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Trying to rescue a failing appellation

48 comments

Anyone who’s followed my reviews for a while knows I haven’t been a fan of Livermore Valley wines. In a column I once wrote, I described Livermore as the weak link in the chain of appellations that limns the San Francisco Bay region, from Anderson Valley through Napa Valley and Sonoma County, down to the Santa Cruz Mountains. All are great wine areas, except Livermore.

Why this is so is because of several reasons. For starters, there’s suburbanization. Livermore has been particularly hard hit by it (just like the Santa Clara Valley, which is present day Silicon Valley). Both once had vast acreage of vineyards and produced wine. But Livermore was unable to escape Santa Clara’s fate: tracts of land, including ranches, were sold to housing developers, and the vineyards, in large part, went away. Even Livermore-based wineries like Wente turned to other parts of the state, like Monterey County, to boost their grape supplies.

I think another reason is that the winemaking bar in Livermore has been set lower these days. There are complicated reasons for this, and if you’re curious, I can give you my thoughts later.

There are certainly wineries remaining in Livermore Valley. The Livermore Valley Wine Country website says there are more than 40. I can’t claim to have tasted all of them or even most of them, and there surely are many wineries I’ve never tasted at all. But those I have have tasted over the years have been disappointing, and I have no reason to suspect there are hidden gems in Livermore I don’t know about.

I’m not sure why quality isn’t higher. It can’t be terroir. Livermore Valley was one of California’s earliest grapegrowing regions and one of the best. We all know the story of how Charles Wetmore planted cuttings of (presumably) Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon from Yquem in 1882, turning his Cresta Blanca winery into one of California’s most famous. Livermore Valley wineries were the first to bottle varietally labeled Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Petite Sirah, according to the Livermore website, and their Cabernets once had a high reputation. The soils are well-drained and alluvial, and while the weather is hot, Livermore boosters argue it’s no hotter than the St. Helena-Calistoga area. So the problem must be in the winemaking. There simply aren’t enough qualified, or quality-oriented, vintners working there.

The Livermore wineries are probably grateful that I no longer review Livermore wines. Virginie Boone now does for Wine Enthusiast, and I hope she likes them more than I did. Maybe the Livermore winemakers are getting their act together and making better wines, which would give Virginie the opportunity to score them higher.

There has been one Livermore winery I’ve admired over the years, and that’s Steven Kent. The owner-winemaker is Steven Kent Mirassou, of the old Mirassou Winery, which was bought out by Gallo years ago. I’ve given his wines high scores since the 1999 vintage, with the Cabernet Sauvignons particularly impressive. These are wines that can stand against Napa Valley and I have told Steven so.

I get asked to lunch by a lot of winemakers and 99% of the time I decline, but Steven Kent Mirassou is one of the few I readily consent to. Why? Because I admire what he’s doing. It doesn’t make me happy to write off an entire region, the way I have with Livermore Valley, but it makes me glad to see somebody there who’s attempting to elevate it. Steven is scrappy and visionary. He sees, not the present sorry state of Livermore Valley, but its glorious past and what he hopes will be its glorious future.

At lunch we talked about whether and how much Steven should market Livermore Valley as a region, as opposed to just forgetting about Livermore Valley and plugging the Steven Kent brand. These are very difficult decisions with no easy answers. My advice to Steven was to forget about Livermore Valley and promote the Steven Kent brand. That’s just my two cents.

Wine Enthusiast Toast of the Town San Francisco

is Thursday April 7, in the evening at City Hall. I’ll be there and I hope you are too. If you want to get together, let me know, and we can make an arrangement.


RIP LIZ TAYLOR!

  1. I’ve visited Livermore Wine Country a number of times. I tend to agree with the overall assessment of quality. I haven’t found a great number of interesting wines to write home about. That said, I can appreciate the history of Livermore as an important wine region in California. As their website also says, Livermore Valley put California on the wine map when they captured America’s first international gold medal for wine in 1889 at the Paris Exposition. I can also respect that fact that Livermore, for the most part, is easy access. The wines are very reasonably priced and on average vastly less expensive than those in any other wine region of Cali, especially Napa/Sonoma. On my last trip, I visited Thomas Coyne – which is located on a historical plot. The wines were decent, but they were also selling for an average of $16. Also, for a wine tourist, the region is welcoming, easy to explore and costs next to nothing. But, I suppose from your perspective, Steve, at the end of the day it’s about the quality of the wines in relation to the entire field of wine in California. And in that regard, they do fall short on a whole.

  2. Terry, I agree with everything you say!

  3. I would argue the climate in Livermore Valley is quite different than St. Helena / Calistoga. All you have to do is look at the hillsides. Above St. Helena and Calistoga in the western hills you find native stands of redwoods, ferns underneath, and a cool moist environment directly affected by an on shore flow from the Pacific 25 miles to the west. You don’t see that around Livermore. It is at least 40 miles from the Pacific and between it and the ocean is a wide bay, Fremont, some high ridges, with many places for the onshore flow to bleed off.

    I would take degree day comparisons with a grain of salt. They depend on weather stations located in urban environments and do not relate to climate in the vineyard.

    I think trying to compete with cooler areas with Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc is part of Livermore’s identity problem. Red would seem to make more sense. As long as Napa winemakers make Cabernet from raisins, Livermore should be able to compete in that style quite successfully. Same with Petty Sairs and Zin.

    Pinot?…fo-get-a-bow-dit.

  4. From a marketing perspective, I think a lot of this has to do with the appellation name. I know that sounds overly simplistic, but it’s just not a name that conjurs up thoughts of wine country destinations and a wine country lifestyle. Other appellations—Santa Barbara County—-for example, have sexy names….you think of Santa Barbara, you think of rolling hills, beachfronts, Arabian horses, Montecito, Los Olivos….all those romantic, aspirational locales.
    Livermore has none of those associations, so it’s not really considered a destination place, or even a staycation place. Those of us who love wine in Cali, and love to go wine tasting, probably don’t venture much into Livermore. If I were working with their association, I’d consider adjusting their positioning to reflect a more destination-oriented message.
    If you can change that fundamental perception, then the consumers buy into the romance of Livermore, which then creates the desire for their wines, which then blossoms into demand from the trade, which then evolves into more coverage in the market, greater exposure to consumers, and so on…….

  5. Virginie Boone says:

    I agree that Steven Kent is doing great things with Livermore fruit, especially from Ghielmetti Vineyard, and is to be admired for really going for it in terms of quality and reputation. I do also think Wente is a solid, go-to brand when it comes to a number of varietals, though, as you point out, they also source from other areas of the state.

    Interesting times and places we get to think about. I look forward to trying more wines over the years to get a better sense of the overall appellation.

  6. Raley makes an interesting point and a good one I think. For most bay area consumers, when someone utters the word Livermore, it immediatley conjurs up gridlock, traffic jams and I-580 craziness. Who would really want to spend their Saturday afternoon in that?

  7. My Dear Mr. Smart–

    The Livermore Valley has no gridlock, traffic jams or I-580 craziness on a Saturday afternoon. It is just 30 minutes from the East Bay and its population of over one million people.

    The problem in Livermore is wine quality, not traffic quality, and frankly, it is far more attractive to the eye than Morton suggests, especially when one gets to the hills where most of the wineries and vineyarda are located.

    However, with only forty wineries, most of which are small and not very well-known, it is arguably true that Livermore has very little “sex appeal” as a place to visit. It is not true, however, that its good wines are limited to Steven Kent. The Wente special bottlings, Concannon’s Petite Sirah, several well-made Merlots and the Flemings Jenkins Syrah from the Madden Ranch (yes, that Peggy Fleming and that John Madden)all indicate that quality wine is possible in Livermore.

    The likelihood that Livermore is going to compete with the Russian River Valley or the Napa Valley or Santa Barbara County is not high, however. With only a couple of thousand acres and a handful of wineries whose products get much beyong Livermore, it is not going to become the next one of those places any time soon. But it is not chopped liver either. And while it provides few wines that snag big scores in the wine publications, it is not, I would submit, a failing appellation so much as a less important one.

  8. Bill, well, getting to Livermore from SF/East Bay is no harder than getting to Napa through the I-80 or 101N gridlock or to RRV through the Richmond Bridge / Santa Rosa insanity. I think you live in Sonoma, right? So in that case, yes it’s a shlep.

  9. As I understand it, Livermore tried to promote small vintners by setting them up with something like 20 acre sites and existing vines. Their choice was Merlot. Oops!

  10. Agreed. It is difficult to find gems there, but a few sneak out. Nevertheless, thank goodness for the Wente Chardonnay clone that I believe makes the finest wine in the cooler climates of the Russian River and Carneros.

  11. David Everett says:

    My dear Mr. Heimoff; I’m not sure which is worse, your palate or your journalism; If I may quote your article: “I can’t claim to have tasted all of them or even most of them, and there surely are many wineries I’ve never tasted at all”. If that is true (and I’m sure it is given your disdain for Livermore Valley wines) then how could you even begin writing this totally lame “OPINION” piece??? Last time I checked, objectively reviewing wines should be based on actual tasting backed by an objective analysis. You’re just like all the other lemmings this industry has produced. Just ask anyone: “have you been to wine country?” and the answer will almost certainly be: “oh yes, we’ve visited Napa many times!”…give me a break. What about Paso, Mendo, SB, SLO, Monterey, Lodi and oh yes, Livermore Valley??? The reply speaks for itself. I’m sure you are completely unaware of the growing movement in this AVA dedicated to the pursuit of viticultural excellence and the production of quality wines. Just to clue you in: Brett Caires at Boa Ventura de Caires has long been producing quality, estate grown cabernets; Chris Graves at Ruby Hill is producing outstanding Iberian varieties among others; The wine making team of Brett Amos and Meredith Miles at Fenestra have created some excellent representations of Livermore Valley Fruit; Another new comer: John Kinney of Occasio could be the best producer of Pinot Gris and Sauvignon blanc in the valley but you wouldn’t know that sitting in your home office. I wonder, when was the last time you tasted Karl Wente’s small lot effort: the “Nth” degree?? The only bar that has been lowered here is journalism through blogging. Let’s hope that the only real results of your biased and damaging, uninformed opinion piece is that you get eliminated from the dwindling list of reliable “third party endorsers.” Wine Gods willing, your readers will take your opinion with a grain of salt or at least, with a glass of an over-produced, over-manipulated, over-ripe, over-oaked and highly alcoholic Napa Valley cabernet…cheers and you can keep your two cents

  12. Historic rainfall averages for Calistoga and St. Helena exceed 35 inches annually. For Livermore it is a 14.52 inches annual average. Any opinion on beauty of a region is in the eye of the beholder. I made no statement to that effect, only tried to point out that Livermore’s climate is dis-similar to that of St.Helena or Calistoga and perhaps to suggest that the grapes might be a little different as well.

    A region’s reputation is often made by wineries outside of the appellation who source that region’s grapes because of the grape quality. This is commonly done by top flight wineries with grapes imported from Napa, Sonoma, Russian River, Alexander Valley, and Anderson Valley and was done long before most of the appellations had any label cache. To my knowledge this was and is not done to any significant extent from Livermore. It may be more than just the marketing of a region and public relations, it may be the grapes or grape varieties.

  13. Livermore is much drier than Calistoga with less than 3 inches of rain during the growing season (vs. 6 inches at Calistoga), and an annual average of 14.5 inches (vs. 37.5 inches at Calistoga). This fact largely explains why Livermore Valley’s west facing ridges have little or no trees.
    Temperature wise, though, Livermore is slightly cooler than Calistoga with 3,378 Winkler HDDs (Region III) vs. 3,543 for Calistoga (Region IV). Average (historical) highs in July are milder at Livermore reaching 89.0°F vs. 92.8°F at Calistoga; and (historical) high temps during the growing season (April-October) are also lower at Livermore with an average of 81.6°F vs. 84.5°F at Calistoga.
    Source: WRCC (1906-2010)

  14. David Everett says:

    Morton; Where do YOU live??? I lived and worked in the Napa Valley for 8 years and as someone who has been growing grapes in the Livermore Valley for 6 years now (Touriga Nacional, Albarino, Graciano, Tempranillo and Primative just to name a few)I can assure you that Napa Valley, (especially St. Helena and Calistoga) is on average, considerably hotter than Livermore during the growing season. Just look at the topographical layout of the upper valley, which acts as a convection oven. Ever wonder how all those wines get so over ripe? Also, the nights tend to be cooler in Livermore due to its close proximity to the (consistent)moderating winds and temps offered by the bay area and by not having high mountain walls on either side of it’s boundaries that create an obstacle for the cooling fogs to overtake. So what you are saying is that growing regions that don’t have climate similar to St. Helena or Calistoga can’t produce quality? You’re kidding, right?? Your climate point is moot anyway; climate is only a small piece of the quality puzzle. Soil composition, precision farming, irrigation, yields, ripeness disciplines are just a few of many worth mentioning.
    If you knew anything about CA wine history, you would know that the Livermore Valley was one of the very first wine growing regions awarded an AVA by the BATF and specifically for its unique climate and soil types. AND, in the late 60’s and early to mid-70’s wineries all over the state were sourcing fruit from Livermore to blend in with their wines; Why? because of the high demand for fruit at the time and Livermore had plenty already planted. So NO, it’s not the fruit; wineries don’t source from Livermore these days because they have plenty of their own (AVA specific)fruit due to a LOT of recent plantings. You have no idea how frustrating it is to have comments like yours influencing other enthusiasts who have yet to form their own informed opinions through real life experience.

  15. If the wineries of the Livermore Valley want to be seen as important, they need to do more than sit back and tell the world that they are important. Of the forty some wineries there, how many have a presence that reaches over the hills to the wine markets in San Francisco and the East Bay?

    I have nothing against a winery like Ruby Hill, a nice visit for sure, but do its wines get wide attention? How many labels not belonging to the Wente group are seen extensively outside of the Livermore Valley?

    Mr Everett mentions Occasio as a great producer of Pinot Gris? How far has that wine penetrated the outside world? How about his own varieties? Where are they available? I don’t mean to be critical. But, part of recognition is the search for recognition. I don’t see much of that on the part of Livermore wineries–and I live about half an hour away.

    It is hard to be well-thought of when no one knows the names of most of the wineries in the Livermore Valley. Perhaps it is just a semantic difference but I dont see the AVA as failing. I see it as Missing In Action in large part because it has a hard time finding a collective voice, a central message, a quality level that will drive winelovers to the Livermore Valley.

  16. David, what you said about Livermore’s climate has been my understanding also. I do understand Livermore’s history and the uniqueness of its terroir. I did point out in my post that I no longer review Livermore wine and that there may be interesting things I don’t know about. But I live in a fairly small world of wine critics and bloggers and I think that if Livermore were making breakthroughs, I would have heard about it through the grapevine. I want for Livermore to regain its position as an esteemed wine region. Steven Kent (and as you point out, possibly others) is doing everything he can, but one (or a few) successful wineries do not a great wine region make. And many mediocre wineries can give a region a bad reputation that’s hard to shake.

  17. David Everett says:

    Mr. Olken; I would like to thank you for your response and comment. It was a well written, intelligent and objective evaluation of the Livermore Valley. Your assessment of the AVA being M.I.A. is accurate and fair. I especially appreciated your comment on what really was missing ie; “a collective voice and a central message.” These are important issues that lie in the hands of the hard working, passionate people representing the AVA (and we KNOW IT.) It may take some time, but I can assure you that OUR efforts will prevail and restore the valley back to its rightful place: side by side with all the other AVA’s representing the great wine state of California! Oh, to have the solidarity of the paying “members” and the collective funds that fuel the Napa Valley marketing machine!!!

  18. Mr. Everett- Take some time to read before you spout off your childish put downs. Steve said,”and while the weather is hot, Livermore boosters argue it’s no hotter than the St. Helena-Calistoga area. So the problem must be in the winemaking.” I do not think it is winemaking. I am quite confident, being a winemaker and working with many for four decades, that grape quality is far more important than the individual winemaker’s skill when you are looking at a region’s wine quality.

    I stated twice that St. Helena and Calistoga had dis-similar climates to Livermore. So you get all excited, criticize my statement, and point out to me exactly what I stated, that they are, in fact, dis-similar.

    So why do you fly off the handle? Me thinks you protest too much.

    Also, you might not put all you eggs in the Winkler degree day basket. I think most of us learned its limitations decades ago.

  19. David Everett says:

    My dear Mr. Morton; If you read the thread, it was Mr. Oconnor who mentioned Winkler and degree days. Indeed, I’ve read Winkler but my “data” was tangibly sourced from my own experiences living in the respective regions. As far as your comment on the question of fruit quality from Livermore, might I kindly remind you that there is mediocre fruit found in every AVA in the state including Napa and believe me, the same rule applies to wine making…

  20. In the state of economy in this country and within California, what truly shocks me as odd, is that no one ever takes the stance of “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”.

    All of the vintners that I know in the Livermore Valley, partly because I used to be one here, are decent people with a desire to promote something to the best of their ability that others may enjoy.

    To the writer of the article: I don’t know how you could make any sort of opinion stick after the disclaimer comment, ” I can’t claim to have tasted all of them or even most of them, and there surely are many wineries I’ve never tasted at all.”
    Excuse me?

    Everything you proceeded to write after that statement is pointless.

    I don’t hear a word your saying.

    I could easily go to Napa and Sonoma, to the out of the way wineries, and find stuff I would never drink again as well.

    Oh, and the weather…..the beauty is that it changes…..
    Anyone care to comment on the snowfall over the past 3 years that we have had here….

    I can think that everyone by now that has read this, probably considers it useless information you have provided.

    But to those that want to agree, come on out to the Livermore Valley and taste for yourself. Everyone’s taste buds are different.

    Hey, good or bad publicity, its still publicity!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  21. Mark Clarin says:

    I want to thank Steve Heimoff for the attention. The only thing worse than bad publicity or opinion is none at all. I look forward to submitting my wines to Virginie Boone.
    Cheers,
    MC

  22. Meredith Miles says:

    Oh, Mr. Heimoff, I can assure you that you will be hearing from me, and doubtless many others, about this article. But, I must say right now: how dare you?! Do you have some sort of vendetta against our entire valley? If not, why would you end your tenure reviewing (or trying to avoid reviewing) Livermore Valley wines by trying to bring the whole Valley down with you? There are bad and good wines/wineries in every region, so why are you targeting Livermore Valley? I think you know that your two cents are worth a lot more than just two cents. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people that are going to read your article and take it as more than just (misinformed) opinion, thereby undoing all the hard work that many people in this valley have passionate about doing in recent years. I would appreciate in the future that if you have a problem with specific wineries or wines, please stick to knocking them, and not putting a whole region in the same trash pile

  23. Larry Dino says:

    When I comment on a wine, winery or appellation, I like to taste the wines and draw an opinion based on what my palate enjoys. In Livermore, the appellation has some similarities with Napa but it also has its differences. I not sure there are any two appellations that have identical terroir. In Livermore, we are not trying to be Napa. And please, do not confuse wine quality with market presence. Livermore is made up of mostly small wineries, for the exception of Wente and Conncannon, and its difficult (impossible) for small wineries to have their wines readily available outside the region. With that said, Livermore is going through a recent resurgence of wineries over the last 10 years (with over 50 wineries) and with a significant improvement in quality (in my opinion and as recognized in wine competitions and trade journals).

    I welcome the opportunity to share my wines with anyone.

    Larry

  24. If the vines are planted with appropriate varieties and the fruit is harvested on time, I am absolutely positive Livermore Valley would make some tasty, world-class vino on par with Sonoma/Napa.

    Raisins in your oatmeal not at that crushpad.

  25. Livermore Semillon has produced some stunning wines over the years, in particular from Kalin and Fenestra. LVC and Wente have made nice Sem-SB blends. That said, I’m inclined to agree with you that heat-loving reds might be a good flagship. I’ve had some good Zin and Tempranillo or Tempranillo-based blends from Livermore. Concannon has proved what can be done with PS there.

  26. I fully agree with Morton about the limitations of Winkler’s Heat Summation Index. It is hard to support an indicator that doesn’t allow for precipitation volume or any solar radiation measurement.
    For this reason we developed and disclose on our website (with data from Livermore, St. Helena, Calistoga and most global wine regions) two proprietary heat indicators: 1) PHI (WineEvCO Prop. Heat Index; it can be found under the VCA page), that employs latitude (available hours of sunshine) and precipitation volume data; 2) HTI (Helio-Thermal Index) that combines monthly solar radiation data and monthly mean temps. Both are expressed in heat units (the same as Winkler’s HSI, though not in °F, but in °C) and determine with greater accuracy the heat accumulation potential for the wine region under analysis.
    Even though non-normalized “heat” indicators (like Winkler’s HSI, HTI,…) can be slippery and demand a certain dose of interpretation, they’re excellent tools to support the decision making process, and critical in matching vineyard sites to their best suited grape varieties.

  27. Wow, I think Larry said all that needs to be said. Steve, we met at the PS I Love You event – I’m not sure if you remember but you gave my PS great praise and suggested I submit to Virginie for review. While Steven Kent is producing some amazing wines, and probably is the most well known “small producer” outside the valley, let me assure you that we have several wineries doing some amazing things.

    Take a look at the SF Chronicle Competition earlier this year. In our first year of submitting anything Nottingham Cellars took home six medals of a possible six wines submitted. The Valley in general showed very well – several awards at all price points – That’s because we produce quality wines at all price points – including what is probably the most sought after ‘Best of Class’ in Cabernet Sauvignon in the highest price point category.

    How can you, or anyone for that matter, suggest a region is struggling when you admit in the next sentence that you have only tasted a few of the wineries? Volume and distribution is what makes a wine more noticeable in the outside world, not quality. Nobody is raving over Charles Shaw.

    Let me assure you that Livermore Valley is serious. Yes, we do have the “I just retired, Lets Start a Winery” producers who produce mediocre and some not so good wines. So does every region. Dry Creek area seems to be a hub for these folks – its amazing what people think is good wine sometimes.

    Heimoff-ers – don’t take this last blog serious. Come out to Livermore and realize whats going on. We have been the ugly step child for years. We have been making tremendous strides to produce quality wines here – don’t let one uninformed, opinionated wine writer ruin it for the producers in Livermore, small, large and somewhere in between who live for one thing, to produce wines that you will all enjoy.

  28. Wow, quite the article. I would like to echo Meredith Miles and Larry Dino–there is a serious resurgence in the Livermore Valley and a lot of VERY passionate vintner’s attempting to raise the bar, and showcase what this valley can produce. We are working very hard at this. True, there are a number of wineries who do not have the same passion and random wine sampling can be hit and miss. BUT, there are some of us producing some great wines (mentioned above, and then some). I have a problem with the statement “I have no reason to suspect there are hidden gems in Livermore I don’t know about.” Sounds like you have made up your mind Steve, but things change and perhaps you should keep an open mind and continue to do your homework. I also agree with Mark Clarin, I’m looking forward to Virginie Boone trying some of my wines as well..

    And please be a bit more considerate before trashing us and our valley. Your words carry a lot of weight. Perhaps try to be more optimistic and look at (maybe I should say for…) the great wines starting to come out of this region. Your little article undermines a great deal of effort we put forth every day. Put yourself in our purple-stained shoes. You just watch out, we’re coming.

  29. Neal Ely says:

    Steve: It seems like the pivotal point of your “article” is where you said “I can’t claim to have tasted all of them or even most of them, and there surely are many wineries I’ve never tasted at all. But those I have tasted over the years have been disappointing, and I have no reason to suspect there are hidden gems in Livermore I don’t know about.” I agree with Mr. Everett, this is disappointing journalism. It would be akin to me saying that the Wine Enthusiast is a lousy magazine, and I know this because I’ve only looked at one or two issues a few years ago, but I have no reason to suspect that there are better articles or reviews I don’t know about. Now, I would never say that, and I know the Enthusiast is a good magazine, but a fundamental tenet of any good reporting is Research, and your reporting in this case didn’t acquit itself very well.

    To wit, saying the appellation is failed and I know this because I haven’t tasted many wines or visited most of the wineries, or spent time with any of the owners except one…. Really? Why would anyone else even want to engage in a dialog beyond this point except maybe to say that you’ve developed a false logic and to try and correct that.

    I have been in the beautiful Livermore Valley for 13 years, and when I came here, there were only 16 wineries present. As previous bloggers have noted, that number has nearly tripled, most of them not on the 20 acre plots someone else mentioned, with many of them trying new things besides/in addition to Merlot (though you should try Darcie Kent’s) as we seek to find our niche. I think the Livermore AVA is an aspiring AVA rather than a failed AVA. For example, you have completely missed the excellent efforts of our Conservancy who is working hard to preserve land for agricultural or viticultural purposes. You do a discredit to the many new winery and vineyard owners who do believe in the Valley and its potential. Is it Napa, Sonoma, or Paso yet? No. Is an area trying to reestablish itself? Yes. Are there some excellent wines being made here by some dedicated folks? Yes. And perhaps with some more indepth research, your story could be about the resurgence of the area rather than its (incorrectly perceived) failure.

  30. What kind of journalist leaves his journalism to other journalists? You of all people should be doing your due diligence before bashing a region. No hidden gems that you have heard about? “But I live in a fairly small world of wine critics and bloggers and I think that if Livermore were making breakthroughs, I would have heard about it through the grapevine.” Do yourself and everyone else a favor and taste the wines before passing judgement. How do you know if you like wine, or certain food, or sports, or ANYTHING based on what you have heard, not what you have experienced?

    A journalist should keep an open mind, be objective and honest with no preconceived notions. I hope that your train your writers at WE to do as you say, not as you do.

    And yes,please touch on this subject. “I think another reason is that the winemaking bar in Livermore has been set lower these days. There are complicated reasons for this, and if you’re curious, I can give you my thoughts later.” I know there are a group of winemakers in the Livermore Valley that meet monthly to discuss strategies and winemaking knowledge and experience.

    I know they say they can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but honestly if you are done learning the wine world in general loses. “Trying to Rescue a Failing Appelation” definitely was not what this blog was about.

    The one thing I really thank you for in this article is for once leaving politics out of this. Not one “T-bagger” or replubican bash. Amazing. Thanks again.

  31. C. Chandler says:

    Livermore Valley is home to some of California’s oldest winemaking families. In recent years, these icons have been joined by new families who are adding their own awards to Livermore Valleys’ list of accolades. For example:

    Livermore Valley wineries won 89 awards in the 2011 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition–two Best-of-Class (Mitchell Katz 2008 Sangiovese and Wente’s Nth Degree 2007 Cabernet), nine Gold Medals and six Double Gold awards (Wente Vineyards, Concannon Vineyard, Fenestra Winery, Murrieta’s Well, Nottingham Cellars).

    McGrail Vineyards’ 2007 Reserve Cabernet placed in the top ten at the 6th Annual Cabernet Shootout and was then named the number one wine for women by the Chicago Wine Club.

    Wine Enthusiast (reviewer S.H.) awarded 90 points to both Concannon’s 2007 Conservancy Petite Sirah and 2008 Conservancy Chardonnay in August 2010. The Petite Sirah also was named a Wine Enthusiast Editor’s Choice.

    Livermore Valley wine country is proud of its heritage, its talented winemakers and our wineries’ commitment to continually raising the bar.

    We will be sending you a representative sampling of our wines and hope you will give them a fair evaluation.

    Chris Chandler, Executive Director
    Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association

  32. Russ Livingston says:

    I want to commend Heimoff on such a great APIRIL FOOL’s Day article. Very timely, I totally get it.

    ….because seriously, Wente’s Riva Ranch Chardonnay is easily one of …if not THE best Chardonnay for the money. I’m gonna’ go have some now. Well, I may have some of Kent’s too.

    I Love Livermore Valley wines!

  33. Russ, the Riva Ranch Chardonnay is from Arroyo Seco (Monterey County).

  34. Quick response to the one comment that didn’t hold water. How about the other responses?

  35. Sam, I don’t reply to every comment. The commentors who disagree with me always have the space as a platform to express themselves. I’m proud that I am one of the few blogs that doesn’t pre-approve comments. They go up immediately (once an initial comment has been approved). That makes steveheimoff.com one of the most transparent, robust blogs around.

  36. Mark Clarin says:

    BTW. I believe it was Steve who gave my 2006 Livermore Valley PICAZO Merlot 92 points in the Wine Enthusiast.
    Cheers,
    MC

  37. Mark, I never said there were no good wines from LV. I said that compared to the other regions surrounding the Bay, it was disappointing.

  38. I have been very fortunate to have traveled to many world wine regions – New Zealand, Australia, Bourdeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, Loire Valley, Piedmont, Tuscany and many of the Calif wine regions – and all of these regions have some great wines, good wines and some not so good wines. Livermore is very similar. I think that before a region is written off, you must do a good statistical analysis of all wines, not just a few.
    Norm
    Villa per Due Vineyard

  39. Steve, that was a very interesting article you came up with. It’s definitely a good one for making a blog site’s comment count go up.

    The thing that always amazes me is how people forget the past. I don’t pretend to be a wine expert, but I do know from history that 35 years ago the Napa Valley bore a remarkable likeness to the Livermore Valley of today. Back then Napa was made up of small wineries whose names and wines were unknown outside of the valley. There were no tasting fees and winemakers were happy to hang out with visitors and talk to them about their wines. The wine makers stuck together and supported each other because they knew that if one person succeeded, the valley succeeded. Napa is known throughout the world today because 35 years ago those wine makers didn’t listen to what the rest of the world had to say about how California wines couldn’t stand up to French wine. They worked hard to learn the craft and make the best wine they could. It is because of that hard work, disregard for the wine snobs, and great publicity that a few good wineries were able to push into being the Napa of today.

    A couple of years ago I went with some friends and fellow wine lovers to the Napa Valley for wine tasting. We all live in Livermore, but the instinctual thing to do at that time was to go to Napa. I had previously enjoyed many fantastic wine excursions to the Napa Valley, but on this occasion it seemed that everything I tried tasted horrible. The taste of the wine and the pricey tasting fees left me more than disappointed the Napa Valley, which typically goes unquestioned for its taste.

    Several months later, I found myself with those same friends talking about that Napa experience. That is when the question was asked. Why do we make the trek to Napa when we are surrounded by more than 50 wineries in the Livermore Valley? The answer was that Napa was known. It was a familiar habit. Everyone around me spoke praises about Napa so it only made sense that Napa was where I should go for the best experience. It was that summer evening that we made it our goal to learn what the Livermore Valley wineries really had to offer and to share our experiences with others. It was time to get away from the wine snobbery, forget about the price of the wine or the popularity of the wineries, and just find some fantastic wine.

    Since that time I have had the opportunity to taste the wines of 45 Livermore wineries and I am looking forward to experiencing the wines of the few Livermore wineries I have not yet been to. I do not pretend to have the all-knowing palate, but I do know what I like and what I don’t like. I have had some bad Livermore wine experiences, some good Livermore wine experiences, and many more phenomenal Livermore wine experiences. I have made it my goal to share those good experiences with other wine lovers I come in contact with.

    Looking through the comments for this blog it was nice to see the familiar names of some of Livermore’s best winemakers, Larry Dino (Cuda Ridge Winery), Chris Graves (Ruby Hill Winery), Mark Clarin (Picazo Vineyards), Meredith Miles (Fenestra Winery), Collin Cranor (Nottingham Cellars). If you want an example of why Livermore is not failing or in need of rescue, these are some of the people you should be visiting.

    It is my hope that Virginie Boone has the opportunity to experience the Livermore that I know. With her new position with Wine Enthusiast, she has inherited a writer’s dream. She has the opportunity to be the voice for the Livermore Valley that George Taber was for the Napa Valley back in 1976. Charlie Olken made a good point in his comment, “If the wineries of the Livermore Valley want to be seen as important, they need to do more than sit back and tell the world that they are important.” I can tell you from my own experiences that Livermore isn’t sitting back. Chris Chandler pointed out in his comment several examples of the outside acclaim that Livermore wineries are receiving including the results from this year’s SF Chronicle Wine Competition. Livermore wineries both big and small have been putting in the hard work to make great tasting wine and are ready to make the Livermore Valley known.

    California is blessed with an abundance of great wine regions. I don’t mind sampling wine from those other regions, but I will continue to enjoy researching all that the Livermore Valley (my backyard) has to offer and share those experiences with the world.

    Ken
    Bryersantis Wine Consortium

  40. I don’t pretend to know a ton about wine. I just know when it’s good and recommend to others. There is a lot to recommend from Livermore Valley Wines. Cheers! Carl

  41. Russ Livingston says:

    Thanks for the reply, Steve. I knew that the Wente Riva Ranch was from Monterey because the appellation is right there on the bottle. My point was just that it was a great Livermore winemaker who had the instinct to bring in the grapes from Monterey, and had the talent to create a beautiful and well balanced wine (right there in Livermore).

  42. Lynn Seppala says:

    Thanks for your estimated two cents worth. Is that even somewhat overpriced? Here is what we have: a journalist with an unshaken and immovable dim view of Livermore wines, even though he has admittedly tasted few of the wines and has refused 99% of the offers to meet with the winemakers. Heimoff suggests, “So the problem must be the winemaking” and “I think that… the winemaking bar in Livermore has been set lower these days .” Too bad he refuses to do the necessary and required work (it is so hard, tasting wines and meeting with winemakers) that any self-respecting journalist would do. Maybe the problem is the journalism and the low bar for what now passes as ” journalism”. Another column please on this.

  43. Meredith Miles says:

    Oh, yeah…just remembered that you gave our 2008 Fenestra Ghielmetti Vyds Sauvignon Blanc 86 points, and our 2008 Fenestra Silvaspoons Vyd Verdelho 88 points last year. Yes, I know it’s not quite 90 points, but you did put them in the March 2010 edition of Wine Enthusiast. So thanks!

  44. Anthony Blackburn says:

    I’m not sure all the banter back and forth about appellation vs. appellation is what wine is all about. The most exciting thing about wine as a whole, to me, is diversity. No two wines anywhere are exactly alike. I don’t want the wines of Livermore valley to be like any other appellation. Livermore Valley has it’s own unique style, feel and appeal that I cannot get anywhere else. I don’t want sameness throughout California’s winemaking regions. Livermore does not exist to emulate Napa wines or any other regions wines. Napa has a long history and tradition, as well as a fine track record of quality in winemaking and grape growing. These things come with time, experience, trial and failure. Livermore Valley has just begun to put itself on the viticulural and enological map in any sort of big way and there is certainly a lot to learn and a lot of growing to do. That being said, Livermore Valley has some of the most interesting wines, winemakers and wineries of any region. There is only one way for the valley to go, and that is up. How many wineries have gone BK or are near BK in Napa in the past 2 years? Part of that is the economic reality that, bang for the buck, Livermore Valley has some of the best wines in California.

  45. Dear Steve,

    IGNORANCE is BLISS! Or in this case your ignorance leads to irresponsible journalism.

    You said it best when you said, “I can’t claim to have tasted all of them or even most of them, and there surely are many wineries I’ve never tasted at all. But those I have tasted over the years have been disappointing, and I have no reason to suspect there are hidden gems in Livermore I don’t know about.”

    Any true journalist or researcher knows you need to report the facts. The only fact here is that you admit your ignorance; you acknowledge you haven’t tasted much of the wine produced in the Livermore Valley. So how could you possibly know what “gems” there are to be uncovered?

    I will agree that in years past, Livermore was know more for quantity rather than quality, but in the last 20 years the bar definitely has been and continues to be raised in Livermore wine production. There are many serious wine makers who are making excellent wine and breaking new ground in quality production. Yes, Steven Kent makes a good Cabernet, but stop by McGrail Vineyards and sample the work of winemaker Mark Clarin, his Cab reserve is excellent and worth every penny. And Chris Graves is an imaginative winemaker who continues to raise the bar with his magical blends. His new Intesa is every bit a Napa quality wine if not better. There are many more “gems” as others have already mentioned, why don’t you get off your high horse and try tasting a few of them before you condemn the whole AVA?

    Steve, there are only 54 wineries in the Livermore Valley, how hard would it be for your to take the time to visit them and get to know the wine makers and the wine they are producing? Before you denigrate an entire region, wouldn’t it be a good idea to know more about what you’re talking about? I’ve been to at least 40 of the Livermore wineries and I always find excellent wine. Not to mention, I can afford the $5 tasting fee at most Livermore wineries. The last time I visited the Silverado trail in Napa the wine tasting fees for three well know wineries totaled $120 for two people and the wine wasn’t any better than what I’ve tasted in the Livermore Valley.

    And Mr. Olken, what does market penetration have to do with the quality of wine? Are you implying that big is best? Wineries in the Livermore Valley are smaller for the most part with limited production capability. If I remember, isn’t that exactly the way wineries in the Napa Valley started? I recently learned that a particular Gallo brand (it shall go nameless) is the leading wine brand in the world selling more than 500,000 cases a year. The wine is average at best, and while I understand this makes Gallo an “important” player, it has more to do with their marketing machine than it does with the quality of their wine.

    Steve,since you are an “expert” why not take the time to share an informed opinion. Visit the Livermore Valley, get to know what the area and it’s winemakers are about. You may still not end up enjoying the wines produced here, but then we can at least agree to disagree. As Albert Einstein once said, “Never underestimate you own ignorance.”

  46. Rich,

    The question was not whether market penetration makes a wine attractive or not. The question was why the Livermore Valley gets short shrift. If the wineries in the Livermore Valley and the fans of those wineries want to blame the writers for the fact that they are unknown and thus unappreciated, then they, and you, are missing the big picture.

    Nobody owes them a living. If they and you do not like the lack of attention being paid to Livermore, go do something about it. These 54 wineries are businesses, not social service agencies. They need to do what businesses do in their situation–take actions, collectively and singularly, to change the narrative.

    There are 3000 wineries and another 2000 private and second labels in CA alone. Those 54 in Livermore, most of whom are small and have no outreach even to the Bay side of the hills, are going to remain unknown and underappreciated unless they take it upon themselves to make their cases.

  47. A little off subject perhaps, but I’ve noticed over the 70 years I’ve lived in Livermore, that the few vines I tend each year (about 2-dozen) seem to struggle past my ineptness in such gardening matters and produce with increasing quality as the roots grow deeper and in spite of all my mistakes. I consider my experiences sort of a microcosim laboratory related to our local vintners’ niche production experiences.

    We non-professionals in Livermore, have a lot of fun watching this magic of grape production unfold each year. It’s pretty hard to goof up in growing grapes in this soil on the south side of US 580. Stick the plant in the ground, hook up drip irrigation, and the plants take off growing no matter what dumb mistakes you make. The flatter the field the better usually … we have a lot of gentle rolling inland coastal hills.

    My neighbor’s house has about 200 vines and presents a real challenge. He was a retired doctor of chemistry from LLNL. He showed me how to care for the vines and of course I loved helping him harvest his grapes each year. It was amazing to watch him make his own wine and win awards in county fairs. He had a box filled with 1st-place, 2nd and 3rd-place ribbons. County fairs in California tend to have heavy competion in wine entries…like hundreds of contenders, none of whom make their living in the wine industry. They just really enjoy the fun and challenge.

    Have you ever seen wine fermenting? It’s amazing and magical to watch. It’s very aggressive at it’s peak. We took the lid off one of his many 20-gallon stainless steel vats. The inside looked like it was boiling…nothing but bubbles visible. I had no idea. I’m not a wine maker, just a harvest helper so this experience was new to me.

    Apparently Livermore has home owners all over the downtown and southern rim that play around making their own wine for home consumption. At harvest time some neighborhoods smell like fresh crushed grapes. We have a small shop on the edge of town that rents a crusher on a half day rate, but we used instead some home made contraption he came up with. Apparently there’s 3 steps: (1) cut and carry the harvested grapes to the crusher. (2) dump the grapes into the home made hand crank crusher that looks like part of Great Granma’s 1940’s washing machine clothes ringer for crushing, and then (3) finally pour the crushed grapes and juice in the 20-gallon stainless steel vats. Something I never knew, all grape juice is white. It’s only after the grapes set for a few days that the juice picks up red coloring from the red skin. Drinking the grape juice now is an option for sweet, enjoyable, alcohol free grape juice…but I digress.

    So now we had stainless steel vats filled with crushed grapes and juice and my back would be killing me, and my neighbor would ease my pain by breaking out a bottle of two year old wine which tasted good to me.

    A few days later we then strain the juice through cheese cloth filters into 5-gallon bottles using an old fashioned hand, oak ribbed, warm-screw press.

    My job of helping was then complete and the talent of wine making was tuned over to his doctor of chemistry wizardry…or perhaps I should call it alchemy as from this point on it all seemed like magic to me.

    So based on my best guess Livermore must have the better part of 50-professional alchemists haunting our environs extracting very good economic rewards from their wineries, plus another 500 private lable, not for sale, home consumption alchemists, that make their own wine as did my dear neighbor.

    Here’s a secret only a few people know. We built houses on some of our very best wine growing land before we finally smartened up and protected the land for viticulture. Our current City Hall is dead center in the middle of out best wine land area. Buy yourself a modest price home using 3% Down Payment and 97% FHA financing, then stick any grape root in the ground, water it win enter you see the wineries watering, harvest when you see the wineries harvesting, and trim when you see the wineries trimming and chances are you too will become a local legend alchemist who gets free passes into our county fair to pick up you blue ribbon. One fellow I know is doing this as he studies to become a god of wine selection…a sommelier. He tells me it takes 30 to 40 years before his opinion on wines even begins to matter. Until then he is a student in learning….so he says. So wine critics may want to take note.

  48. Charlie Olken, thank you for sharing your keen insights. I always seem to miss the big picture…that, or perhaps my communication skills seem to not reach everyone. Being somewhat off topic, as my comment was prefaced to be, is my way of saying life goes on for the rest of us nonprofessionals vintner-home gardeners, in the bliss of ignorance, enjoying the magic of sticking a small grape vine into the rocky soil around City Hall, dripping some water on it, and watching it grow into a productive grape vine producing 20 lbs. to as high as 50 lbs. of tasty grapes! My friend, the student sommelier, smiles knowingly at the notion that I can not pass a bind-test of wines even distinguishing between burgundy and merlot, and how I can enjoy growing a fine bunch of grapes nonetheless. He tells me, the task of the sommelier is to make everyone smile appreciatively when they sip their wine, even if you gulp it down….his way of appreciating my contribution.

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