While most wine drinkers have heard of California's Wente Vineyards, comparatively few are familiar with the winery's home base of Livermore. About 40 miles east of San Francisco, the Livermore Valley is one of California's oldest wine regions. The first commercial vines were planted there in 1846 by Robert Livermore, and pioneer winemakers C.H. Wente, James Concannon and Charles Wetmore founded wineries in the Livermore Valley in the early 1880s.
Livermore Valley helped put California on the winemaking map in 1889, when a wine from the region won America's first international gold medal at the Paris Exposition. The region's wineries were the first in California to bottle varietally-labeled Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Petite Sirah wines, and nearly 80% of the state's Chardonnay vines trace their genetic roots to a Livermore Valley clone.
But despite the wine region's long history, Livermore Valley is still making a name for itself. More than 125 years after the first vineyards were planted, the region is home to just over 40 wineries--thousands less than you'll find in Napa Valley or Sonoma--yet, that's more than double the number from the year 2000. Today, new vintners are being drawn to the valley for a few compelling reasons: warm day-time temperatures during the growing season; a unique east-west orientation that allows cooling fog and marine breezes to come in from the coast; diverse microclimates that let a variety of grapes to thrive in the valley; and well-drained, gravel soil that helps reduce the vines' vigor while increasing fruit concentration. And did I mention that vineyard land there is a lot less expensive than it is in Napa or Sonoma?
What Livermore Valley lacks, it seems, is Napa Valley's image. Set amid sprawling housing developments, Livermore is less likely to attract glamour-seeking vineyard hoppers than its sister regions to the north. But the attraction of actually meeting winery owners and winemakers in local tasting rooms--along with the increase in new wineries--is starting to bring more visitors to Livermore.
I paid a visit to Livermore Valley last weekend to catch up with one of the region's--and California's--oldest wineries: Wente Vineyards. Though Wente's winemaking history is nearly as long as the Livermore Valley's, the winery is not stuck in the past. Case in point: Wente's 'The Nth Degree' wines, made by fifth-generation winemaker, Karl Wente. Produced in small lots--just a few hundred cases of each variety--the wines are made by hand in Wente's micro-winery, which 30-year-old Karl helped to design. The wines are made in 1-ton fermenters--much smaller than those used by most wineries--and are aged in many different types of oak barrels before being meticulously blended together.
Though the Nth Degree wines show intense fruit concentration, they're kept in check by natural acidity--something Karl says he has learned to embrace. Formerly a 'big wine' guy, he strives to make intense but food-friendly wines that will stand up to aging. His wines certainly hit the mark, while showing the wine world what can be achieved in California's historic, unsung Livermore Valley.
The Nth Degree 2005 Chardonnay, Livermore Valley ($40): Rich vanilla and toasted oak aromas combine with ripe apple flavors to create a concentrated, mouth-filling wine. 88
The Nth Degree 2005 Syrah, Livermore Valley ($50): Deep purple in color, this inky Syrah has aromas of ripe blackberries, toasty mocha and tobacco spice. The wine has lush, concentrated cherry-berry flavors accented with vanilla. Rich, but with enough acidity to take it from the cocktail bar to the dinner table. 89
The Nth Degree 2005 Merlot, Livermore Valley ($50): Made with 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine has aromas of tobacco and herbal tea. It's rich and ripe in the mouth, with concentrated black cherry, mocha and vanilla-toast flavors. A powerful, well-balanced wine. 88
Wente Vineyards 2005 Louis Mel Sauvignon Blanc, Livermore Valley ($12): Named for Livermore Valley wine pioneer Louis Mel, this SB has aromas of melon and citrus, with a pleasant grassiness. Its crisp acidity and flavors of grapefruit, lime and honeydew make it a great summer refresher--and a good value. 87
Murietta's Well 2004 Meritage, Livermore Valley ($35): Made by Karl Wente's uncle, Philip Wente, this Bordeaux-style red is a blend of 51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Petit Verdot, 21% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc. It's a bit more reserved in style than the Nth Degree reds, with cherry flavors, integrated tannins and balanced acidity. 87
Tamás Estates 2005 Zinfandel, Livermore Valley ($15): Part of the Wente Family Estates portfolio, Tamás focuses on Italian-style wines. This Zin has lots of bright red cherry and raspberry fruit aromas and flavors, and a hint of vanilla at the finish. Fruit-forward but not heavy, this is a tasty match for pasta with tomato sauce. 87
Crooked Vine 2006 Charvé, Livermore Valley ($22): Made by one of Livermore's up-and-coming boutique wineries, this is a 50-50 blend of Chardonnay and Viognier. Made without oak, the wine has pretty aromas of tropical fruit, with peach and melon flavors. It packs a punch at 15.6% alcohol, but you'd never know it unless you read the label--or tried to operate heavy machinery after drinking a couple glasses. 87
Steven Kent 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Livermore Valley ($45): With aromas of toasty oak, tobacco and dark berry fruit, the wine has a firm tannic structure combined with blackberry fruit flavor. This would benefit from a year or two in the bottle, but should yield a tasty reward. 87