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The Side Project That’s Bolstering Livermore Valley’s Wine Identity

The Side Project That’s Bolstering Livermore Valley’s Wine Identity

Livermore Valley wine

Arriving at San Francisco International Airport, those passionate about Pinot typically make their way north to Sonoma. Cabernet connoisseurs head northeast to Napa Valley, while Chardonnay bridges both regions. However, many don’t know that most of California’s Chardonnay — almost 80% — derives from the Wente clone with origins in the lesser-known region to the east: Livermore Valley.

C.H. Wente, along with James Concannon and Charles Wetmore, was one of Livermore Valley’s pioneering winemakers in the early 1880s. Just 30 miles (48 km) east of San Francisco, the area is one of the state’s oldest wine regions.

Many believe the Judgment of Paris to be the first international acclaim for California wine. In truth, it was nearly 100 years earlier when Wetmore took top prize at the 1889 Paris Exposition for his 1884 vintage of dry white wine, using Sauvignon Blanc cuttings from Chateau d’Yquem.

With over a century of winemaking history, Livermore Valley wine should be more of an instinctual grab for wine lovers nationwide. The region could easily hang its hat on Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, or Cabernet Sauvignon, which accounted for 53% of the AVA’s red grape plantings in 2021.

But in some ways, the region’s 40+ wineries are too good at too many other things for people to understand its offerings. “We have a diverse assortment of grapes that flourish in our Mediterranean climate and well-draining soils,” says Brandi Lombardi, executive director of the Livermore Valley Wine Community. “Choosing one flagship would be too limiting.”

Owning its ability to excel at multiple styles, with the goal of creating something tangible for enthusiasts to flock over, the Livermore Valley Vintners’ Collective (LVVC) was born. This innovative annual red wine blend project explores each producer’s unique character while promising the best of the Livermore Valley.

Collective Origins

The collective began in 2017 and speaks volumes about the region’s winemaking community. They’re “collaborative, creative, and unique,” describes Lombardi.

It began with two enthusiastic wine club members, Colin Proudfoot and Mike Sorensen, approached a few of their favorite wineries with the idea to create a “collaborative project showcasing the camaraderie and winemaking styles of Livermore,” recalls Las Positas winemaker and general manager, Brent Amos.

The concept sees several wineries working within identical parameters to create their version of the vintage’s expression. The inaugural collective included FenestraPage MillWood Family Vineyards, Big White House/John Evan Cellars, 3 Steves, and Las Positas, and was mindful of grape supply. For instance, “Whatever varietals we picked had to be readily available to everyone in the group,” says Amos. 

The decision process was “very fun and spirited,” according to Rhonda Wood from Wood Family Vineyards. “Our first meeting was at Las Positas Vineyards, and when we began discussing Merlot and Syrah, Brent went off to his barrel room and returned with a blend,” she continues. “We loved the result and felt we could all easily work with these varietals to produce a fantastic blend that reflects the personality of the LVVC members and its mission.”

In addition to using the agreed-upon composition (30-40% of each, and then no more than 25% of other varietals to finish the blend), participating winemakers committed to using 100% Livermore Valley fruit and no more than 50% new oak while producing a 50-case minimum. The group also settled on revisiting the blend every couple of years to keep the project evolving.

Each of the 2017 LVVC wines was medal-winning at the 2020 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. A handful of producers also medaled in the 2021 and 2022 awards for the 2018 and 2019 vintages.

2020 Changes and Challenges

With the 2020 vintage came the aforementioned blend change and a difficult year for wildfires. “Due to the challenges of growing grapes and vineyard yields that year, some wineries would not have had the volume necessary of all the varietals,” says Amos.

“The consensus was to do a Cabernet Sauvignon blend. However, one of our members did not make Cabernet Sauvignon in 2020, leading us to discover we did not have a lot of grape varietals in common that year,” Wood remembers.

After shooting down the notion of skipping a year, the group devised a creative answer. “Our solution,” says Wood, “was to create a winemaker’s choice blend consisting of five varietals, 20% of each.” While most expressions included Cabernet Sauvignon, the Wood Family blend, as an example, also has portions of Grenache and Malbec. Others feature varietals ranging from Petit Sirah to Barbera. 

The willingness to not only accommodate but shift and progress speaks to the camaraderie among Livermore winemakers. “We all want the entire valley to succeed. It’s about more than just our individual wineries,” says Amos, adding that the group also agreed to lessen the minimum production to 25 cases for the 2020 expression.

“To have unique and talented winemakers come together in community is a testament to our way of life in Livermore Valley,” says Lombardi.

The Future of the Livermore Valley Vintners’ Collective

By emphasizing the unique personalities of each winemaker, the annual red wine blend serves as a microcosm of Livermore Valley’s winemaking landscape.

For the 2020 vintage, Rosie Fierro from Rosa Fierro Cellars joined the group. And in future vintages, “Alex Henkelman from Omega Road Winery and Jessica Carroll from JMC Cellars, the newest winery to Livermore, will also be participating,” says Wood.

“Some wineries will leave, and new wineries will join. Some may only participate occasionally,” explains Amos, as there is no limit to the number of wineries in any given year.

As the LVVC project unfolds and subsequent vintages are released, the Livermore Valley continues to carve its place in California’s winemaking pantheon.

Each LVVC 2020 red blend is available for purchase after seeing their official releases in June 2023.

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