When winter rains renew hills and valleys, head east from San Francisco to hike and admire the transformation. The tasting rooms will also revive you. Splurge on reserve tastings of unique varietals. Plus Celebration Traveler Guide Weekend Getaways: Livermore Valley, California.
SAN FRANCISCO. When winter rains cloak California’s hillsides in vivid green, you may wonder where to go to enjoy the transformation.
A weekend in Livermore Valley will open your eyes to the excellent food, wine and outdoor pleasures a mere 45-minute drive east of San Francisco. Overshadowed by the fame of Napa and Sonoma, Livermore Valley sees less visitors than it deserves. But no other wine country is closer or more welcoming.
Get a head start on the weekend. Smart travelers traverse the Oakland-Bay Bridge around 2 p.m. and cruise into the Purple Orchid Inn & Spa after a traffic-free drive from San Francisco. The inn has everything you need; down pillows, plush bathrobes and a spa for a relaxing massage.
While there’s still light, change into sneakers for the bocce ball court and head over to Campo di Bocce. The court attendant teaches first-time players the rules in five minutes but it takes a lifetime to play well. The trick is a light throw.
As sunset colors lingered in the west, we found a sweet spot beside a lagoon in Danville at Blackhawk Grille. We clinked glasses of Wente Vineyards Merlot, a seductive blend with Barbera and Petit Syrah. To satisfy our food cravings, we shared platters of Moroccan tiger shrimp, angus beef burgers and asparagus salad from the happy-hour menu.
Livermore Valley’s chefs and winemakers are perfectionists. Blackhawk Grille chef Ryan Jackson and winemaker Karl Wente—both local celebrities. They excel in the two arts upon which a wine-growing region establishes itself: food and wine.
Livermore Valley wine trail
Wineries are concentrated in Livermore Valley within a ten-mile radius of each other. When you begin wine tasting, you’ll find good values at each winery on the wine trail map.
You can sip Rousanne on the patio at Les Chênes Estate and enjoy the view of green hills dappled with oaks. Bent Creek Winery has a back porch to relax and taste Livermore Valley Chardonnay, Petit Sirah, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
La Rochelle offers by far the best pinot noir tasting in the valley. Monterey County Pinot Noir comes alive when paired with Saint André cheese, Manchego cheese, fig and olive tapenade, and truffle mousse. The pairings play like music on your taste buds. If Andrea Bocelli is belting “Vivere” in the background, well, life hits a high note.
At Concannon tasting room, you hear the tale of the first vineyards, planted in the 1760s by Spanish missionaries. James Concannon followed in the early 1880s and his vineyards thrived. When presented at the 1889 Paris Exposition, Livermore Valley wine won a gold medal.
Save the best for last. The country road to Wente Vineyards winds past olive groves and vineyards planted by C. H. Wente in the 1880s. Karl Wente reserves the best vineyard blocks of his family’s 3,000 acres of vineyards for his Nth Degree label. The aroma seminar in the caves was the highlight of our visit. Wine glasses were arrayed on tables with slices of cantaloupe, lime, lemon and lemon grass for us to sniff between sips of Sauvignon Blanc.
Once sated on wine, the outdoors beckon. Bucolic trails snake up 1,600 feet to views of vineyards in the sheltered Livermore Valley. Hike through a shady wooded canyon in Sunol Regional Park on the Indian Joe Nature trail. Mountain bikers can cover more territory at Pleasanton Ridge Regional Park, a 25-mile trail system giving riders access to oak woodlands, remote canyon streams and heart-stopping single track. From the ridge top, look west to Sunol Ridge and east to the peaks that enclose Livermore Valley, cloaked in the verdant green of winter and early spring.
Author Donna Peck practiced a light throw but the bocce ball had a mind of its own. It didn’t matter: her teammates discovered at the end of the game that no one was keeping score. Photography by Donna Peck and Steven F. Kelly.