Livermore Valley might be the least-known major California wine region.
I think it's fair to call it a major region. Livermore has two big companies -- Wente Vineyards and the Wine Group's flagship, Concannon Vineyard. It has more than 120 years of continuous winemaking history, and more than 40 wineries today.
What it hasn't had until now is a guidebook. And that's a surprise, because Livermore Valley is a popular weekend wine-tasting destination that's less than an hour drive from San Francisco and San Jose.
I'm not going to tell you that Livermore makes better wines than Napa Valley. But I will say this -- if I had to pay the tasting fees, which these days in Calistoga are edging up above $25 per person, I would rather cruise around Livermore. You'll actually meet and chat with the winemakers. It's a non-glitzy experience that's increasingly hard to find in California (another great spot, Hopland, is nowhere near as convenient.)
Of course, it's much harder to plan even a day trip without a guidebook. There's a good map on the Winegrowers Association's official website, but because it's an association, it can't give you any advice about who (or who not) to visit without irritating a member.
Unfortunately, Thomas Wilmer, author of "The Wine Seeker's Guide to Livermore Valley," isn't a wine writer, so he avoids qualitative judgments. But the good news is that Wilmer is an excellent travel writer, which means that he wrote good descriptions and if you read carefully, you should be able to figure out which wineries you're likely to like.
The absence of criticism is more jarring in the restaurant section than for the wineries. It's easy to tell that Wilmer likes the Restaurant at Wente Vineyards because he gives it more space (2 1/2 pages) than any other. (I second Wilmer -- that's a fantastic restaurant.) But does it mean he doesn't like Izzy's Steaks & Chops because he gives it only two sentences? I'm not sure.
As a writer, I learned something: readers will accept platitude-only copy about wineries more easily than about restaurants. Or maybe that's just me.
Anyway, this blog post is far more prickly than the book, but also less useful. Wilmer doesn't tell you that Thomas Coyne is worth a visit and Retzlaff Estate isn't, and rereading the sections, I'm not sure you could discern that. But he does capture the spirit of both places well, and he gives the tasting room hours, tasting fees, and varieties made -- all things you need from a guidebook.
I'm not going to pretend to be a guide to Livermore Valley; I have visited only occasionally. But I'll supplement the book and say a weekend itinerary should include:
* Cedar Mountain Winery
* Concannon Vineyard
* Mitchell Katz Winery
* Occasio Winery
* Thomas Coyne Winery
* Dinner at Wente Vineyards
And I'll leave it to Wilmer's book to give you the phone numbers, hours, etc. Order the book here.
And while you've got your credit card out, my advertiser, Wine Chateau, is running a special on Wine Gift Baskets and Discount Wine: Buy 6 or more bottles and get half-off shipping with coupon code "blake68". Fortify yourself for the long, potentially dry week before you get to Livermore Valley.