Wine country love affair grows
By Ginny Prior
Contra Costa Times
It was a balmy spring night when I first fell in love. Maybe “crush” was more like it, considering the object of my affection. I raised my glass and toasted the sunset — the wine blush fresh on my cheeks as I celebrated my affair — with the lush rolling hills of the Livermore Valley Wine Country.
While most people think of Napa and Sonoma as “the wine country,” Livermore is California’s oldest wine region. In fact, it was a Livermore Valley wine that won the first Gold Medal for California at the Paris Exposition in 1889. Today, the combination of exceptional soil and an abundance of chemists from nearby Lawrence Livermore Laboratory have spawned a number of exceptional boutique wineries.
Winding your way east along Interstate 580, take Vasco Road south toward the Wente Vineyards. This is the valley’s oldest continuously operated family-owned winery. The tasting room has a picturesque picnic spot at 5565 Tesla Road, where you can sample wines daily from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Continue southwest on the vineyard laced road and you end up at a splendid estate tucked against velvety green hills. This is the Wente Restaurant and Visitors Center. This is where true love begins. Settle into the sumptuous dining room and sip one of hundreds of wines from California and beyond. Get lost in the fragrance of the flowering trees and the aroma of fresh herbs and sauces coming from the kitchen. The views of the golf course and beautifully manicured grounds are as appealing to the eye as the food is to the palate. Top dinner off with a summer concert in the vineyard (June through September) and you’ll see why the Zagat Survey lists Wente as one of America’s top restaurants.Other wineries bring their own special charm to the Livermore Valley. Nestled in a grove of ancient pepper trees, is a little giant called Retzlaff. Not only are these boutique wines extraordinary, they are all organic — made by hand from grapes grown on site with no fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. How do owners Bob and Gloria Retzlaff do it? Naturally. They put up hawk houses and hawks moved in to prey on the Starlings. They build owl roosts and the owls take up residence, feasting on gophers and mice. It works beautifully, as Retzlaff has some of the tastiest wines and most charming picnic grounds in the Livermore Valley. Open to the public, they host annual events for Mother’s and Father’s Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day weekend when they have their popular Harvest Wine Celebration. On summer weekends in July and early August, they feature Shakespeare under the stars. Retzlaff Vineyards is at 1356 S. Livermore Ave. They are open for tasting from noon to 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and from noon to 4:30 p.m. on weekends.
No trip to this region would be complete without visiting Concannon — a vineyard that goes back to Livermore’s early wine making days. While Robert Livermore planted the first commercial vines in the 1840s, pioneer winemakers C.H. Wente, Charles Wetmore and James Concannon founded the first wineries in the early 1880s. They were the first to bottle varietally labeled Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Petite Sirah. Concannon is still going strong today, producing award-winning wines at its historic site at 4590 Tesla Road. They offer tasting daily from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The Livermore Valley Wine Country has over 3,800 acres of vineyards, with 43 wineries and a number of top notch golf courses. Laced between acres of new high-end homes, you may be tempted to relocate here. As the sign says – “If you lived here, you’d be home now”. Home amongst the vineyards and some of California’s oldest and most celebrated wines. For more information, log onto http://www.livermorewine.com or contact the Tri-Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-888-874-9253.
Ginny Prior has a weekly syndicated travel radio show on Sports Byline USA, as well as travel features in print publications across the country. If you have a travel destination you’d like to share, drop a note to The Happy Wanderer at ginnyprior.com.