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Trying to rescue a failing appellation


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.


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