Napa may be California’s most famous and best known wine region, but California’s commercial wine industry actually began elsewhere– in warm interior valleys like Cucamonga east of Los Angeles and Livermore east of Oakland in Alameda County. While the padres first planted grapes in the 1760s to make sacramental wine using the labor of enslaved native Americans, immigrants settling in California planted vines first for their own use, and then for commercial use. Robert Livermore in Livermore Valley led the way in the 1840s followed by pioneering winemakers like C. H. Wente, James Concannon, and Charles Wetmore who founded their wineries in the early 1880s.
Livermore Valley’s rare east-west orientation, unique in northern California wine growing regions, allows cool coastal air from the Pacific and San Francisco Bay to usher out the day’s warm air combined with well drained gravel soils that reduce vigor and increases flavor concentration provide optimal conditions for grape growing.
This confluence of terroir plus winemaking skill brought America its first international gold medal in 1889 at the Paris Exposition with a Livermore Valley white wine from Wetmore setting the stage for recognition of California wine globally.
Livermore’s 50 wineries played a key role in developing California’s viticultural industry until Prohibition decimated it. Yet that heritage lingers today in nearly 80% of California’s Chardonnay vines that have genetic roots to a Livermore Valley clone, and the first ever varietally-labeled Chardonnay came from Livermore Valley’s Wente Vineyards in 1936. Livermore Valley wineries also called attention to Petite Sirah, typically a blending grape by being the first to bottle varietal labeled Petite Sirah in 1961, and they were also first to label Sauvignon Blanc.
It’s taken awhile to recover from Prohibition, but once again Livermore Valley boasts over 50 wineries with 3,000 acres under vine with grapes ranging from Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc to Cabernet Franc and other lesser known grapes from Italy, Spain and the Rhone. Learn more about Livermore.
With host David Crowley of Cooking Chat, the Wine Pairing Weekend group of wine writers explored Livermore Valley wines and pairings this month. At Wine Predator, we received three wines as samples from three wineries deeply connected to the region, and Sue, Kathy, and I created a coursed menu to showcase them. While I had tasted wines from these producers before, this foray into Livermore has me excited to visit to learn more about what’s happening there.
Livermore Valley Wines Coursed Meal
- Murrieta’s Well Sauvignon Blanc
Kathy’s arugula salad with shaved parmesan, olive sourdough bread, goat cheese
- Steven Kent Cabernet Franc
Sue’s herbed meatballs with marinara sauce and garlic bread
- McGrail Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve
Marshall’s grilled steak with a baked sweet potato and herbed roasted Brussels sprouts
Blood orange olive oil brownies with a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream, fresh mint and citrus
2021 Murrieta’s Well Sauvignon Blanc
Grapes: 78% Sauvignon Blanc, 9% Viognier, 8% Orange Muscan, 5% Malvasia Bianca
sample for my review
Founded in the 1880’s by Louis Mel, Murrieta’s Well is one of the Livermore Valley’s original wine estates. Mel sold to his buddy Ernest Wente, and the property continues to be part of Wente with Jordan Wente, 5th generation winegrower and eldest daughter of Phil Wente, leading the way these days. In years past, I’ve been fortunate to participate in twitter tasting events with Murrieta’s Well, and I’m excited to taste more of the wine’s been made under Jordan’s direction.
Appearance: Pale yellow, crystal clear,
Aroma: Lemon, lemon curd, gooseberry, citrus blossom, cherry blossom, gardenia, grass, chamomile, honeydew melon for a Sauv Blanc the nose is outstanding
Palate: Lemon, tart lemon, bright on the palate, wakes your mouth up, fresh and refreshing, this is a very smooth, Sauvignon Blanc, texturally interesting, key lime on the finish
Pairing: Very nice greeter wine, first course wine, white fish, we chose to pair with a fresh arugula salad with lemon garlic vinegarette and thinly sliced Parmesan, and goat cheese on an olive ciabatta loaf. The goat cheese becomes sweet and creamy when paired with this wine. The briny kalamata olives in the bread are also quite nice with the wine. Fantastic with the arugula salad, the wine easily stood up to this bold and spicy salad. On a subsequent evening, I enjoyed the wine with sushi.
2019 Steven Kent Cabernet Franc
Grapes: 75% Cabernet Franc from Ghielmetti Vineyard (the 4 best barrels) 25% Cabernet Sauvignon from Home Ranch; 96 cases produced
sample for my review
Steven Kent Mirassou, a sixth-generation winemaker from America’s oldest winemaking family, says he finds Cabernet Franc “to be so alluring and so full of elegance and complexity that even a lifetime of drinking it will never reveal all her mysteries and charms.” L’Autre Côte highlights his obsession to make the best Cabernet Franc in the world.
A few years ago, I was fortunate to participate in a Steven Kent afternoon twitter chat with six wines and Steven Kent Mirassou, proprietor and winemaker. I was going to be at Mammoth and I made arrangements with Rafters Restaurant here which boasts one of the larger wine cellars in the area, and seeks to offer a superlative wine and food experience. I sent the list of wines and chef produced an incredible tasting menu. Later, I shared the wines with a friend who generally drinks beer because wine gives her a headache. No headache with these wines, and she was stunned that wine could be this good!. Read more about that exceptional event with Steven Kent wines here and here.
Appearance: Deep and dark, plum ruby rim, quite dense.
Aroma: Smells like Cabernet Franc, cherry, vegetal, bell pepper, sandalwood, cedar; we all loved the nose on the wine and couldn’t get enough.
Palate: Super tart cherry fruit, nice acidity, thyme, bitter coffee, eucalyptus, juniper, cool herbal finish. This line could lay down for a long time and we debated decanting it.
Pairing: The meatballs were over the top on their own, and with the wine the pairing was stellar. I went to our favorite butcher at Ventura Meat Market, and he gave me a mixture of bison sausage with pork plus his fresh high quality ground beef. The marjoram in the meatball hits all the right notes with the wine. The wine was elevated by the meal and the meal was elevated by the wine. This pairing was quite the wow moment, and might possibly be my favorite pairing of the year so far. Since the day before our tasting was Sue’s birthday, and since Sue is almost as much of a Cab Franc fan as Steven Kent Mirassou, I sent the rest of the bottle home with her that night! Truly, wine is always best shared with friends.
2019 McGrail Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve
Grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon
sample for my review
I first tasted McGrail’s wines at the 2021 Wine Media Conference in Eugene where I was given a sample of their Chardonnay which we paired with shrimp and grits (read about it here). In researching that article, I learned that McGrail Vineyard’s winemaker Mark Clarin says that “Less is more. Start with good grapes and don’t mess it up. And then at the end of the day, I make wines I like to drink.”
The new kid on the block, originally, Jim and Ginger McGrail sold all their Cabernet Sauvignon to Steven Kent Winery, but in 2003, they decided to make a barrel themselves, and it grew from there so that by 2005, they made 1,000 cases of wine, and in 2008 which opened their winery. In 2012 the McGrail Cabernet Reserve won the Best Red Wine in the United States with the SF Chronicle Wine Competition.
Appearance: Very dark and dense, so dark, inky dark, you cannot see through the glass, plum with a ruby rim, like the inside of a Santa Rosa plum,
Aroma: Cherry, cherry pipe tobacco, rich, heady, eucalyptus, mint, loamy soil, cedar
Palate: Acidity and tannins, cherry fruit, leather, cocoa nibs, bitter coffee, tobacco, big in texture, rose petals, bergamont,
Pairing: The melt in your mouth grilled filets beautiful with the wine. The melty creamy blue cheese completely enhanced the meal. You could easily pair blue cheese as a dessert plate with this wine. The sweet creamy oven baked potato with butter was also beautiful with the wine. The meat and the blue cheese really brings out the herbal qualities in the wine. The fruit is still present, but is diminished. The caramelized oven roasted Brussels sprouts were also quite nice with the meal and the wine. The blood orange brownies worked fine with the wine. All of the flavor profiles worked well with the wine. The brownies were a bit sweet, but the citrus and mint garnish as well as the unsweetened whipped cream tamed the sweetness of the dessert and worked perfectly as a dessert pairing for the wine.
Learn more about Livermore wine and pairings from these wine writers:
- Martin from the ENOFYLZ Wine Blog features “Surfing and Turfing with Livermore Valley Wines“
- Camilla from Culinary Cam is sharing “From California’s Oldest Wine Region: 2019 L’Autre Côte Cabernet Franc + Chimichurri Lamb Lollipops“
- Wendy from A Day in the Life on the Farm is “Celebrating Livermore Valley with the #WinePW Gang“
- Wine Predator Gwendolyn Alley is writing about “Learning More about Livermore: McGrail, Murrieta’s Well, Steven Kent“
- Susannah Gold from Avvinare serves up “Sauvignon Blanc from Livermore Valley Paired with Asparagus Frittata for Spring“
- Host David from Cooking Chat will share “Beef and Vegetable Stir-Fry with Livermore Valley Wine“
You’re invited to the conversation about #LivermoreValley wines! Join the Wine Pairing Weekend Twitter Chat on Sat 5/13 at 11 a.m. ET / 8 a.m. PT. with host @cookingchat and writers @Culinary_Cam @wendyklik @artpredator @martindredmond @Vignetocomm by using the hashtag #winepw as we discuss the following topics:
- 11:00 a.m. EDT
- Welcome to the #winepw chat about #LivermoreValley wines! Introduce yourself and where you are tweeting from. Share a link to your blog if applicable.
- 11:05 a.m. EDT
- Q1 Were you familiar with the Livermore Valley AVA prior to this event? If so, what has been your experience with these wines?
- 11:10 a.m. EDT
- Q2 What Livermore Valley wine(s) did you focus on today? Share your thoughts about the wine, and a link to your post, so we can read more about it! #winepw
- 11:15 a.m. EDT
- Q3 Tell us about the producer of the wine that you sampled for this event. #winepw
- 11:20 a.m. EDT
- Q4 Share something you learned about Livermore Valley and its wines. #winepw
- 11:30 a.m. EDT
- Q5 What kind of food did you serve with your Livermore Valley wine? Show us some photos! How did the pairing turn out? What worked well together and what didn’t? #winepw
- 11:40 a.m. EDT
- Q6 How would you compare and contrast the Livermore Valley AVA with other regions? #winepw
- 11:45 EDT
- Q7 What other Livermore Valley wines do you hope to try soon? #winepw
- 11:50 a.m. EDT
- Q8 Share your parting thoughts on Livermore Valley wines. What was your key takeaway, fun fact, something interesting or something new that you learned from this exploration? #winepw
- 11:55 a.m. EDT
- Shout out to @cookingchat @Culinary_Cam @wendyklik @artpredator @martindredmond @Vignetocomme for participating in this month’s exploration of Livermore Valley wines! #winepw
- noon EDT
- Thanks for joining the June 2023 #winepw chat on the wines of Livermore Valley. Stay tuned for the next #winepw event in June, as @Culinary_Cam hosts the event focused on wine and cheese pairings.
Your pairings sound lovely as always Gwendolyn.
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Thank you Wendy! They were perfect!
I love & am frankly envious when you post something with this succinct level of historical background, trajectory. Been hearing about Murrieta’s Well forever, & Wente-clone Chard too. Hope & trust the Wente descendants are worthy & proactive caretakers of their enhanced patrimony. Thanks, miss you.
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Thank you, David! I appreciate that! Looking forward to tasting wine again with you!
What a lovely menu for these wonderful Livermore Valley wines Gwen! Thanks for sharing!
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