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.

Hosting a Tasting Party

Party Host

By Kareasa Wilkins

The world of wine is a many splendored thing, but it can be daunting because there is just so damn much to learn about it. Grape varietals, regions, producers, interpreting the language of wine bottles—all of these things can be intimidating to the novice wine drinker. Yet if you’ve established the fact that you enjoy consuming wine and you’d like to learn more about it, one of the best ways to improve your wine knowledge and have a fun time doing it is by hosting a wine tasting party. Wine tasting parties are also great for people who already know quite a bit about wine as there is always something new to learn by wine tasting.

Before you begin, you should establish a few things. First decide how many people to invite, and only invite people who are serious about learning more about wine. Wine tasting parties can all to easily turn into drunken ragers if the people involved are focused more on drinking than on educating themselves. It’s best to keep the group relatively small, though that depends on how much space you have. You should be able to provide a table space that is free from any distracting noises or smells, and ideally you should use a white tablecloth or white paper background in order to see the wines clearly. Also, be sure to provide a spit/dump bucket. As much fun as it is to get a little tipsy from wine, the professional way of tasting is to sip and spit. This allows you to have a clear head to analyze the wines and helps ensure that you won’t have people crashed out on your couch after the party.

Unless you have a huge selection of glassware, the best thing to do is have your guests bring their own glassware—one glass for each wine you are going to taste is ideal, since side-by-side tastings are an excellent way of distinguishing the different nuances between wines. You also need to determine how much wine you plan to taste, and who will be providing it. You can provide all of the wine yourself and trade off by having different people host the parties each time you meet. Alternatively, you can buy all of the wine and collect money from your guests, or you can have each person bring a wine to the party. Before the party, you should come up with a method of analyzing the wines that will be served. In most recognized wine societies, such as the  Wine and Spirits Education Trust and the International Sommelier’s Guild, the following items are assessed in a wine tasting:

Appearance: (including clarity, intensity, color, rim vs. core)

Nose: (including condition, intensity, development, fruit character)

Palate: (including sweetness, acidity, tannin, fruit intensity, fruit character, alcohol, length)

Conclusions: (including quality, maturity, price range, region)

You may also come up with a rating of the quality of the wine or how well you like it.

Once you’ve figured out your method of analyzing the wines, the fun part is deciding what type of tasting party to host. There are numerous types of tastings you can do, but here are a few suggestions:

Varietal Focus: This is one of the best ways to get to know the character of a particular grape variety and the subtle differences between the regions in which the grape is grown. For this theme, first choose a varietal, such as Pinot Noir.

Ask each person to bring a Pinot Noir from a different region: ie, Carneros, Santa Lucia Highlands, Willamette Valley, Burgundy, New Zealand. Pour the wines side-by-side, and assess the similarities and differences between the wines. Alternatively, you could do a varietal tasting of Pinots from the same region, but different producers.

Country/Region Focus: For people who are just beginning to learn about the world of wine, focusing on a country, such as France or Italy, or a region, such as Bordeaux or Piedmont,  is a great way of expanding your wine knowledge. This is the perfect opportunity to do research—look at maps, provide a handout for your guests, or assign a different region of one country to each guest and have them research and talk about their assigned regions.

Does Price Really Matter?: This is a good sub-theme of a varietal focus party. Choose a varietal, such as Cabernet, and buy one wine in the $10-under category, one in the $10-$20 range, one in the $20-30 range, and one in the $40-and over category. Blind taste the wines side-by-side and see if price really makes a difference.

Guess the Varietal: Buy different varietal wines and blind taste them side-by-side to see if you can guess which is which. This is a great party theme if you have a more experienced palate. If you are new to wine tasting, do research on the typical flavor profiles of the varietals that you are serving. Discuss these before tasting, then see if the wines conform to their typical tasting profiles.

Old World vs. New World: Another sub-category of the varietal focus. Pick a grape varietal, such as Grenache, and find examples from the New World (ie. The U.S., Chile, Australia), then find examples from the Old World (France—the Rhone Valley, Spain, Sardinia) and assess the similarities and differences.

Vertical Tasting: A vertical tasting is a tasting of the same wine from different vintages. If you are lucky enough to have access to multiple vintages of the same wine, this is a great way to taste the difference of vintage. For example, pour a Ridge Montebello 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004, and look for the differences and how the wine changes with time.

But the fun doesn’t stop here…tasting parties give you the opportunity to be creative. Just about any tasting theme you can think of can be successful and educational, so call your friends and bring out the corkscrew!

Raving About Riesling


By Kareasa Wilkins

I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m a Riesling fanatic. Of all of the wines in my cellar, a good 75% of them are made from Riesling. From the zesty, limey, bone dry Australian Rieslings from Eden Valley to the lusciously sublime botrytized German TBAs (Trockenbeerenauslese), I believe there’s no grape that’s more diverse or more food friendly. Yet in most circles I’m alone with my enthusiasm for the grape. Many of my male friends think their penises will shrink if they dare to sip any wine that may have a hint of sweetness to it, and still others believe that the only white wines worthy of prestige come from Burgundy. Yet once upon a time, Riesling was the most prestigious wine in the world. In the 19th century, German Riesling was more sought-after and pricier than the top red wines from Bordeaux. Unfortunately the mid-20th century brought on a wave of mass-produced, low-quality versions, and Riesling has been trying to shed its image as a cheap sweet glugger ever since.

In an effort to help boost the image of Riesling, I’d like to start by dispelling the numerous myths that haunt the grape:

Wines made from Riesling are sticky sweet. Untrue in most cases! Some of the driest wines I’ve ever tasted have come from Riesling. Young Trocken wines from Germany can be so searingly acidic that you can almost feel the enamel peeling off your teeth. Rieslings can range from bone-dry to tongue-coatingly sweet.  While some of the finest dessert wines in the world are made from Riesling, such as the TBAs of Germany, the SGNs (sélection de grains nobles) of Alsace, and many ice wines from Canada, even the sweet versions, if they are made properly, don’t taste cloying because the high natural acidity balances out the sweetness.

Only people with unsophisticated palates like Riesling.  Another myth! While my mother, whose palate is questionable given her fondness for White Zinfandel, loves Riesling, she shares this affection with some of the most renowned wine writers in the world. Karen MacNeil, Jancis Robinson, and Terry Theise are all Riesling advocates. Some of them would even argue that Riesling, not Chardonnay, is the finest of the classic white varietals.

Riesling won’t match well with the dinner I’m having. Well, if you’re having a T-bone steak, probably not. But because of its versatility, Riesling is one of the most food-friendly wines in the world. Afraid that wine is out of the question for your meal at the new Thai restaurant? Bring along an off-dry German Spätlese and make your palate sing. Think Riesling is too light for heartier fare? Try a dry Alsatian Riesling with grilled sausages—hey, remember choucroute is a classic dish in Alsace, and Riesling is one of its grandest grapes. Finger Lakes Rieslings go great with fish, as do Clare Valley Rieslings, especially if the fish is prepared with a spicy sauce. And don’t forget to pour a Riesling ice wine with that tarte tatin.

White wines don’t age well. Not so when it comes to Riesling. Wines made from Riesling are among the most long-lived in the world. The combination of high natural acidity with residual sugar can mean decades of enjoyment. Dry versions of Riesling from top producers can usually last a good ten years or longer, and in general, the sweeter they get, the longer they age. The finest trockenbeerenauslesen wines from Germany have been known to last 100 years and still be delicious. So if you’re building a wine cellar, be sure to include some Rieslings in your collection!

So now that a little light has been shed on Riesling, here are more reasons to love it:

It doesn’t need oak to make it brilliant. While Chardonnay and many other white varietals are often insipid without a little gussying up from the barrel, Riesling is a natural beauty. It shines alone, defying manipulation at the hands of the winemaker. Because Riesling is an oak-hater, its sheer transparency makes it a pure expression of terroir. Depending on where its grown, you can get a sense of smoky minerality, rich earthiness, luscious fruit, or soft floral notes.

Riesling thrives where no other grape can. Riesling is the Eskimo of the wine world, existing in extreme northerly territory, where nearly all other grape varietals and agricultural products fail to survive.  The Mosel-Saar-Ruwer in Germany may be as far north as Canada’s icy Newfoundland, but its cool climate contributes to Riesling’s dazzling acidity and ageability.

Riesling is a relative bargain for your cellar. As I mentioned before, Riesling is a great choice for the cellar. While the finest German TBAs are not cheap, you can still find some wonderful age-worthy Rieslings that cost significantly less than other cellar contenders such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, or Napa Cab.

Riesling will seduce your palate with its myriad flavors. Peaches, apricots, honey, green apples, petrol, minerals, lime, orange zest, marzipan, honeysuckle, ginger, and nectarines. All of these words have been used to describe Riesling. How many other wines can boast that many flavor possibilities?

Did I mention that Riesling is one of the most food-friendly wines in the world? Well, allow me to reiterate. Riesling complements a whole range of flavors including ones that usually clash with other wines. Whether your meal is complex, spicy, fatty, or sweet, there’s likely to be a Riesling out there that will perfectly harmonize with it.

These days beautiful Rieslings are available from wine regions around the world. Here are some of the best regions for Riesling:

Australia: Eden Valley, Clare Valley, Tasmania

Austria: Wachau, Burgenland, Kremstal, Kamptal

California: Anderson Valley, Santa Barbara County


France: Alsace

Germany: Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Nahe, Pfalz, Rheingau, Rheinhessen

New York: Finger Lakes

New Zealand

“Ok,” you’re probably thinking. “I’m convinced. But how can I tell how sweet it’s going to be?” Well, that part isn’t always easy. The best thing to do is ask your local wine merchant. But there are a few things you can look for that will give you a hint as to how sweet or dry the Riesling you are about to consume is. A lot of new world producers are starting to label their Rieslings as “dry,” “off-dry,” or “sweet.” Most Alsatian Rieslings, unless they are labeled “Vendange Tardive” or “Sélection de Grains Nobles,” are on the dry side (this is usually, but not always the case, so be sure to check with your merchant), and most Austrian Rieslings are quite dry as well. The German wine labeling system is the most complex, and top-quality wines are labeled by the ripeness of the grapes at harvest. The categories are as follows:

Trocken: These are acutely bone-dry wines, so prepare your palate!

Kabinett: These wines are made from grapes that are picked relatively early during harvest. While they can exhibit a touch of sweetness, most are on the dry side.

Spätlese: This is the German term for late-harvest, but should not be confused with late-harvest dessert wines. Spätlese wines tend to be richer and more intense than Kabinetts, but are usually just off-dry, not excessively sweet.

Auslese: These wines are made from very ripe grapes, are very lush and rich, and usually exhibit medium levels of sweetness.

Beerenauslese: Rare wines that are usually made from hand-selected grapes that are affected by noble rot (Botrytis cinerea). These wines tend to be rich and unctuous, making them superb dessert wines.

Trockenbeerenauslese: The sweetest and most highly prized of the bunch. These wines are made only in the best vintages from grapes that have become raisinated from botrytis. The sugar levels in the grapes become so concentrated that they produce glorious nectar-like wines.

So there you have it. Now that the secret of one of the world’s most underrated wines is out, you should be feeling a little smug that you’re in on it. So go ahead and raise a glass of Riesling. You won’t be disappointed…

Turducken Sausage and Domaine des Nazins Brouilly


By Kareasa Wilkins

I haven’t drunk Beaujolais in awhile. When I was first learning about wine, I always felt like Gamay (the grape in Beaujolais wines) was kind of a pedestrian grape–light and, well, grapey, it just seemed like the purple Otter Pop of wine. But as I tried more and more Cru Beaujolais (Gamay at its best from one of the top 10 villages in the region), I found that Gamay could be quite charming…exciting, even. Depending on the village and the producer, Cru Beaujolais can exhibit bright red fruit, spiciness, and exotic flowers; some even have enough tannin and structure to age. So tonight when I was at my local wine shop looking for something to go with my turducken sausage from Smokey Ridge Charcouterie, I decided to put Gamay back on the table.  I opted for the Domaine des Nazins Brouilly. I really don’t have much experience with Brouilly, even though it’s the largest of the Beaujolais Villages. I tend to buy wines from Morgon and Moulin-a-Vent on a more regular basis, but I figured it was worth a shot. I have to be honest, when I first opened the wine it was a real snoozer–totally closed on the nose, with just a slight earthy character. However, as the evening went on, it opened up to reveal a pretty floral nose and some dark cherry on the palate. It was a light bodied wine, which is relatively typical of Gamay, but the acidity was nice enough to cut through the grease of the turducken sausage. The turducken sausage, arugula cranberry & persimmon salad, and mashed butternut squash made a nice prequel to Thanksgiving, and while not mind-blowing, the Domaine des Nazins Brouilly was a fine accompaniment to it.

Paella Party

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By Kareasa Wilkins

What better excuse to break out the Spanish wines than with a paella party? I love cooking paella because it feeds a crowd. There’s a lot of prep work because there are so many ingredients, but the actual cook time is pretty short, which gives you time to mingle with the guests while aromas of sautéed onions, smoked paprika, and spicy chorizo fill the house.

This Friday, I hosted a paella & Spanish wine party for my co-workers. I provided the paella as well as some Spanish inspired nibbles–Marcona almonds, Basque style olives, Jamon Serrano, and an assortment of Spanish cheeses. I asked them to all bring a Spanish wine under $20. There are so many delicious Spanish wines on the market that offer great bang for your buck, this is a great way to try some new ones. Look toward the regions of Calatayud, Jumilla, and Toro for awesome wines around $10. My co-workers, however, were a little more ambitious, or maybe I should say a little more traditional. We ended up with a table full of Riojas (mostly reservas).

Rioja is probably the most famous wine-producing region in Spain. It sits in the middle of the country in the north, about an hour south of San Sebastian. The wines are made primarily from the Tempranillo grape, but they are often blended with Mazuelo (Carignan), Garnacha (Grenache), and/or Graciano. On the label of a bottle of Rioja, you’ll see a designation of crianza, reserva, or gran reserva. These designations indicate the aging process that the wine has been through.

On our table were three reservas, which means that the wines were aged for at least three years, one of which had to be in oak barrels. It was a great platform for tasting the wines side by side for comparison. The standout to me was the 2008 Viña Alberdi Reserva from La Rioja Alta, a quality producer that’s been around since 1890. It had a lot of depth and some nice warm tones of dried cherry, cedar and vanilla. The 2009 Bodegas Monticello Reserva, which was the most purchased wine (3 people brought it) was charming and easy. Lighter in body, it had a nice red fruit character to it, but was not particularly long lived on the palate. The 2009 Castillo Clavijo was a little funkier than the others. With a slight whiff of brett (brettanomyces), this wine had a kind of gamy spiciness that I tend to associate more with some of the Mourvedres from Bandol than the Tempranillos from Rioja. This was the only wine of the three that wasn’t 100% Tempranillo–it had small amounts Garnacha and Mazuelo. The funk wore off after a while leaving a pleasant, medium bodied wine with an interesting spice character. While most of my friends prefer red wines, I love a good white, so I also opened the 2013 Pazo Señorans Albariño from Rias Baixas. Vibrant with racy citrus notes, it went perfectly with the seafood paella, making me wish I was in a cafe on the Galician coast.

If your interested in trying out a paella party, I highly recommend The Spanish Table retail shop in Berkeley, California. They also have locations in Mill Valley and Seattle, and on online store. I bought both of my paella pans there, and regularly shop there for paella ingredients. They’ve got an array of paella pans to feed any crowd from about 4 to 30 people, Spanish cheeses and sausages, as well as dishes, cookbooks, spices, cazuelas, and everything you need to make paella. Plus, they have recipes online. I’ve tried other paella recipes, but I always come back to the classic recipe from the Spanish Table.

Here’s the link:


Buen provecho!

Roast Chicken and Holly’s Hill Viognier

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I love to cook. I experiment with new recipes all the time; I subscribe to all of the food magazines; my method of relaxation after a long day at work is curling up on the sofa with a cookbook. Yet in spite of my zest for preparing something new and unique all of the time, there are a few classics that come to my dinner table on a regular basis. Roast chicken is one of them. Besides the fact that my husband loves it, there is a simplicity to roasted chicken that satisfies the desire for comfort food, yet also inspires the gastronome within. Around the world, restaurants may be given Michelin stars for entrees that look like science projects, but the top culinary artists will often say you can tell how good a chef is by something as seemingly simple as his or her roast chicken. And roast chicken can be quite simple, but there are also a number of things you can do to add your own signature to it. Add some harissa spice for Moroccan flair, simmer some chiles and chocolate for a Oaxacan mole style, or simply rub with olive oil, salt and pepper for a classic flavor. I like to stuff mine with lemon, thyme, and onion, which release nice aromatics as the chicken sits in the oven. I also like to lacquer the skin in butter and herbs de Provence before browning it to perfection.

There are a number of wines, red or white, that pair well with roast chicken. Lighter style reds such as Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, or Italian Dolcetto work well with the chicken. A medium bodied Chardonnay, citrusy Rueda, or Rhone white is nice on the white end of the spectrum. I have tried this recipe with many different wines, yet there is one wine that I come back to again and again with my roast chicken—the Holly’s Hill Viognier. Holly’s Hill is a small, family owned winery in the Sierra Foothills that specializes in Rhone varietals. I have been a fan of their wines for at least a decade, and I always love their Viognier. Tonight we opened the 2014 vintage. The 2014 is gorgeously aromatic with notes of white flowers, apricot skin and ripe nectarines. Not extremely weighty, it is a medium bodied wine with relatively high-octane alcohol (14.9%), though it doesn’t taste hot on the palate. It lends itself remarkably well to the juicy chicken. This makes an easy weeknight meal, but is also impressive enough for weekend company. Serve it with rosemary roasted potatoes and sautéed kale or an arugula salad for an enticing feast.