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:

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Wild West Wine Tasting at the Most Wanted Wine Co. – Oakdale California

On Saturday July 10th while visiting some friends in Oakdale California, the heart of the “Cowboy Capital of the World,” I visited a unique tasting room located downtown across from the park and Cowboy Museum - The Most Wanted Wine Company, a boutique winery with some mean estate grown Cabernet Sauvignon! 

Not to be confused with Oakville California in the Napa Valley, the City of Oakdale is located in Stanislaus County approximately 15 miles northeast of Modesto at the base of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  So, if you’re headed to Yosemite or Pine Crest in the Sierra Foothills you’ll pass right through Oakdale along the way, as it is the gateway to Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevada foothills from Highway 120. 

Husband-and-wife owners Mark and Angela Garcia, also run Garcia Family Bail Bonds, which goes fits right in with the “Most Wanted” Cowboy theme that sets the atmosphere for their tasting room.  The 800-square-foot room is decorated in rustic Western motif, with converted wine barrels serving as tables and guns from the 1800s on the wall. And if you happen drop by on Friday night the tasting room also features live music with eclectic mix of acoustic piano, bluegrass and classic rock performers.

My friends and I tasted four wines - the 2007 Chardonnay, the 2006, 2007 and the yet to be released 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Garcia Family Vineyard in Oakdale. 

The 2007 Chardonnay is from grapes sourced from the Russian River in Santa Rosa. It is a well balanced white wine with notes of lemon and grapefruit on the nose and palate with great acidity. While it has a rounded creamy feel on the palate it isn’t over oaked or overly buttery. A nice wine at $38 a bottle.

Their small production Cabernet Sauvignon comes from 8.2 acres of estate vineyard that were planted in 2000 in Oakdale and their first bottling was in 2006. Their first vintage had notes of dried fruit (a slight raisin character) but there were significant improvements in the 2007 and 2008 which they attribute to the refining of their vineyard management. The ’07 and ’08 are big, bold full bodied wines with loads of black berry, black currants, and just a hint of vanilla on the back end. The ’08 also had hints of cocoa and coffee and it seemed more layered from start to finish with more refinement in evolution in the mid palate and a prolonged finish. The 2006 and 2007 sell for $38 and the yet-to-be related ’08 was not yet priced. But I was blessed to be allowed to bring home both a bottle of the ’07 and the ’08 which did not last beyond our Sunday night barbeque – they were just too good!

At the time of my visit the tastings cost $10 per person which includes pours of all three their wines, 2007 Chardonnay, the 2006 and the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Most Wanted Wine Co.’s tasting room is in downtown Oakdale at 154 S. Yosemite Ave., Suite B, across from the park and Cowboy Museum.  They are open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. 

For more information, call 1-209-847-9463 or go to

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Wine Tasting Adventures at Clos LaChance Winery in the Santa Clara Valley

With sunny and warm weather in the forecast the 4th of July weekend is a popular time to go to the beach, take a boat out on a lake or head out to the wine country. But places like Napa and Sonoma were sure to be very crowded, with heavy traffic and long waiting lines to get into a restaurant.  So, on  Saturday July 3rd I decided to go to a little known rarely if ever talked about wine country about 40 south minutes of San Jose California and the Silicon Valley.

The Santa Clara Valley American Viticulture Area (AVA) includes Gilroy, Hecker Pass, Morgan Hill and San Martin. There are 25 wineries in the area with Chardonnay being the dominant grape, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel. But there are also a lot of great Rhone varietals such as Vigonier, Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre.

My first winery of the day was Sarah’s Vine which I had been to before in September 2008, but since then they hired a new wine maker and began producing Rhone varietals. You can read about my review of Sarah’s Vine and other wineries I visited on that trip at:


Clos LaChance Winery

My next stop was at Clos LaChance Winery. The name “Clos” refers to a French term meaning enclosed, but more specifically a walled vineyard and “LaChance” is from co-owner Brenda Murphy’s maiden name. 

What began in 1987, as a few rows of Chardonnay in their Saratoga backyard for landscaping purposes grew into a full fledged winery with their first commercially released wines being released with 1992 vintage.

Clos LaChance Winery has 150 acres of Estate Vineyards planted to numerous varieties. When I visited the tasting room they pouring one sparkling wine, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Syrah/Grenache Rose, a Vigonier and three Chardonnays. They also were poring ten red wines including three Pinot Noirs, a Grenache, a Rhone Blend, a Zinfandel, two Cabernet Sauvignons, a Bordeaux blend Mertiage and a Petite Syrah.

My first was the 2009 Estate Viognier. This wine has a huge floral nose which is evident without even putting your nose into the glass followed by dried apricots, oranges, peaches and pears. I loved this wine and I thought $22 was just about right so I brought a bottle home.

My first red was the 2007 Biagini Vineyard Pinot Noir. This Pinot is definitely more intense and a deeper red than your typical Pinot Noir and unfortunately they were using Pinot Noir stemware and I forgot to bring mine along. Consequently the nose seemed to be a bit muted although I was able to pick up some raspberry jam, a little cherry. On the palate, the dominate fruit is big cherry with a little mushroomy earthiness on the back end. Whole I enjoyed this wine, for $50 I know of many other Pinots I prefer at around the $35 such as those at Roessller Cellars in Sonoma which you can read about at:

For my next red wine I chose the 2006 Estate Grenache. I wasn’t thrilled with this wine as it seemed like a one chord song – “G”. It was dark and earthy with some plum notes but there wasn’t any mid palate transition and the finish seemed rather short so I wasn’t going to lay down $30 for this one.

For my third red wine I chose the 2007 Lila’s Cuvee Rhone Blend. A blend of 40% Greanche, 20% Syrah, 15% Alicante Bouchet, 5% Cinsault and 5% Petit Syrah this is a HUGE improvement over the previous wine, with layers of dried plums, raspberries, cocoa, a hint of coffee and a little forest floor. But for $50 I thought it was a bit steep and I know of similar wines for a lot less. For a comparable wine, check out Zaca Mesa’s Cuvee (59% Grenache,  23% Mourvèdre,  15% Syrah,  and 3% Cinsaut) which sells for about $18 at BevMo and other wine retailers. 

My fourth red wine was the 2005 Whitestone Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. After I swirled and smelled this wine I immediately said to Amy, who was pouring my wines, “WOW! This wine is definitely a nose full of Black Currant Preserves!” This is a bold Cabernet Sauvignon with very intense and dense fruit on the nose and palate. A fairly complex wine with additional layers of dark plum, blackberries with a little vanilla on the return with a prolonged long, silky smooth finish. I thought the $40 was a fair price so I brought a bottle home.

My fifth red wine was the 2006 Special Selection Series Meritage. A Bordeaux blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Petit Verdot, 18% Merlot and 4% Malbec this wine was not as impressive on the nose as the previous wine as it seemed a lot more “laid back” and subtle. But perhaps the order of the tasting needed to be change since the Whitestone Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was so overwhelming. This wine had aromas of cherries, subtle notes of black currants and a hint of mint/ and just a whiff of herbaceous notes. The wine sells for $50 and for $10 less I would rather buy another bottle of the Whitestone Cab. 

The final wine of the day was the 2006 Estate Petite Syrah. True to is varietal character, this wine is inky, dark opaque purple with powered cocoa, plums and blackberries on the nose, with a hint of vanilla and pepper. A fair price at $28 a bottle.

If you want more information about this winery check out their web site ( and if visit tell them you heard about them on California Wine Tasting Adventures and tell them Erik Wait sent you!

To see more pictures, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography at: