Napa Envy: Wine 

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

Page 2 of 3

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."


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