Livermore's Wood Family Vineyards
Livermore’s Wood Family Vineyards

Long before there was a national energy lab and towering wind turbines dotting the hills nearby, there were vineyards. In fact, winemaking in Livermore Valley goes all the way back to the Spanish missionaries. Some of the only wineries to survive Prohibition in California are located here. The historic Wente and Concannon wineries now anchor a growing wine region with more than forty wineries, many of them boutique wine producers with tasting rooms along main thoroughfares like Tesla Road.

The Livermore Valley: Worth a visit
The Livermore Valley may be lesser known than its neighbors to the northwest, but the region (which spans six cities) is producing some award-winning wines on par with those from Sonoma and Napa. If you want to spend less time and money on a wine country visit, Livermore Valley, generally, has more modest tasting fees and bottle prices than Sonoma or Napa. I also found the winemakers to be more accessible.

A couple of recent trips to Livermore wine country gave me the chance to sample the region’s wares. Here are a few smaller wineries I think are worth exploring:

Rhonda Wood, Winemaker at Wood Family Vineyards
Rhonda Wood, Winemaker at Wood Family Vineyards

Wood Family Vineyards
What does a former U.S. Airways pilot do when she is no longer flying commercial jetliners? She makes wine, of course. Rhonda Wood, a local favorite, used to make beer but eventually caught the wine bug. She taught herself to make wine by reading books, attending UC Davis extension classes and volunteering at wineries. In 2000 she and her husband, Michael, started Wood Family Vineyards. They consistently sell out of their wine through a mailing list and events that they hold at their Livermore Valley vineyard home. The day I visited I noticed something I don’t generally hear in a barrel room — local female folk rock vocalists blaring over the speakers. Wood is one of few female winemakers I have interviewed. She says, as a pilot, she is used to working in a male dominated world and if she has encountered obstacles, she doesn’t mention them. Her attitude about awards, and she has won several of them, is equally matter of fact. “How many awards do you need,” she asked me. After tasting through about a half dozen of her wines, I had a favorite — a smooth, rich, 2009 Zinfandel from Livermore Valley ($28).

Jim Frost, Winemaker at Auburn James
Jim Frost, Winemaker at Auburn James. Photo: Stevie M. Sturla

Auburn James
Jim Frost makes wine that knocked my socks off. This English born former engineer is kind of a winemaker’s winemaker. The strong silent type, Frost seems more comfortable working behind the scenes making hits like his 2009 Auburn James Diablo Rosso ($60), an Alamo Tennat and Cab Blend that he creates with a custom crush client. This is a rich, balanced wine with red fruits including a hint of rhubarb. I also enjoyed a very nice, more affordable Pinot Noir ($34) and a 2008 Viognier ($30) that I am still trying to decide if I like. On the nose it’s a ripe, juicy apricot but on the palate I tasted cloves and bitters. This is a very interesting wine that pairs well with spicy food. In fact, pairing wine is what Frost likes to do, he doesn’t think of it, as many Americans do, as a stand alone beverage.

Auburn James tasting room in Danville
Auburn James tasting room in Danville

Frost may spend much of his time at his winery in Livermore but I could set up camp at his handsome, comfortable tasting room in Danville. Frost and his partner, Matt Ospeck, opened the wine tasting room last year. They focus on premier wines and they are at the pricier end for Livermore Valley. A light menu of nibbles and small plates is designed to pair with glasses and flights of wines. Another tip, try the 2008 Bella Vista Napa Valley Cab. If the $75 dollar bottle price is too expensive, you can try it by the glass or with a flight.

Collin Cranor, Winemaker at Nottingham Cellars
Collin Cranor, Winemaker at Nottingham Cellars

Nottingham Cellars
The owners of this family run winery may have reached into the past to come up with the name Nottingham, the original name of Livermore, but they have looked to the future in hiring their winemaker, Collin Cranor. At 26 years old, he’s among the youngest in California and is scoring high points from critics. Cranor has got the passion and a great attitude. I am a big fan of wine on tap and first took notice of Nottingham after trying a reasonably priced, tasty, red blend on tap at Toast in Oakland. On a visit to Nottingham Cellars I tasted through several other hand-crafted varietals.

Bottles of wine from Nottingham Cellars
Bottles of wine from Nottingham Cellars

My top picks from Nottingham included a 2009 Cab from Livermore, due out this fall ($44). This was a winner, chalky, earthy and spicy. I also liked the 2010 Rhone Red blend, Awakening ($36). A slightly less expensive choice is Ralphi’s Blend with hints of espresso and raspberry ($30).

There are other outstanding wines being made in Livermore including wines from McGrail and Steven Kent. But don’t trust me, taste for yourself. Livermore is holding its 31st Annual Harvest Wine Celebration on Sunday, September 2nd and Monday, September 3rd between noon and 5 p.m. Area wineries will offer wine, food, art and music to ticket holders. Bus transportation between wineries will be available on Sunday. Contact the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association for more details.

Today’s Winemakers Put Livermore Valley Vineyards Back On The Map 22 August,2012

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