California wine. Now-quick, what do you think of? Napa? Sonoma? Santa Barbara or Paso Robles? Yes, yes, yes and…oh, yes. But these are not the only areas growing wine in the state and of course, even in this economy, places like Temecula in the south, Lodi in the north and Lake County in the north continue to produce some quality wines.
So does Livermore. Yes, the Bay Area city with the name that reminds you of Midwest dinners tossed with onions and high tech science laboratories where government agents with names like Mr. Green and Mr. Black do strange and secret things, is also a wine producing region.
But really, it’s not fair to stereotype and the fact is that 52 wineries call Livermore home including one of the oldest wineries in the state, Concannon. The Wente brothers set up shop here as well and continue to be a force to reckon with. Both of these wineries are large producers of wine, in the hundreds of thousands of cases category, and they produce value-priced wines that in some cases are…well….value priced.
But this isn’t true across the board and so in the middle of April, I went with my wife and two friends who live in the Bay Area to Livermore. We have already done Sonoma together and individually, we’ve done Napa so we thought to stay closer to their home and check out the local vineyards.
Was there plonk? Yes, there was plonk. But let’s be clear, I’ve had plonk in Napa and plonk in Sonoma, in Paso and in Santa Barbara, so it is no use trying to plonk the whole area. There were gems and for the sake of editorial purposes and the hope that I won’t put you to sleep—get thee to Murrieta’s Well (cq).
Murrieta’s Well winery is steeped in lore as it was apparently the place, or at least is near the place, where a famous kind of Robin Hood of the gold rush named Joaquin Murrieta and his band of merry men watered their horses. The land passed through a few owners and wound up in Ernest Wente’s capable hands during the depression and he built a gravity-fed winery into the hillside. His grandson Phil Wente owns it today and Sergio Traverso makes the wine. Sergio used to be Concannon’s head winemaker, but has moved on down the road. Literally, Murrieta’s Well is down the road from Concannon.
Semillon grapes were planted here and so was Sauvignon Blanc and so it comes to pass that one of the best wines we tasted is the white blend of these two great grapes. One of the first bottles of wine I enjoyed with my wife as a neophyte and future sommelier was a bottle of Semillon from Washington State. We drank it with pasta and salad in a Spokane restaurant called Patsy Clark’s, it’s not there anymore, and we fell in love with it.
Murrieta’s Well’s version of this blend was wonderful with notes of honey and some soft pear and apple mixed in. I still have a bottle in the wine fridge and with spring-time here and its cool breezes and foggy evenings, I can’t wait to uncork it, sit on the patio and sip it along with some gruyere or maybe some Port Salut cheeses.
My wife, who is kind and good to me, tells me that my winemaking partner Brian and I make the best Tempranillo she’s ever had. I always accuse her of wanting something, but she says no—she really does like it. But then, we drank Murrieta’s Tempranillo. Sublime.
My wife said first that it rivaled ours. Then she said it surpassed it. I accused her of imbibing too much, but I got slapped. This is a special Tempranillo and it is one of the better I’ve had in California. It’s smoky at its core and the fruit is subtle around the edges with cherry and even some strawberry. That smoky core, though, carries right through to the velvety and long finish.
So, there you have it. There are other places you should try. Mitchell Katz’s winery makes good Sangiovese, but they were out of it the day we arrived. Concannon has a very nice Chardonnay and I’m one of those who gets in Chardonnay moods. I literally crave the varietal and cannot be consoled until I have it. And in many cases, I crave that buttery, vanilla, oaky Chardonnay that we Californians have become known for—for good or ill.
Livermore friends. It’s more than just a top-secret government lab, or as I like to say—Livermore or wine more. Here, you can have it both ways.
by Mark Storer