Small plates and wine at Murrieta’s Well Winery in Livermore. Photo: Stacy Flinner
Small plates and wine at Murrieta’s Well Winery in Livermore. Photo: Stacy Flinner

If you like wine and food and haven’t visited Livermore Valley recently, Labor Day is an opportune weekend to venture eastward. Only 35 miles from Berkeley, Livermore Valley is a hidden vinous gem boasting more than 50 wineries.

Livermore’s great diversity includes Wente Vineyards, the country’s oldest, continuously operating winery under the same family ownership, and Concannon Vineyard, the flagship winery of The Wine Group, one of the largest wine companies in the world. In addition, there are many smaller wineries in venues from ‘bistro modern’ to ‘refurbished bar’n and ‘cottage-comfortable.’

Over the holiday weekend the valley will be celebrating its annual harvest, but that’s not the only reason — or time — to visit.

Celebrate the harvest

Most Livermore Valley wineries will be open during Labor Day weekend and more than 30 will participate in special harvest programs. The admission price for the 35th Annual Harvest Wine Celebration, a casual, two-day wine party, is $45 in advance and $55 the day of the event, and it includes a tasting flight of several wines at participating wineries and a commemorative Livermore Valley wine glass. The wineries will present music, local vendors and noshing opportunities, and some offer discounts on wine purchases.

Harvest Wine Celebration 2015 at Crooked Vine Winery. Photo: Crooked Vine Winery

At Charles R Vineyards, sip and paint your take-home artwork during the “Paint a Posy with Your Favorite Red Wine” activity. Grab a paint brush and dip into containers of three red wines — lighter, medium and darker colored. Local crafters will sell their wares, and an artist will demonstrate palmagami, the art of palm frond weaving. At Eckert Estate Winery, you can bottle and take home your own wine for just $10. Owner Mike Eckert supplies guidance, wine, bottles, corks, and commemorative labels. The only Livermore Valley winery with a licensed distillery, Eckert will also demonstrate brandy distilling. A spirits tasting flight of Eckert vodka, gin, brandy, orange spice brandy and raspberry eau de vie is $10.

Over at Retzlaff Winery, listen to jazz, nosh on wood-fired pizza, and learn about the production of corks — the winery boasts a living cork oak on property and cork display. Of special note: Retzlaff is the only Livermore facility making wine from estate vineyards that are CCOF certified organic. And at the Wente Estate Tasting Room and Winemakers Studio, you can enjoy music and classic Wente reds and whites. For an additional cost, sample the full line of Wente wines, the barrel tasting and the food menu at the winery’s Wood Fire Kitchen. At the Winemakers Studio, learn about Wente’s wine blending and wine aroma programs and order Peach Bellinis and Pomegranate Mojitos by the growler or glass. The Harvest Wine Festival takes place Sept. 4 through Sept. 5. Learn more about the event on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Taste wine at an airport

Okay, we’re not talking cult Napa cabs at SFO. But consider this: The City of Livermore hosts its annual open house and air show at Livermore Municipal Airport, minutes from local wine country, Oct. 1. This year you can watch aerobatics by well-known air show pilots, gawk at vintage planes and cars, shop local vendors, listen to music, and for the first time, taste wine from 25 top Livermore Valley wineries. The latest vintages from Concannon Vineyard, Garré Winery, Nottingham Cellars, Darcie Kent Vineyards and more are included in the tasting fee: “Solo Flights” for $20 or “My Co-Pilot and I” for $40 with commemorative glasses. Food Truck Mafia will serve food. Bonus? Entrance to the event, and its plentiful parking spaces, is free. Learn more about the event here. The Livermore Municipal Airport is at 636 Terminal Cir., Livermore.

Enjoy a relaxed wine tasting at the revamped Murrieta’s Well

Murrieta’s Well CEO Carolyn Wente at the reopening of the property in June 2016. Photo: Deborah Grossman
Murrieta’s Well CEO Carolyn Wente at the reopening of the property in June 2016. Photo: Deborah Grossman

The cowboy history of Livermore is honored at Murrieta’s Well. The historic artesian well anchors the recently expanded front lawn and patio. In the Gold Rush era, a Mexican vaquero (cowboy) and bandito named Joaquin Murrieta set up camp here to water his horses. A few decades later Frenchman Louis Mel built a winery. In the 1930s the Wente Family bought the estate, and in 1990 Phil Wente renamed the property Murrietta’s Well, refurbished the old winery and planted its 500 acres with 20 different grape varieties.

During this spring’s major upgrade, the winery added a kitchen for tapas-style food to pair with its small lot wines on the patio and on the wood-beamed, second-floor “Tasting Bar.” The menu features wine-friendly shrimp and Dungeness crab sliders, charcuterie boards, and eggplant Parmesan flatbread. Among the 14 estate wines are blends such as The Whip, an aromatic white, and The Spur, a well-balanced red, and Zarzuela, a rich red blend of Spanish, Portuguese and French varietals. If you’re headed to Murrieta’s Well for harvest, take note that the featured harvest celebration wines are a small lot muscat canelli and a tempranillo. Murrieta’s Well is at 3005 Mines Rd., Livermore. Connect with the winery on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Dine on fine food with your wine

Nonna’s gravy and pasta at Garré Café. Photo: Garré Winery
Nonna’s gravy and pasta at Garré Café. Photo: Garré Winery

Garré Café This café overlooks a small vineyard uphill from the Garré Winery and Tasting Room. The wood tables, Tuscan-yellow colored walls and row of comfortable banquettes evoke a casual, wine country ambiance. Open daily for lunch and dinner on the weekends, the café has evolved into a locals’ favorite.

Bob Molinaro of Pleasanton built the winery and small café, which is dedicated to his grandmother Nonna Rosa Garré. When the larger restaurant and event center opened in 2014, Abe Ahmari joined as chef. Trained in Spain and experienced in Bay Area restaurants, Ahmari developed a menu with Mediterranean and Cajun influences. The appetizer plate of fried Castelvetrano olives is addictive, and the flatbreads are generously topped with fresh ingredients. Other specialties are chipotle prawns, braised short ribs, seafood risotto and chicken marsala.

Ahmari faithfully executes Nonna Rosa’s meatballs and pasta and gravy — Rosa hailed from Genoa, where they made gravy and not “tomato sauce.” The secret gravy ingredient, said Ahmari, is the dried porcini mushrooms, and the meatballs benefit from the punch of Italian sausage added to the requisite pork and beef. Ahmari recommends pairing the dish with the fruity Garré primitivo.

Garré Winery’s 2011 Petite Sirah, which won gold at the 2016 San Francisco International Wine Competition, pairs well with the bold flavors of the half-pound Cowboy Burger with brie and remoulade dressing. The beverage menu offers beverage reasonably priced international wines, classic cocktails and creative house selections such as the “Sparkling Sunset” with Garré sparkling wine, rum and pineapple. The Garré Café is at 7986 Tesla Rd., Livermore. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The main dining room at The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards. Photo: The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards

The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards For Mike Ward, cooking at Wente Vineyards is a chef’s playground. The executive chef sources his top cuts from the rancher who raises cattle on Wente’s land and coordinates which vegetables to plant on the one-acre plot with the Wente master gardener. The in-house farmer-florist designs the stunning arrangement in the dining room and tends his flower garnishes.

Established 30 years ago, The Restaurant is Livermore’s culinary jewel. Bathed in natural light from tall windows, the main dining room is white-tablecloth elegant, but the service is decidedly unstuffy. In good weather, the patio opens to the natural amphitheater where summer concerts are held.

The former executive chef for Tyler Florence and Sammy Hagar at El Paseo in Mill Valley, Ward has already made his mark on the menu with his layering of textures and flavors. His crispy Gulf shrimp shine with a dollop of green goddess dressing and a fresh burst of avocado purée and micro-basil. Describing his food as approachable, Ward said, “Pick up the shrimp, and eat it with your fingers.”

Ward upgraded the restaurant’s signature pork chop to heritage Berkshire pork and oversees the 23-day, dry-aging process of its all-natural Wente beef. Ward recommends pairing the Wente bone-in ribeye with the new, small production red blend from Wente’s Winemakers Studio, the Winemakers Selection Lot No. 001.

For a winery restaurant, it’s refreshing to find a low markup for Wente wines and to sample their rare, small lot wines alongside an excellent selection of Livermore, American and international options. Seasonal cocktails with garden ingredients are exemplified by the Green Barrel (barrel aged gin, muddled cucumber and arugula, house tarragon bitters). The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards is at 5050 Arroyo Rd., Livermore. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Seek out hidden winery gems

BoaVentura wine tasting on the winery lawn. Photo: BoaVentura Vineyards

BoaVentura de Caires Winery Visiting BoaVentura, at the far southeastern corner of Livermore, reminds you that Livermore’s rural nooks remain extant. In 1999, realtor Brett de Caires purchased a five-acre ranch which soon became their home. De Caires planted grapes in the three micro-climate zones on property from the low, cooler creek bed to the hotter, rocky hillside. The name for the winery came easily — his grandfather, BoaVentura Baptiste de Caires, left the Portuguese-owned island of Madeira to settle in Oakland. De Caires fondly remembers his childhood family meals set with wine, milk and port.

Featuring repurposed and recycled materials, the eclectic tasting room documents his family’s heritage. De Caires refurbished the old barn for tastings and covered the walls in old posters, photos and artifacts. These tastings include a lineup of cabernet sauvignons and more. The Green Label is the vintner’s “cab on training wheels” for its easy-drinking, bright fruit. De Caires also crafts a Black Label cabernet, the complex “dark one.” White wine lovers, don’t despair. De Caires makes a quaffable white table wine with Albarino predominant. If you’re a fortified fan, try the DePorted port-style wine, honoring of de Caires’ great-grandfather Antonio, who may have been deported for making wine during Prohibition. The BoaVenture de Caires Winery is at 9309 Tesla Rd., Livermore. Connect with the winery on Facebook.

Harrison Wood (left) and guests at Wood Family Vineyard’s tasting room. Photo: Wood Family Vineyards
Harrison Wood (left) and guests at Wood Family Vineyard’s tasting room. Photo: Wood Family Vineyards

Wood Family Vineyards Rhonda Wood is a former U.S. Air Force pilot who grounded herself at her 18-acre Livermore Valley vineyard in 1996. She and her Silicon Valley executive husband purchased one of the 20-acre plots that helped save South Livermore from complete suburbanization. (The South Livermore Plan, led by wine growers such as Phil Wente and adopted in 1993, ensured that large, new developments would include homes built with 20-acre vineyard plots.) After studying winemaking, Wood released her first wines in 2000 and soon garnered fans for her merlot and Big Wood Zin. In 2006 Wood officially resigned as a pilot.

Wood Family Vineyards is growing. After working at another winery, Wood’s son Harrison joined her team. They expanded production to a Livermore warehouse which will house their tasting room next year. Meanwhile, the cozy tasting room is in the former winery near the family house. Wood sets out fresh bread and estate extra virgin olive oil for guests, and she pours wines such as Para Mas Amigas Chardonnay, Muy Bueno Zinfandel and a malbec. With 11 wines in total, a crowd favorite remains the “Big Wood Zin” zinfandel with the “woodie” station wagon hauling a surf board on the label. Wood Family Vineyards is at 7702 Cedar Mountain Dr., Livermore. Connect with the winery on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Deborah Grossman is a San Francisco Bay Area food, drink and travel journalist who writes about people and places with a special emphasis on life at the table. Deborah finds the behind the scenes stories...