Wine, food and fairs; the not inconsiderable charms of Pleasanton, California
We hear a lot of about the Napa Valley and Sonoma and even the central coast of California in terms of food and wine. But not so much about the Livermore Valley, just a little southeast of San Francisco.
It's too bad because it's a great destination that's still relatively low-key. I grew up out there and my first newspaper job was at the Tri-Valley Herald in Pleasanton. I mostly knew it as the home to the still-going Alameda County Fair, which touches down for a couple weeks in late June and early July and is like the Canadian National Exhibition but with live horse-racing that's pretty good.
The ferris wheels and rides are great, there's good entertainment, the beer is cold and the people-watching is superb. Better yet for my taste are the terrific wineries in the Livermore Valley area.
My sister and I did a recent tour, skipping the big boys such as Wente and Concannon (both can be found most of the time, especially Wente, at the LCBO here in Ontario) and instead starting out at Page Mill (see photo at right). They have a nice tasting area with a small but cute courtyard out back for al fresco drinking, and they put out nice chocolate brownies to try with their port. The syrah is quite nice, and the workers are friendly.
We also checked out Thomas Coyne in Pleasanton, which is situated up a dirt road and sits on a small hill overlooking the west end of the Livermore Valley. There's lots of old farm equipment lying about, which makes you feel a bit like you're in the old west. They do a large variety of wines, from Bordeaux style to Rhone varietals, and, again, the people are low-key and friendly to the max.
We retreated downtown after seeing the band Tower of Power at the fair (stupidly they played all of their hits at the second of two one-hour shows, leaving the people who went to the early show steaming mad) and had a fine dinner at a place called Strizzi. We originally were headed to another Italian place on the main street of Pleasanton but found out Strizzi doesn't charge for opening your bottle of wine so checked it out.
They do great pasta and there's a small patio out front if you want to eat outside and enjoy the charms of downtown. There are lovely brick buildings and tons of flowers and an old, green sign that stretches out over Main Street. There are also are funky shops and a couple rough-and-tumble bars, so it's not all cookies and cream.
There's great biking, hiking and golf all around, as well, and plenty of B and B's and larger hotels if you want to bunk down for the night. It's really one of the great small towns of California. Livermore has undergone a huge transformation as well, with fabulous stores and great landscaping and a real country charm. Both are worth checking out, and they're only about 45 minutes from downtown San Francisco and less than that from the Silicon Valley.