Napa Envy: Wine 

But that begs the question: Just how good are the wines?

It was a hot August Saturday in Livermore, but Tenuta Vineyards was just getting warmed up. Fat grapes hung from the vines striping the hills surrounding Ron and Nancy Tenuta's Tuscan-style villa. Inside the tasting room, a foursome of women in khaki shorts and blond highlights gathered around the curved bar, merrily swilling wine and gossip. Out back, in a warehouse open to a landscape of gold, green, and blue, Ron oversaw a half-dozen sweaty volunteers who were bottling and labeling wine.

Those may have been the last calm days the Tenutas saw this year. One week later, the 24th Annual Harvest Wine Celebration brought thousands of people to the winery, and the Tenutas' crushpad whirled into high gear, the kick-off to three months of winemaking insanity.

The tall, athletic Tenutas are the kind of couple you spot at Blackhawk Grille swapping stock tips over eighty-dollar bottles of Bordeaux. Five years ago, they'd never made a bottle of wine. Ron worked for Diebold and Nancy shepherded their two teenagers around Pleasanton, spending her free time on the Web trading tech stocks. But Diebold had been shuttling the Tenutas back and forth across the country for years, and Nancy could sense another move coming on. It would be her eighteenth house in twenty-some years of marriage. This time she put her foot down. Or, rather, her roots. "I wanted my kids to go to California colleges," she said.

Signature Properties was selling twenty-acre vineyards in South Livermore, and it seemed like a good opportunity to escape the corporate stranglehold. Ron took viticulture classes at UC Davis, and the couple invested millions of dollars into building out the property, pushing themselves to the brink of economic ruin.

Tenuta Vineyards opened its doors in 2003. The couple's multifaceted business plan -- growing fourteen acres of grapes, making wines for eighteen different clients, running a tasting room where they sell their own vintages, and hosting parties and corporate team-building exercises -- is barely three years old. They're already operating above full capacity. "We are churning the front end, the back end, and the middle end," Nancy said, her satisfaction tinged with relief.

Right place, right time for the Tenutas to join the Livermore Valley winemaking boom. According to Lynn Wallace, executive director of the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association, in 2000 the region was home to sixteen wineries. That number has since doubled to 32, with several more slated to open in the next year. Sixty additional families grow grapes on their property.

But that's not all. Two of California's biggest wine producers run large operations out of the valley, and Wallace claims that half a million people every year drive in to do a little wine tasting. Just as critically, Livermore now thinks of itself as a winemaking region. Even the housing developments have oenological names: Vinsanto, the Cooperage, Private Reserve, Vineyard Gate. From open-mic nights to Shakespearean plays, more and more of the city's cultural life plays out at the wineries, and wine pride is helping the city become the thinking person's suburb. "When we lived in Danville, this was a cowtown," Nancy said. "Everyone wants to be here now."

All of which raises the question: Why hasn't Livermore taken its place as one of California's premium wine-growing areas?

One hundred and fifty-nine years after Robert Livermore planted the first commercial vines in the valley, 126 years after a local white won California's first medal in an international wine competition, and three decades after Napa popped the cork heard 'round the world, the Livermore valley remains an upstart.

"There are a handful of Livermore wineries that are making good wines," said James Laube, Napa-based senior editor for Wine Spectator. "Wente, Concannon, Steven Kent have made excellent wine. But I don't think that they're as good as any of the top wines from other areas."

Charles Olken, publisher and editor of the thirty-year-old periodical Connoisseur's Guide to California Wines, put the valley's output in perspective: "Most of the wineries out there are small, and their wines don't circulate in the normal wine writers' circles," he said. "Livermore Valley wineries are, for the most part, wineries that are just above the mom-and-pop level. There's nothing wrong with that -- some of the best wines in California are made that way. They just don't get into the mainstream."

Getting noticed is quite a problem when your little region has 32 wineries compared to Napa's four hundred, and it can't help that the bulk of the grapes currently planted there are Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, two varietals that more established regions already have the lock on. Laube concedes that not many Livermore wines ever make it to his tasting table. "Not only areas like Livermore, but any small region in California is dwarfed by the bigger areas," he said. That means on the shelves, in the bank, and in the wine press.

"I have yet to be excited about anything wine-wise in Livermore, with a couple of exceptions," said Patrick Comiskey, a senior editor for Wine & Spirits magazine, who, like Laube, doesn't taste a lot of Livermore wines. "It seems as if people there are taking the trend of ripeness to a real extreme," yielding wines that Comiskey calls pruny and "not too terribly well balanced."

If Livermore hasn't become a renowned appellation, it's certainly not because of the climate. Stretching fifteen miles east to west and ten miles across, the Livermore Valley basin gets quite hot, but its orientation channels cooler air from the coast in the evening. Such a significant high-low temperature differential is key to producing grapes with concentrated, complex flavors. Janet Caprile, a farm adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension who specializes in Contra Costa and Alameda counties, says, "With grape-growing regions, we rate the climate from one to five based on the number of heat units that get accumulated. Livermore is generally a region three, which is a warm climate but has some bay influence." Other region three areas: Paso Robles, Cloverdale in Sonoma County, and Oakville and Calistoga in Napa County. "They all make excellent wine," she noted.


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