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.

It's not the soil, either. According to Caprile, South Livermore, which is where almost all the existing wineries are located, tends to have gravelly, clay loams, while the soil north of Interstate 580 is heavy clear lake clay. The latter may not support most types of agriculture -- it's currently used for raising hay or ranching -- but with water and the right rootstocks, wine grapes would do just fine there. "Grapes do better on what is called poorer-quality soil," Caprile said. "You want to put them on a soil that restricts their growth." Besides, climate trumps soil quality, and Livermore's climate is the real thing.

What may have kept Livermore Valley from scoring the acclaim of Napa, Sonoma, and Santa Barbara counties is simply that Alameda County took too long to make small-scale grape-growing and winemaking possible. All the capital and prestige flowed into other regions first.

"One of the limiting factors is simply the lack of cachet that Livermore has in the world, making it difficult for wineries to charge the prices that would allow them to be more modern and attract investment," Olken said. According to several growers in the region, Livermore grapes are fetching around $800 a ton, compared to $3,000 to $4,000 per ton for Napa grapes. Few wineries charge more than fifty dollars a bottle for their best stuff. Then again, sales of $100 bottles are down following the dot-com bust. By comparison, wine industry analyst Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates reports that sales of California wines priced $14 and up grew 10 percent in 2004.

The valley wine business has attracted quite a range of people, from pragmatists to romantics and greenhorns to pros. On one end of the spectrum is the Wente family, which owns 2,000 of the area's 4,000-5,000 acres of grapes and has been there for 125 years. Equally long-standing, Concannon Vineyards was acquired three years ago by the Wine Group, the nation's third-largest wine producer (think Franzia box wine). Winemakers such as Thomas Coyne, Steven Kent Mirassou, and Fran and Lanny Replogle of Fenestra Winery were attracted to the valley for its natural endowments and low land prices. Their boutique labels are aiming for national attention, and they're having some success.

On the other end of the spectrum are the many folks who have been living and working in the Livermore Valley for years. Passion for the local industry has inspired them to begin growing grapes and making wine on the smallest of scales, but they aren't about to quit their day jobs.

The Tenutas emblemize the latter group in many ways, only they're doing it bigger and smarter. When the South Livermore Valley Area Plan allowed landowners to sell hundred-acre parcels of agricultural land broken up into twenty-acre parcels -- provided that eighteen of those acres were used to grow crops -- the Wentes sold off ten such plots of grape-growing land in the 1990s. Signature Properties later launched a second wave as part of its Ruby Hill development, splitting six hundred acres into twenty-acre plots, complete with planted grapes and short-term winery purchase contracts. The Tenutas bought their land through Signature, and by contracting out their new wine production and storage capabilities, which come with the services of a full-time winemaker, they're enabling other micro-wineries to take off.

Some folks in the valley like to claim that the excitement and can-do spirit of these new winemakers recall the Napa and Sonoma of thirty years ago. But that's not an apt comparison. In those heady days of hot tubs and too-tannic Cabs, both Californian winemakers and the folks who bought their bottles were full of more enthusiasm than experience. According to Jim Lapsley, author of Successful Wine Marketing and the Napa winemaking history Bottled Poetry, "Life in early Napa wasn't easy, but it was more simple for the handful of people who were defining what quality wine was. Now there's so much more competition from all over the world."

Olken thinks big money from outside the valley is the key to turning Livermore into, say, the next Santa Ynez Valley, where Hollywood dollars have helped craft Pinot Noirs that have caught the public's imagination. (The movie Sideways also helped.) Wallace of the Winegrowers Association said big money is on its way, though she can't name specifics yet beyond The Wine Group's purchase of Concannon.

Karl Wente, the fifth-generation winemaker at Wente Vineyards, who has yet to see thirty, is channeling some of his family's sizable resources into a bid for global cachet. He's using the same labor-intensive techniques as Napa's millionaires -- extensive pruning, hand-sorting of grapes, pressing in small batches -- to craft Wente's Nth Degree vintages. In its first release, the Nth Degree Cabernet Sauvignon has impressed tastemakers such as Wine Spectator's Laube.

But the Wentes and the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association are trying to raise the valley's profile by focusing on a resource that early Napa didn't have: tourism.

The economic impact of tourism on winemaking is significant, because most of the region's boutique wineries sell their entire output directly to consumers. "If you are a small winery, it makes so much sense for you to sell your product direct," Lapsley said. "Your story gets told direct, and there's much more of a chance of bonding with that end consumer. You get incredibly better margins and you don't have to screw around with America's three-tier distribution system."

Olken breaks it down further. "If you sell your wine to a store, you're selling it at half to two-thirds the retail price," he reasoned. "So if you've got a bottle that cost you $8 to make and that retails for $20, selling it yourself nets you six times the amount of profit."

Hence the glossy marketing campaigns, events like the Harvest Wine Celebration, and the "Welcome to Livermore Valley Wine Country" sign on 580. Livermore is promoting itself as the down-home alternative to Napa, where the tastings are free and the traffic isn't stifling.

Marketing the region's potential before it has been fully realized may sound presumptuous, but it gives the winemakers time and funds to raise the quality of their goods. The rising-tide-lifts-all-boats approach is the main reason why everyone involved in wine in the valley talks up how collegial the enterprise is. The Wentes have provided practical support and advice to smaller outfits for years. Four small wineries recently banded together to form Tesla Vintners, a communal tasting room on the main drag of vintners' row. Phil Wente, Karl's uncle, is teaching a series of classes on grape-growing techniques to all the growers in the region to help them up their standards. The Tenutas, like many of the mom-and-pop shops in town, rely on a large corps of volunteers, locals who want to get involved in making wine and are willing to trade manual labor for oenological education and a few bottles of the end product.

The Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association's goal is to see fifty wineries in the valley within the next ten years. Wallace seems quite confident that the valley will achieve that. "So many folks focus on the number of acres and types of grapes grown in a region, but it's really the spirit of the region and its vision of itself that affects it long-term," Wallace said. "This region sees itself as fifty boutique wineries that offer fabulous guest experiences."

Their modest approach is working, even on the critics. "I like to tell people that you're going to run into the wineries of famous people in Napa, but in Livermore Valley you're likely to walk in and talk to the owner," Olken said. "I love to visit Livermore. Not because the wine is wonderful or not, but it's just a nice place to visit."


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