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Here comes Lamorinda



When I first moved to the Bay Area, I was astonished at how radically the weather can change within the smallest areas. I was living in the North Bay–Solano County–and I remember driving for the first time through the Caldecott Tunnel, which runs from Orinda, in Contra Costa County, beneath the East Bay Hills for a mile or so, emerging through its west portal in Oakland.

It was summertime. The temperature in Orinda must have been in the high 80s or low 90s. I had the car window open. As soon as I came into the Oakland daylight I felt the cold air. Maybe the temperature was in the low 60s. We’d lost up to 30 degrees from one end of the tunnel to the other.

The East Bay Hills are, of course, part of the California Coast Ranges that cut off maritime air from the cold Pacific, so that areas east of them grow progressively warmer. Orinda is dependably warm to hot in the summer, but nowhere near as hot as the Sacramentio Delta and the Central Valley, which are much further inland.

For example, the Delta city of Brentwood accumulated 3,470 degree days in 2011. That’s pretty toasty, even for that cool year; Brentwood is in eastern Contra Costa County, an area known for old-vine Zinfandel, where the wines are high in alcohol. Compare that to Oakville, in Napa Valley, where the average annual degree days are 2,798.

In Oakland proper, the warmest part of the city tends to be the easternmost, where the flatlands begin to rise into the East Bay Hills. There, in 2011, the degree day accumulation was 2,173, according to data by the Lamorinda Winegrowers. So you can begin to appreciate the temperature spectrum: too chilly in most of Oakland for proper winegrowing, hottish in the Delta, just right (for Bordeaux varieties, anyway) in Oakville.

“Lamorinda” is a neologism created from the names of three contiguous towns in Contra Costa County: Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda; the word has been in common usage for decades to describe these posh suburbs, just east of the Caldecott Tunnel. Each town is different, of course, but what they share, among other traits, is that they are plopped into the inland side of the East Bay Hills, which rise to about 2,000 feet at their highest. Depending on the exact location, some of the ridges and slopes would seem ideal for growing vitis vinifera: sunny and warm enough to ripen the grapes, not too cold nor too hot, just Goldilocks right.

I remember about 20 years ago being invited to the home of a automobile tire magnate who was experimenting with growing grapes up in those hills, in the expansive backyard of his home, which was technically in Oakland–but these boundaries between towns are, of course, artificial. He was growing several varietals on his sunny slope, and tasted me to them. I was impressed by all of them, across the board, from a rich, opulent Cabernet to a brut-style sparking wine made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

These days, many well-to-do homeowners in the Lamorinda area have followed suit and are planting grapes. (My friend Rajeev, who owns the UPS Store where I receive my wine, recently installed a vineyard on his property.) In fact, there are now 121 planted acres of winegrapes, across 42 vineyards, according to a petition filed with the TTB to establish a Lamorinda American Viticultural Area. The petition was written by my old acquaintance, Patrick Shabram, a professional AVA petition-writer whose previous successful efforts include the Alexander Valley expansion, the Mpon Mountain AVA, and Fort Ross-Seaview. Here’s the link to the formal petition.

It’s not clear what varieties are the most successful for Lamorinda and it may never be, for two reasons: One, the terrain is so jumbled and crazy (courtesy of the San Andrea Fault system) that micro-climates vary radically, making one spot cool enough for Pinot Noir and another warm enough for Cabernet, “within a single vineyard,” as Patrick writes. The second reason is because Lamorinda, if and when it’s approved as an AVA, is never going to be a commercial winegrowing area. Such wines as are made will be consumed by the grower, his family and friends, or will be sold at local restaurants and markets.

I’m in favor of this AVA. Like any appellation, it’s not perfect, and won’t provide the consumer specific information about its wines. But Lamorinda does have a “thereness” and, if approved, will stimulate growers and winemakers to step up their efforts. Which is a good thing.

  1. Hi Steve,
    Great article! Thank you for the recognition and the support of our efforts to put Lamorinda on the map as an exceptional (albeit small) wine growing region.
    I don’t know if you remember, but you tasted and reviewed some of our wines from our very first vintage as a commercial winery (2005). At the time, I was not yet able to source fruit from the local vineyards that started proliferating after we planted our vineyard and founded the Lamorinda WineGrowers’ Association in 2004, but we are now making 100% of our wines from ‘Lamorinda’ fruit, and both our production (about 1200 cases this year) and the quality of our wines has improved dramatically (Best of Show White, Best of Show Red at CCC WineGrowers’ competition, Gold Medals in SF Chronicle wine competition and Best of the Bay competition).
    We are holding our Fall 2013 Release Party at our home/winery this Sunday (Nov. 10) from 1-5pm and I’d love to invite you to attend if you are available and interested. If you don’t mind sending me an e-mail address that I can add to our invite list, I’ll send you the invite immediately.
    If you aren’t able to attend, I’d still love for you to taste our more recent bottlings. Would you be interested in a private tasting at our home or in your office? I’d love an opportunity to re-introduce you to our wines other than blindly submitting them for review.

    Dave Parker
    Winemaker/co-owner Parkmon Vineyards
    Moraga, CA

  2. Bill Crowley says:

    Why don’t they call it Orlafaga? Obviously, I wasn’t on the naming committee or I would have insisted!! Will this be our first “urban” (“suburban”) AVA?

  3. Bill, I don’t know if it would be the first suburban AVA. But I do know that I like Lamorinda better than Orlafaga!

  4. Bill, I do believe this would be the first suburban (or as the locals call it, “semi-rural”) AVA. There is one other with similar circumstances currently being proposed.

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