LIVERMORE, CALIFORNIA - It's a sunny April day, maybe 24 degrees. I've just finished tasting wine at three wonderful wineries in what's called the Tri-Valley area east of San Francisco, a region that in spring is covered with green, rolling hills dotted with yellow wildflowers and brilliant orange poppies.
The vineyards cascade up and down small hills, alternating with small ranches and farms and nestled in valleys with winding roads just made for a convertible.
This area has been a winemaking region for decades and has some of the oldest wineries in the state, including Wente Family Vineyards and Concannon. That much I knew, having worked in the valley for a small newspaper from 1979 to 1981.
What I didn't know is that there are now a whopping 52 wineries in the valley, most selling top-notch reds and whites of just about any variety you can think of. It's too hot in summer for really good Pinot Noir, but there's fabulous Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Bordeaux blends, Merlot, Zinfandel and smoky, tasty Port being made all over the valley, particularly in the southeastern section. They also make pretty good Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio and excellent Chardonnay.
What I also hadn't really realized is just how much the city of Livermore has changed. When I was hanging out in these parts it was a cow town, known mostly for saddle shops and mom and pop stores. When I pulled over the other day and walked around, I didn't even recognize the place.
First St. around N. Livermore Ave. is now a dazzling spot with all sorts of urban energy. On one corner I spotted a child splashing in one of those fountains that shoots water into the air in random patterns. On another corner, a second fountain was gurgling in a small park in front of one of the town's renovated, historic buildings.
A third parkette on another corner backed up against a Peet's Coffee Shop, a small chain based in the East Bay. Folks were gathered in the shade of several huge trees, gossiping about who knows what and sipping their lattes.
Around the corner I saw folks spilling out of a live theatre performance. A short walk down First St. revealed a series of cool-looking restaurants; barbeque joints, a Thai place, an Indian restaurant, and more. A couple of women were soaking up the sun at a lovely sidewalk cafe, as well.
All of this beautiful scenery and urban life and outstanding golf courses and the fabulous, world-class wineries are just 45 minutes to an hour from San Francisco or the Silicon Valley/San Jose area. Just as close as Napa to San Francisco and half the drive you'd have to make from San Jose, but much more user friendly.
I checked out one of the two Wente Family Vineyards tasting rooms, the one on Tesla Rd. There are beautiful grounds and a lovely patio with comfy couches and chairs and a fun tasting environment with friendly folks pouring a large variety of wines. I wasn't wowed by the Sauvignon Blanc but the Cabernet was good and the Pinot Noir, grown near Monterey Bay, was out of this world. You can find Wente Cabernet at the LCBO on general listing for less than $20, I believe. A tad light in texture some years but very food friendly.
The second tasting room is out away from town, near the winery's outstanding golf course and the outdoor concert venue. It's an outstanding spot to taste the local product.
I also wandered into Steven Kent, a high-end property also on Tesla Rd. that has a sleek, dark-ish tasting room and plenty of vibrant, local art on the walls. I liked the Merlot a lot and loved the Cabernet Franc, but at almost $50 a bottle it was beyond my price range.
More to my liking, way more, was Eagle Ridge, which my sister turned me onto. It's located a couple miles out of town on a pretty stretch of Tesla Rd. and sits on a ridge overlooking the eastern valley and up towards towering Mt. Diablo, which sometimes gets dusted with snow in winter.
Owner Jim Perry and his wife collect antiques, and the big barn/tasting room (see photo) is filled with curios of all sorts; Miss Teenage America posters, eagle statues, an old clock, a cowboy statue and lots more. Perry poured me a great glass of their 2007 Petite Sirah and some of their MadLyn port, both of which came in at less than $30 and both of which came home with me.
There are several great towns in the Tri-Valley. I've always been a fan of the town of Pleasanton, with lots of great shopping and food spots on a beautiful main street. The town of Dublin is more suburban but has some good spots, including a branch of Casper's Hot Dogs, the best dogs on the planet. San Ramon also is part of the Tri-Valley and also has a suburban feel, but with lots of upscale restaurants and a pretty setting in the valley. Just to the north, Danville has more of an old-time feel with plenty of excellent shops and fun food spots.
Be sure to take a drive out MInes Rd. from Livermore and follow the signs to Lake Del Valle; a beautiful reservoir flanked by high, pretty hills that are as green as Ireland in spring (dusty brown in summer/fall, however) and dotted with majestic oak trees. A great spot for camping or kayaking/canoeing and for fishing, too.
If you've never stopped in the Tri-Valley, I highly recommend you give it a shot. You'll probably be pleasantly surprised at what you find so close to San Francisco.
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