlings, and the wines that could command high prices. Soon, other grape vines were being grubbed up and replanted with these varieties. Cabernet, in particular, became the cash cow for the region. These days it is nearly impossible to find any winery in the valley that doesn’t specialize in Cabernet Sauvignon, and indeed, for any new venturers to the region, making an expensive Cabernet is almost a requirement because that’s what brings in the return on investment. It is rare to find a Napa Valley Cabernet priced at below $50/bottle, and wines at $100, $200 or more are becoming increasingly common.  It seems that the only people who are able to make alternative varieties in any great number are those who have been there since the early days. I recently tasted a stunning Riesling from high up on Spring Mountain at Smith-Madrone winery. The wine was easily on par with grand cru examples from Alsace, and yet these days no one thinks of Riesling and Napa Valley in the same sentence. While it’s true that most regions in Napa are far too warm to produce fine Riesling, Smith-Madrone proved that there are pockets of Napa that can make world class Riesling. Yet the Smith brothers, the proprietors of this winery, are old-timers who purchased the land in the 1960s before it became the king’s ransom that it is today. Another pleasant surprise was the Chenin Blanc from Chappellet. The Chappellet family established their winery up on Pritchard Hill in 1967, and they are one of the few who still produce this once prolific variety. The wine showed such complexity and racy acidity, it was an easy favorite, and according to our host, it is also matriarch Molly Chappellet’s favorite. However, as I mentioned, these two wineries have been around for a number of years and can afford to trifle with varieties that don’t command high prices. But the truth of the matter is that you are unlikely to find much more beyond an extravagant Cabernet from any new wineries looking to establish themselves—there simply is not enough return on investment. 

            Sadly, gems like the Smith-Madrone Riesling and the Chappellet Chenin Blanc are few and far between in Napa, and when the next generation takes over from the old-timers, we may see even less of these treasures. Still, there may be hope for change.  Over time, tastes can evolve or be swayed. Perhaps we will see a new Judgment of Paris for the 21st century that involves alternative varieties, or maybe people will begin to realize that Napa does not have to be synonymous with Cabernet. When, and if the fashion for new grape varieties shifts, I’ll be waiting with my glass raised.

The Tuscan Renaissance: Not Just for Art

 By Kareasa Wilkins

            When most people think about the Renaissance in Tuscany, their minds go directly to art: Botticelli, Donatello, Michelangelo. But Tuscany experienced a wine renaissance as well. In fact, perhaps no other wine region in the world has undergone such a significant renaissance of quality as Tuscany has in the last 60 years. Agriculture in central Italy in the early part of the 20th century was long dominated by the mezzadria, or sharecropping system, in which peasant farmers worked land owned by wealthy aristocrats in exchange for 49% of the crops they tended, a supply that helped their poor families survive. When this system died out in the 1960s and landowners received their land back from the sharecroppers working it, they knew little about quality viticulture. In a region where Sangiovese, a finicky grape with hundreds of different clones dominates, the production of wine at this time became one of mass production from high yields and low quality clones that were easy to cultivate. Quantity, rather than quality was the norm. Indeed, by the 1970s, the region of Tuscany was best known for Chiantis that were more valued from the straw fiascobasket they came in than for the poor quality wine inside the bottle. Moreover, laws at the time allowed up to 30% white grapes to be added to Chianti. This often included the neutral tasting Trebbiano Toscana, which, rather than adding character to the red wines, often dulled it down. With the reputation of the region falling apart, Tuscan winemakers began to revolutionize wine production in the region thus paving the way for the high quality wines associated with the region today.

            Perhaps the most significant movement to instigate change in the region was the introduction of “Super Tuscans.” By the late 1960s, winemakers began to follow in the steps of Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, who eschewed the traditional wine laws of the region to create “Sassicaia” from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes (reportedly from vines taken from Chateau Lafite Rothschild) made in the Bolgheri region near the Tuscan Coast. Others, such as his cousin Piero Antinori followed suit, creating wines that were often based on international varieties, or Sangiovese blended with international varieties. But beyond simply going against the standard inferior “Chianti blend” that was losing so much favor in the market, what united these wines was their focus on quality. They were often produced from lower yields, higher quality clones, and aged in new French oak barrels. However, even though the quality of these wines far surpassed the typical wines of the region, and often came with price tags to match, they were forced to be labeled simply as Vino da Tavolawhich was the lowest demarcation for Italian wines, because they failed to meet the DOC laws of the region. The rise in popularity of these wines coupled with the visible quality did lead to the creation of IGT, or Indicazione Geografica Tipica, a demarcation that indicated higher quality than a basicVino da Tavola. Later, the DOC Bolgheri was added, and as this is where many Super Tuscans are made, they now fall under the higher quality status. The quality minded producers behind the Super Tuscan movement led other regions to ensue, and in 1980 Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montalcino were granted DOCG status. These wines, like the Super Tuscans are now viewed as some of the most iconic wines of quality from the Tuscan region.

            While the Super Tuscans may have been the first wines to inspire a transformation in the Tuscan wine region, Chianti soon upped its game as well. It began with the acknowledgment of its signature grape, Sangiovese, as one that not only has difficulty ripening, but also has hundreds of clones that vary in flavor and quality. This led to an intensive research project that began in 1987 and focused on studying the different types of clones and practices in the vineyard such as rootstock and training methods. Ultimately these studies led to better knowledge and practices in the vineyard and the cellar, such as clonal selection, lowering yields, reducing the amount of white grapes in the blend, and oak ageing in barrique. 

            Not only did all of the research being done in Chianti contribute to better quality wines, but during this time, the Consorzio also recognized the importance of reestablishing the Chianti Classico zone. The Chianti Classico zone was originally delimited in the early 1700s by the Duke of Medici, and included the villages of Radda, Gaiole, Castellina, and Greve. These areas contain a wide variety of soils and mesoclimates, with cooling influences from the Tyrrhenian Sea, and were viewed as producing the top quality wine. Yet in the 1930s, this region was expanded in efforts to capitalize on the name, though many of the wines produced did not match up to the name. Indeed, it was these very wines that were using less and less Sangiovese, and being diluted with the Trebbiano Toscana grape. In 1996, the original Chianti Classico region was granted DOCG status, and no longer considered a subzone of Chianti. The DOCG stipulated lower yields, and higher required amounts of Sangiovese in the wines, thus further showcasing quality. Even more recently, producers in the Chianti Classico region created another quality designation, the category of Gran Selezione, a term for wines made from all estate grown fruit and aged for thirty months before being sold. 

            The Tuscan region of Italy is now considered to be emblematic of quality wine production. Yet little more than a half century ago, this was not the case. But a handful of quality minded producers who dared to take the initiative to prove what the region was capable of paved the way for improvements in the overall production of wine through new laws, regional designations, education and research, and enhancements in viticulture and enology.  

Old Ghosts and Old Vines: An Interview with Steve Felten of Klinker Brick Winery

By Kareasa Wilkins


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When Creedence Clearwater Revival bemoaned the fate of being “stuck in Lodi,” they clearly weren’t drinking Klinker Brick Zin. Klinker Brick is making wines, particularly old vine Zins that are making Lodi a destination worthy of visiting.

The Purple Tongue Press recently spoke with Steve Felten, president of Klinker Brick wines.

PTP: Tell me a little bit about the history of Klinker Brick.

SF: Klinker Brick is a family owned estate. We are part of the 6th generation of wine grape growers here in Lodi. The family began growing wine grapes in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until 1995 that we began making our own wine. We were still selling it to other producers at the time, then in 2000 we began bottling our own. Our total annual production is about 85-90,000 cases with the Klinker Brick Zinfandel being our flagship wine.

PTP: Lodi is becoming more recognized as a quality wine-producing region. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

SF: Lodi has always been a big area in terms of wine grape production, but it has only been in the last 15 years or so that growers started making wine. Before 2000, there were less than 10 wineries in this area, but now there are over 100. Lodi was recently honored as Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Region of the Year. Klinker Brick was the first winery from Lodi to pour at Wine Spectator’s Grand Tasting, and we also won a trophy at the New World International Wine Competition. The atmosphere in this region is a lot like it was in Napa 40 years ago, and a lot of that has to do with the exceptional Zinfandel that’s grown here.

PTP: What is special about Zin grown in this area?

SF: There is more old vine Zin grown here than anywhere else in the state. Klinker Brick works with a number of old vine vineyards, including one that is over 120 years old. The soils and the climate in Lodi contribute to very fruit driven wines. We have a longer growing season than other wine regions in the state, which allows longer hang time for the grapes. There are a lot of myths about Lodi, particularly that it’s too hot for quality wine. But we’re in the north end of the valley, and we get a lot of cool Delta breezes at night. The temperature can fluctuate as much as 40 degrees from day to night, and we get great concentration of flavor in the grapes because of this. We get really ripe fruit, but the wines are still well-balanced. They’re really popular with consumers because they’re easy to drink. You don’t have to lay them down for a long time. Pretty much as soon as they’re released they’re good to go. They’re vibrant and fresh with a ton of fruit that makes them really enjoyable to drink.

PTP: Can you tell us a little bit about the Zins that Klinker Brick produces?

SF: The Klinker Brick Old Vine Zin is our flagship wine. It’s made from a blend of 16 different old vine vineyards, the average age of which is 85 years. This wine has a lot of bold fruit and a nice black pepper character to it as well. Our Marisa Vineyard Zin is produced from an 88-year-old vineyard block. This one has really good structure to it, firmer tannins and a lot of berry fruit. Then we have the Old Ghost. This is our reserve Zin. It comes from the best lots of our old vines, and it’s a rather atypical Zin in that it’s a lot more elegant in style. It’s a wine that really lingers on the palate from front to back. We also do a Zin blend called Tranzind. This is a blend of old vine Zin, Petite Sirah, Syrah, and Cabernet. It’s a great house wine and is currently being marketed through chain sales.

PTP: Do you have any favorite foods to pair with Klinker Brick Zins?

SF: Anything with spice or pepper is great with them. Mexican, Thai, barbecue, pizza, you name it.

PTP: Is there anything else you would like the public to know about Klinker Brick?

SF: Just that we are a family owned winery making premium wines in Lodi. Our wines are incredibly consumer friendly, and in addition to the old vine Zins, we have a number of excellent wines in our portfolio, including some special limited edition wine club wines.

Klinker Brick’s tasting room is open 7 days/week. For more information go to

Steve Felten, along with winemaker Joseph Smith will be pouring Klinker Brick wines at ZAP’s Zinfandel Experience. For more information go to

Zin at 2500 Feet



By Kareasa Wilkins

These days Napa Valley is hardly synonymous with anything but Cabernet. Indeed, California’s most famous wine region has come to rest its laurels on its lush, powerful rendition of the Bordeaux varietal that has dazzled and delighted the critics and the masses. While a multiplicity of grape varieties once graced the slopes of Napa Valley, grapes considered “less noble” are constantly being uprooted for new plantings of the big money-maker. With the average Napa Valley Cabernet bottling being well-over $50/bottle, and ultra premium “cult” wines commanding astronomical prices, it’s no wonder that many producers hardly dabble with alternatives beyond perhaps a Bordeaux-style blend or a white offering.

Needless to say, I was surprised at ZAP 2015, the annual Zinfandel Advocates and Producer’s grand tasting, when the Zinfandels that stood out most to me, came not from the usual suspects in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley (though there were a number of stars from those regions), but from a small vineyard within Napa’s Howell Mountain AVA, the Black Sears Vineyard.

Howell Mountain is no exception to the Napa Cab craze. With names like Dunn, CADE, O’Shaughnessy, and Robert Craig, this AVA is clearly prime Cab country. Yet at the very tip top of Howell Mountain is a vineyard where Zinfandel shines just as bright as any of the brilliant Cabernets. The Black Sears vineyard, owned by Joyce Black and Jerre Sears is situated 2500 feet above the valley floor, and its unique geography and well-tended vines are generating some of the most distinctive Zins in the world.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Chris Jambois, Joyce and Jerre’s son-in-law, who, along with his wife Ashley, oversees much of Black Sears’ vineyard maintenance. Chris shared some of the reasons he believes Zinfandels from Black Sears Vineyard are so special. “This vineyard has so many unique soil types that professors from UC Davis and other top research universities are always coming to study it,” says Jambois. “We’re above the fog line, which produces warmer nights than are seen on the valley floor, though the  growing season usually starts a good 2-3 weeks later than the rest of Napa, and our Zins tend to be among the last to come in during harvest. Our Zins are dry farmed, and the wines that come from this vineyard are always incredibly complex and spicy. You get a lot of black and white pepper notes that you don’t find in Zins from other regions.” Jambois poured us a sample of the 2012 vintage, which was deep and brooding, and highlighted these qualities. The Estate Zinfandel is crafted by winemaker Thomas Brown, who took over the reigns after Ted Lemon left in 2006. Yet as exceptional as the Black Sears Estate Zin is, the quantity is limited. Of the 24 acres of grapes planted at Black Sears, only 17 are planted to Zin, and Jambois notes that they sell 75% of their fruit. Top producers such as Turley, Robert Craig, and T-Vine all have Black Sears Vineyard bottling of Zin. The vines at the Black Sears Estate are tended using biodynamic methods, and Jambois remarks that since they began farming this way in the early 2000s, buyers have really noticed improvements in the health of the vineyard and the quality of the fruit produced. This is important, particularly with Zinfandel, which can be difficult in the vineyard. “Zinfandel is a true artist’s grape,” says Jambois. “A lot of people talk about Pinot Noir being so challenging in the vineyard. But the same could be said about Zin. It’s a notoriously uneven ripener, and it’s prone to botrytis. It’s really difficult to make a complex Zin, and only the true artists are successful at it.” He also seeks to dispel common myths about the grape. “There are a lot of myths about Zin—that it can’t be complex or elegant, that critics won’t give it more than 95 points.” Yet as the Black Sears Estate is demonstrating, when grown in optimal conditions and crafted in the hands of caring individuals, Zinfandel can be nothing less than extraordinary.

BlackSearsTractor BlackSearsBarn

For more information about the Black Sears Estate, go

Black Sears Estate, along with many wineries that produce a Black Sears Vineyard Zin will be pouring at ZAP 2016. Find out more at

History in the Vines: Fremont’s Wine Legacy

“There is no more important vineyard district in California, all things considered, than that which lies around the old Mission San Jose. …The best wine vineyards are around the Mission and Warm Springs, and on the roads to Irvington and Niles -in other words -on the spurs of the great mountain that rises above the district.” –Charles Howard Shinn, 1889

By Ralph de Unamuno

After having lived in Los Angeles for nearly a decade, I returned to the Bay Area to teach Chicano Studies & History at local community colleges. My commute took me past the Gallegos-Palmdale Winery ruins.  My curiosity as a historian led me to research the past of the ruins I had once explored as a young boy growing up in Fremont. I soon uncovered an amazing story about the Gallegos- Palmdale winery in particular, and that Fremont had a remarkable viticultural and enological past in general. From the Spanish-Mission era up to Prohibition, south Fremont (then called the Washington Township), had once been one of the first and most productive wine regions in California. While the Gallegos-Palmdale Winery was not the first or the last winery in Fremont, it is a symbol of a bygone era of Fremont’s historic agricultural past. A past that is all but forgotten but much deserving of acknowledgment to the history of California viticulture and enology.

Figure 1 Ruins of the Palmdale Winery. Photo Credit: The Wine Institute

Figure 1 Ruins of the Palmdale Winery. Photo Credit: The Wine Institute

The origins of the Golden State’s wine industry has its roots in the Spanish colonial era.  Wine production began in the late 18th century within the Mission system. The vineyards of Mission San Jose were productive from 1797 to 1836.   After the secularization of the Missions by the Mexican government in the 1830’s, the Mission’s vineyards were sold-off  and focused on non-ecclesiastical wine markets. In 1849, an early Anglo-American traveler named Bayard Taylor wrote, “A Frenchmen named Vigne made 100 barrels of wine from a vineyard of about six-acres at Mission San Jose.” In the early days U.S. occupation of California, Anglo-American settlers would plant vineyards and import French cuttings from throughout Europe. In 1862, J.C. Palmer imported from France and Spain 10,000 cuttings of various varietals. In this era the vines of what would become the California heritage wine, Zinfandel, would also be introduced to the area. By the turn of the century southern Alameda county would have earned an international reputation for its wine and vines.

By 1893, the present-day districts of Mission San Jose and Irvington had 1,627 acres of vineyards under production. These vineyards grew 5,092 tons of grapes, and the wineries produced 2,058,800 gallons of wine. Interestingly enough, what could be seen as the equivalent to a little “Silverado Trail” by 1893 standards along the well-traveled thoroughfare of Washington Boulevard leading up the hill from the Irvington district to the Mission San Jose. Traveling east past present-day Driscoll/Osgood road along Washington Boulevard would take you smack dab in the middle of the historic wine country of southern Alameda county. If 1893 was the early historic high-water mark, the world-wide phylloxera infestation of the 1890’s would be its historic low point.

Figure 2: Map of Washington Township Wineries. Key: 1. Beard/Gallegos/ Palmdale Winery; 2. Grau-Werner (Los Amigos); 3. Rosa Bez; 4. DeVaux; 5. Riehr Winery; 6. McIver/Linda Vista Winery; and 7. Stanford/Weibel Winery.

Figure 2: Map of Washington Township Wineries. Key: 1. Beard/Gallegos/ Palmdale Winery; 2. Grau-Werner (Los Amigos); 3. Rosa Bez; 4. DeVaux; 5. Riehr Winery; 6. McIver/Linda Vista Winery; and 7. Stanford/Weibel Winery.

Like the rest of the wine world, the recovery from the world-wide phylloxera epidemic would be slow in southern Alameda county, but further exacerbated by scourge of Prohibition. Wine production after the repeal of the 18th Amendment was further delayed due to the agricultural demands on the home front for World War II. National and international politics aside, at mid-century the future looked bright for southern Alameda County’s wine country. Mission San Jose and Irvington wineries and vineyards would soon reclaim their place in California’s wine industry.

In 1948, the legendary Frank Schoonmaker of Gourmet Magazine touted the region’s past, and what was then seen as a promising future, by prophesying

“There are vines, too, off east of the Bay on the low hills round Mission San Jose…already famous for the excellence of its vintages in the 1850s; and if we are ever to have wines in America that can honestly be called “great,” this is assuredly one of the districts from which they will come.”

From the Livermore valley to the Santa Cruz Mountains, the future looked promising for Bay Area wine in the eye of Schoonmaker. During the early days of the “repeal,” San Joaquin Valley wine producers flooded the market with subpar wine made from table grapes. Local wine makers in Fremont resisted the quick bucks and focused on developing quality wine for the consumer. Robert Maylock of the Los Amigos winery was one of the first in the state to plant Pino Noir in 1943, and later experiment by planting Cabernet Sauvignon in 1945. Los Amigos won sixty medals, one gold for Zinfandel and an honorable mention for sherry at the state fair. It seemed like a given the area would rebound, however history certainly has a way of playing dirty tricks on the future.

The Gallegos-Palmdale Winery ruins that captivated my attention as a boy, and later as an adult, I would soon uncover had an amazing history. The origins begin with two of the early Anglo-American emigrants to what would later be called the Washington Township, E.L. Beard and John Horner. The two purchased 30,000 acres of Mission San Jose Land in 1850. A year later Beard bought out Horner and planted a new vineyard that he would operate from 1851 – 1881. In 1881, Juan Gallegos, an immigrant from Costa Rica, purchased the estate and would soon raise the profile of the area wineries like no other producer. No doubt he would become the first Central American wine maker in California history. Gallegos would build a garden estate near the old Mission, as well as a palatial brick winery and distillery. The Gallegos Winery and Distillery was one of he first gravity-fed wineries in the state, man-made cave cellars, and its own cooperage. From the Mission Era through the late 19th century, the Latino presence in wine making would be represented in southern Alameda County.

Figure 3 The Gallegos- Palmdale Winery & Distillery. Photo Credit The Wine Institute

Figure 3 The Gallegos- Palmdale Winery. Photo Credit The Wine Institute

Gallegos would later sell the estate to his brother-in-law, Carlos Montealeagre, in 1892. Montealeagre would then sell the winery to the Palmdale Corporation, of which he and his family had controlling interest. By 1893, the Palmdale Company had 600 acres of vineyards with a total annual production of 2,400 tons of grapes, and over 1,250,000 gallons in cooperage. At one time the Gallegos Winery had the second largest wine cellar in California. The Palmdale Winery would change hands once more before its ultimate demise and destruction on April 18th, 1906. The earthquake that would decimate San Francisco would also show little impunity for the Palmdale Winery and Distillery.

Figure 4 East-side of the Gallegos- Palmdale winery.

Figure 4 East-side of the Gallegos- Palmdale winery.

So why didn’t Fremont become the next Napa, Sonoma, or even an up and coming Paso Robles? The answer lays all around in the blocks and blocks of houses, and the absences of blocks of vines. The wineries of southern Alameda county have long since been plowed under for subdivisions. The rapid suburbanization of the Bay Area in the Post-war era provided too much in the way of economic opportunity in terms of land sales for later generations of area agricultural and ranching families. Now all that remains of the bygone wine past are the cookie-cutter housing developments that now comprise Mission San Jose and Irvington. The lackluster demise of Fremont’s wine industry came to a definitive end in 1996, when sparkling-wine producer, Weibel Vineyards, the last winery pulled up its roots in 1996 for Woodbridge, California.

The end of Fremont’s wine industry may have been inevitable, however, the heritage of wine and wine making in southern Alameda County is not lost. In fact, we in the bay area are surrounded by an amazing wine universe and can be immersed in it if one so desires. One of the many benefits of living in the Bay Area is that we live in close proximity to some of the best wine producing regions in the world. We are also a short day-trip or weekend road trip from some terrific up and coming AVAs.

A must for any one who calls California home is to make a pilgrimage to both Napa and Sonoma. While Napa tasting room fees can be a bit pricey, the wine and the experience are well worth it for any wine lover. Sonoma maybe an ideal destination for someone with a pallet that seeks a wide-range of wine varietals, but Sonoma is not to be mistaken as “second fiddle” to Napa in terms of wine quality. Quite literally Napa and Sonoma are two sides of the same coin, in terms of geography and their impact and influence on the global wine world today.

For those wine lovers who only venture out to Napa and Sonoma, or who maybe inclined to be a bit provincial and loyal to their local wine region, I challenge you to explore our state! A weekend trip north of the bay to the picturesque and remote Anderson Valley is a must. This AVA is home to some terrific Pinot Noirs and amazing aromatic white wines. A weekend trip south to Paso Robles will not disappoint. A new comer to California wine, with most of is wineries having been planted in the 1990’s, this region has some terrific Rhone varietals and a restaurant scene that is unmatched on California’s central coast.

Want to go wine tasting but not interested spending too much time on the road? Well, there are many wine trails in Northern California between the Anderson Valley and Paso Robles that deserve some exploring and can be done on a short day-trip. On the edge of the Bay, from Saratoga along the Highway 9 to Santa Cruz along the Highway 17, awaits some great wines and friendly tasting rooms. The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA offers Pinots, Cabernet Sauvignons, Zinfandels, and some traditional Italian varieties. First and foremost the Ridge Winery on Montebello Road in Cupertino is a pilgrimage all wine lovers must make (watch for bicyclists) . A short drive south of the bay along the 101 is a wine road that is off the tasting room radar for many, but well known for its vineyards is the Arroyo Seco and the Santa Lucia Highlands. While very few of the wineries here have tasting rooms open to the public, these Monterrey County wineries are worth the trip (just call ahead and ask for a private tasting).

Last but not least is the Livermore Valley AVA in the east bay. A quick drive along the 580 or Highway 84 will put you right in the middle of wine country less than an hour from most cities in the Bay Area. Livermore’s wine legacy shadows that of the old Fremont wineries step for step, having similar roots in the Mission era, and floundering through the dual shocks of phylloxera and Prohibition. The persistence of the agricultural industry in Livermore has afforded a future for wine on the eastside of the southern Alameda county foothills. Livermore is simultaneously one of the oldest and youngest AVAs in California. At one time California’s wine industry was centered on Livermore. In fact, wine makers from the Livermore Valley won the United States’ first international gold medal in 1889 at the Paris Exposition, nearly a century before the famed 1976 Judgment of Paris.

Livermore Valley is home to over 50 wineries; the overwhelming majority of them have sprung up in the early 2000’s. This late-bloom makes it even younger than Paso Robles in terms of development. Livermore is slowly emerging as an up and coming region, but is struggling to find an identity. In Livermore one can see the twin of Fremont’s wine legacy that was separated at birth. With Fremont’s wine heritage having long since faded into the annual of history, and Livermore now undergoing a renaissance, soon prone to reclaim the past prophesized by Frank Schoonmaker so many years ago. Some say in each bottle of wine is a story; one can say the same for the vines in the vineyards. California and Bay Area wines, although younger than Europe, have no less of a rich tapestry of history and many stories to be retold. So next time you enjoy a nice bottle of California wine, raise your glass to the local wine history that made it all possible. Cheers!


Country Club of Washington Township, 1965, History of Washington Township, Stanford University Press, CA

Singleton, Jill M. “Lost Wineries and Vineyards of Fremont, California.” Museum of Local History. Museum of Local History. Web. 03 June 2011.

Reichl, Ruth. History in a Glass: Sixty Years of Wine Writing from Gourmet. New York: Modern Library, 2007. Print.

Livermore Valley: Can It Live Up to Its Golden Past?


By Kareasa Wilkins

Back when I was a freshman in college, I worked with a guy who had grown up in Livermore. He told me that natives of Livermore used to joke about the town’s suburban monotony, calling it “Live-No-More.” While my co-worker never mentioned anything about the Livermore Valley wineries, most people I’ve talked to in the wine industry seem to think that the wines produced in Livermore are just as dull as the tract housing that encompasses the region. Long overshadowed by Napa and Sonoma, Livermore Valley barely registers on most wine enthusiasts’ radars, and if it does, the general reaction is at best ignorance and at worst contempt. Yet unbeknownst to most wine drinkers, the Livermore Valley played a fundamental role in the history of California’s wine industry.

Livermore is one of the oldest wine regions in California. Spanish missionaries planted grapes in the Livermore Valley as early as the mid-18th century, and grapes for commercial use were planted in the 1840s. James Wetmore, once a newspaper reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, founded Cresta Blanca Winery in 1882, and shortly after, two of California’s founding wine families, the Wentes and the Concannons established their wineries in 1883. Wetmore helped to create the first viticultural commission in the state of California, and quickly became its first CEO. Believing that the gravelly soils of Livermore would be perfect for Bordeaux varietals, Wetmore took a trip to France where he obtained vine cuttings of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon from the celebrated Sauternes estate Chateau D’Yquem.

This was the beginning of the heyday of Livermore wine. While nearly century later, Napa Valley wineries made headlines at the 1976 Paris tasting, Livermore Valley was the first California wine region to receive a gold medal at the Paris Exposition of 1889. Not long after, C.H. Wente, founder of Wente Vineyards began his lifetime research of the chardonnay grape, a grape that was little known in California at the time. Livermore was the first wine region in California to varietally label its chardonnay, and these days, more than half of the chardonnay grapes planted in California are linked to the Wente clone. The pioneering spirit of the first winemaking families in Livermore set the stage for more ambitious followers. By the early 1900s Livermore boasted 50 wineries, and was primed to be one of the most successful wine growing regions in California.

So what happened? Given the historical significance of winemaking in the  Livermore Valley, why isn’t it on par with Napa or Sonoma today? Why is it that many wineries in Livermore add “San Francisco Bay” to their labels just to clue people in on where it’s located? One explanation is that when prohibition hit Livermore, it hit hard. While Concannon was able to maintain its livelihood by selling wine to the church, most other wineries were forced to close their doors forever. Later, in the 1960s and 70s when Napa was undergoing a wine renaissance, Livermore, instead, was experiencing a boom in suburban housing developments that would wipe out nearly all of the existing vineyards. It wasn’t until 1993 that a plan was put into effect to protect the remaining vineyards and promote the planting of new ones.

Thus, despite a great history, and with the exception of a few old wineries that have survived, the Livermore wine industry is still relatively youthful in the current market.  Moreover, while Napa seemed to find its niche with Cabernet and Dry Creek Valley with Zinfandel, Livermore currently seems to be going through an identity crisis. The original winemakers of Livermore Valley were convinced that Bordeaux varietals were the most suitable for the region, but now things are changing. Concannon made a name for itself by introducing Petite Sirah to the American palate in the 1960s, and subsequent to its success others have followed suit. Many people liken the climate of Livermore to the south of France and in addition to Petite Sirah are experimenting with other Rhone varietals. Still others are trying their hand at Italian, Spanish and Portuguese varietals, yet none seem to have a distinct taste of “place.” While these efforts to cultivate a wide range of wines are admirable, they seem to detract from a real focus, and at this point the experimentation seems to be more on the basis of chance than out of a genuine studied attempt to place the proper grape varietal to the most appropriate site. Finding a distinct sense of Livermore Valley terroir is further hindered by the fact that many of the wineries purchase their grapes, sometimes for more than half of their production, from outside of the Livermore AVA. Another disappointment has been the lack of knowledgeable tasting room staff.  Few of the salespeople I’ve encountered at the Livermore wineries have expressed familiarity with the larger sphere of the wine world, and at one particular tasting room, I asked the pourer if the winery’s sparkling wine was made in the traditional champenoise method, and she replied, “No, our sparkling wine is made in Lodi.”

Still, there is hope for the future of the Livermore Valley wine industry. The last few times I went to the region the quality of the wines had drastically improved from my previous visits there. More and more growers are employing sustainable farming methods, and some producers, such as Wente and Steven Kent, have upped the quality control by introducing small lot wines to their portfolios. Improvements in wine education are being made as well. Many wineries are beginning to host winemaker dinners and educational seminars, and the local community college, Las Positas, has recently implemented a viticulture and enology program.  The new program at Las Positas could allow Livermore to compete with AVAs such as Napa, Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara, which have long had the advantage of being located near colleges with wine programs.  Thus, with more focus on education, improvements in quality, and the potential of turning out enthusiastic young winemakers, Livermore could be standing on the edge of a rebirth worthy of its roots.