[An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Eckert Estate Winery has been in their new tasting room for four months. The correct time is four weeks. We apologize for this error.]
The Livermore Valley Harvest Festival is held over Labor Day weekend every year. This year, the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association (LVWA) was kind enough to provide us with media passes for the big Sunday tasting. After the usual delays, we set out for Livermore’s Robertson Park, the transit hub for the tasting.
After navigating the check-in process, getting wristbands attached, and (important) picking up our glasses we were ready to go. The LVWA set up a complex bus system consisting of three different lines: red, blue, and green (see map above). To deal with the spread-out locations of the wineries, smaller producers had booths at Concannon and Wente. Many wineries had their parking lot entrances blocked, discouraging (but not eliminating) auto traffic. The bus system worked pretty well until about 3 pm when the drivers began taking lunch breaks. Note to LVWA: the driver and the bus are not connected at the hip. Having some spare drivers would have spared your guests long waits at some bus stops.
First Up: Steven Kent – La Rochelle
Steven Kent Mirassou remains the best winemaker in the Livermore Valley. His wines are easily the equal of those from Napa or Sonoma. He owns La Rochelle where the pinot noirs are made. Steven Kent wines are mostly cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay with some red Bordeaux-style blends (and some blends that Steve just plain likes). The two wineries were tasting three wines as part of the Harvest Festival.
The La Rochelle Abbondante red blend (Livermore Valley) is 50% Barbera from the Home Ranch Vineyard and 20% Petit Verdot, 20% Cabernet Franc and 10% Syrah from the Ghielmetti Vineyard. Alcohol 14.1%. Only 87 cases produced. $30.00. Easily the most approachable of the three, the Abbondante has dusty mushroom aromas with a luscious fig − raisin flavor. A medium finish with silky tannins rounds out this ready-to-drink marvel.
The 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Livermore Valley is meant to be a Livermore Valley interpretation of Cabernet: rich, dense fruit on entry, an expansive mid-palate, and structured tannins on the finish. Age this puppy at least three years before drinking. The wine is 87% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Ghielmetti Estate Vineyard; Home Ranch; and the Folkendt Vineyard; 13% Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. The fruit came in with brix levels of just over 25o and a complex, ripe flavor profile. Alcohol 14.4%. At $48 per bottle, we don’t have the patience for this wine, but younger collectors will find it a welcome addition to their cellars.
The La Rochelle 2009 Santa Lucia Highlands pinot noir was loaded with tannins. At $38, it’s still too much for us to wait. My guesstimate is that this wine will need at least eight years down time before those tannins begin to blend. One thing that won’t change over time is the alcohol level which tops 15%. A pinot noir for zinfandel lovers.
Steven Kent, like many other wineries, was hosting an add-on experience. For $5 each we got to taste three single-vineyard cabs paired with some excellent cheese. The Home Ranch 2009 cabernet sauvignon ($65) opens with a lovely chocolate aroma, with black and red fruit flavors. While this wine is drinkable now, the combination of acid and tannins means it will be even better in a few years. The winemaker notes that the wine should improve over 10 – 15 years, much too long for our planning horizon. Alcohol 14.2%. This was our favorite.
The 2009 Folkendt Vineyard cab ($65) is not as drinkable today as the Home Ranch. However it is more drinkable than the Smith Ranch (following paragraph). From the winemaker notes, “Cassis and black plum are enrobed in bittersweet chocolate in the round mid-palate, and this wine offers a gorgeously long and detailed finish of fine-grained tannins and chocolate-scented oak.” Age for a minimum of two years. Like the Home Ranch, this wine will develop over 10 − 15 years’ cellaring.
Finally the 2009 Smith Ranch cab ($65) will test the patience of anyone with a decent cellar. From the winery notes about the Folkendt, Smith Ranch is “black fruit and tight structure … the black, brooding quality of the fruit and the significant tannin from mid-palate to finish. As the wine opens up, additional aromas of toasty oak, and black raspberry come to the fore. The massiveness of this wine is leavened by an obvious and welcome sense of minerality in the mouth.” Eight years minimum in the cellar is our recommendation. The winery notes say it will continue to improve over 10 − 15 years, but my guess is that it might be even better after 20 years. Way, way beyond our planning horizon.
The Concannon Cluster
After a short hike up the road, we caught the Blue Line to Concannon Vineyards. This winery has been a mainstay of the Livermore Valley forever, claiming to be the first winery in California to make a petite sirah. We’re not fond of petite sirah. We visited them because they were hosting seven smaller wineries. The most notable were En Garde, Page Mill (notable for their very good wine and spectacular tasting room), and Darcie Kent (no relation).
Darcie Kent gets special mention for their Grüner Veltliner, Rava Blackjack vineyard ($18, serious bargain). Lime and peach aromas give way to pure white peaches on the palate. The best way to describe this grape is about 1/3 of the way between a sylvaner riesling and a gewurtztraminer. These grapes are always tricky, so hats off to Darcie Kent for getting it right. Alcohol 13.0%. We never thought we’d see the day when a 13% wine would taste light.
The Northeast Group
We caught the Blue Line back to Robertson Park where we transferred to the … Blue Line. The driver of the first bus was breaking for lunch so we had to wait for another bus — whose driver was also scheduled for lunch. The second driver took pity on us and postponed his break to make one more circuit.
Eckert Estate was our first stop. We visited them when they first opened ten years ago. The tasting room was the front part of a double-wide mobile home. They just moved into their new tasting room four weeks ago. The next time someone tells you it’s impossible to succeed in the wine business, Eckert Estate is a good counterexample.
Of their wines our favorite was the 2010 chardonnay. Untouched by oak and with no malolactic fermentation, the chardonnay grapes are free to show off their green apple, pear, and lemon grass characteristics. This was the bargain of the day at $10.99. For the Harvest Festival, Eckert brought back what was once a tradition in California: letting the customers bottle the wine. We fondly remember the old Gemello Winery in Mountain View where customers could literally bring their own jugs and bottle wine on the spot. Just for the Harvest Festival, the Eckerts made a blend of several red wines. (I believe one was malbec, but my record-keeping became less accurate as the afternoon progressed.) For about $10 customers were invited to bottle the wine using Eckert’s equipment, bottles, and corks. The operation was old-fashioned with a single-bottle filling device and a single-bottle corker.
We weren’t interested in the wine, but luckily for us Melissia and Leland Sanchez were ready to take on the task of bottling. Residents of nearby Hayward, Melissia has a photo studio (510.755.9714, email@example.com, not an endorsement, just a plug for our unpaid photo models). Here’s Leland demonstrating the process.
At Nottingham we enjoyed the 2011 Chardonnay (Arroyo Seco, Monterey County, $28), with its aromatics and flavors of Asian Pear, citrus, lychee nut and banana chip. But we did think it was a little overpriced for what was delivered.
Occasio ["Occasio aegre offertur, facile amittitur (the right moment comes along rarely and is easily lost ")] was pouring a pinot gris ($19) and a merlot ($32). Both were competently produced, but neither is a particular favorite of ours.
Longevity was tasting a merlot ($26) and offered a Bordeaux-style blend which unfortunately was gone. As far as I can tell, this wine was the 2008 Philosophy. According to the winemaker notes, “the 2008 blend displays aromas of sweet black current jam, with hints of black cherry, smoke, and flowers. Aged in French oak for 34 months, this structured, full-bodied, and opulently-textured wine, is thick, rich, and youthful. This 2008 classic will reward you handsomely with another 2 to 3 years of cellaring, or drink now after a good breathing. 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, 11% Petit Verdot, and 2% Malbec.” Sure would have been nice to have a sip.
The Longevity tasting room features a mockup of what’s either an old-fashi0ned one-room schoolhouse or a California mission. With so much going on, we didn’t get a chance to ask, but thought you’d enjoy seeing it.
We initially thought that the name “Longevity” was making a statement about the health benefits of wine. We were only partly right. The owner is Phil Long.
And That’s a Day …
… and a very good day, indeed. The only downside was some of the bus service. Bus arrivals became increasingly erratic as the afternoon progressed. The 90 degree heat didn’t help attendees’ mood. And at least one bus had broken air conditioning. We rode that bus for about 15 minutes. After we disembarked, Norma asked me to get the car and come pick her up. The car was at the other end of the very large parking lot, about a ten minute walk. I happily acceded to her request.
When we visit the area we like to stay in the Rose Hotel in Pleasanton. That’s a spectacular boutique hotel, but it’s pricey. Since the Harvest Festival was centered on the neighboring city of Livermore, we stayed in the Courtyard Marriott just north of I-580. (The Marriott was a partner with the LVWA in the festival, so we got a slightly reduced rate.) It happens that the Marriott is on Constitution Drive in Livermore, a hotel cluster with very convenient access to I-580 westbound. There’s also a Costco just east of the hotel (although not walking distance). We’ll give this option serious consideration the next time we’re headed out to the Livermore Valley.