Monday, July 19, 2010

Exploring Concannon Vineyard and the Livermore California Wine Country

Due to the era of Prohibition, the plague of phylloxera, the Great Depression and two world wars much of California’s early historic wine culture has been nearly lost or forgotten.

So, while many people think associate California’s wine culture with the 1970’s, it actually began back in the 1800’s and there were many wine regions back then that today are but all forgotten.

One of those forgotten wine regions is the Livermore Valley.

In fact, while everybody has heard California’s victory in the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” that put Napa Valley on the wine map of the world, the first victory that was won not in 1976 by Château Montelena and Stagg’s Leap Cellars, but rather by a Livermore winery. It was Cresta Blanca Winery (founded 1882) and its first vintage in 1884 that won the Grand Prix at the 1889 Paris Exposition, becoming the first California wine to win a competition in France.

So, while everybody has heard about the Napa Valley, its neighboring cousin Sonoma and there has been a lot of talk about Santa Barbara’s Pinot Noir due to the movie “Sideways,” rarely if ever do you hear anybody talk or see anyone write about The Livermore Wine Country. 

However, while Livermore may seem somewhat obscure today, in the early 1960s Livermore had as much area under vine as Napa Valley. About the same time my own history in the Livermore Valley began. I was born in 1966, grew up in Walnut Creek and my family frequently drove to Livermore to visit my grandmother and my late uncle Dale Thomas (a founding member of the Livermore Fire Department) and his family. I remember back then seeing mostly cows, wide open fields and thinking, “This is way out in the country! Who would want to live here?”

Today Livermore is a sophisticated East Bay suburb of San Francisco with many fine restaurants and a booming wine country. In fact, when I first returned to the East Bay in the spring of 2000 (after completing my master’s degree in San Diego) the Livermore Valley had about only 18 wineries. But over the past decade it has grown to over 40 wineries and I would argue that quality of some wines produced here using Livermore grapes wines easily rival those of the Napa Valley.

I am convinced that as Livermore continues to find its niche and be true to its own nature, making wine that rightly reflect its terroir that it will grow to become world renown wine region.

What Livermore needs to do is find the grape varietal that is best suited for the region which I would argue is Petite Sirah and one of the regions leading producers is the second largest winery in Livermore is Concannon Vineyard which produces about 30,000 cases per year.

Concannon Vineyard was founded by James Concanno who traveled to the United States from Ireland and began making wines in Livermore Valley in 1883. Concannon was the first winery to produce Petite Sirah in the United States and they continue to produce world-class Rhône style wines today.

I first visited Concannon about ten years ago and recently I returned to find that they have made remarkable improvements. The dusty driveway has been paved, the old white Victorian house that once sat idly on the corner of the property has been renovated and moved to the center stage of the vineyards adjacent to the newly paved parking lot, the old cellar room has been converted to a lovely patio with a water fountain and the tasting room has been completely remodeled.
I tasted 8 of their wines last Saturday including the first was the 2009 Pinot Grigio ($10), the 2008 Viognier ($15), the 2008 Righteously Rose ($10), the 2008 Reserve Pinot Noir ($30), the 2006 Grenache, the 2007 Merlot, the 2006 Syrah ($25), the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon ($25), the 2006 Captain Joe’s Petite Sirah ($30) and the 2006 Reserve Petite Sirah ($38).

Of all these the 2009 Pinot Grigio and the two Petite Sirah’s stood out as the best of the lineup.

The Pinot Grigio has crisp acidity with fresh lemon zest on the nose and palate with a slight chalky minerality and a clean lingering finish. I brought six bottles home and opened two of them on Sunday during lunch with some friends which really well with the Taco Salad that was served. This is a great summer wine and a steal at only $10 a bottle.

For more information about Concannon Vineyards, check out their web site at: