The Small-Town Feel of California’s Tri-Valley

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THE SMALL TOWN FEEL OF CALIFORNIA’S TRI-VALLEY
By Hilarie Larson

 

Food, wine and travel writer Hilarie Larson talks with Big Blend Radio about her recent visit to the relaxing, rolling hills of California’s Tri-Valley Wine Country.

 

On a clear day, the view from atop Northern California’s Mt. Diablo is stunning. With a panorama of up to 200 miles in all directions, you can cast your gaze from the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge all the way to the vast San Joaquin Valley and the Sierra Nevada range. It’s easy to understand why this 3,849-foot topographical landmark was used as the baseline for all the land surveys of Nevada and two-thirds of California back in 1851. Declared a State Park in the same year, the Visitors Center Tower was erected in the 1930s hewn from local sandstone blocks.   As you ascend the spiral staircase to the observation deck, you might notice ancient marine fossils embedded in the stone.

The Diablo range links with the Amador Valley to the east, creating a series of small, undulating hills and valleys.  Once filled with desperados and ranchers, the ‘Tri-Valley’ and its historic towns of Dublin, Pleasanton, Danville and Livermore offer today’s explorers a quiet retreat. The area embraces the past with a keen eye on the future, ensuring that treasures of their forebears are not engulfed by the shiny lure of the new.

Englishman Robert Livermore wanted to see the world.  By 1834, he had settled in Alta California where, with partner José Noriega, he raised cattle.  With a Mexican Land Grant and purchase of neighboring Rancho Cañada de Los Vaqueros, they owned the main route not just between San Francisco and Sacramento, but also the gold fields of the Sierras.  He opened his home to travelers and established a post office prompting visitors to refer to the area as ‘Livermore’s Valley.’ 

While the riches of the gold rush era encouraged many to settle in the valleys east of San Francisco, the area now attracts those who appreciate both big city proximity and the Tri-Valley’s small-town spirit.

Dublin is the second fastest growing city in the state of California.  Its convenient, East Bay location attracts commuters in search of more affordable housing and a multitude of corporate headquarters. This rapid increase in urbanization has been kept in check, with the city retaining a charming, historic, downtown core, ample recreation space (there are over 20 parks) and a warm, family feel.  A definite plus is the proliferation of international restaurants, reflecting the town’s cosmopolitan vibe.

Venture south to the more rural atmosphere of Pleasanton, home to the region’s most touted Saturday Farmer’s Market. Don’t be surprised to encounter many local chefs as they plot their new menus based on the freshest local produce and products.

Like many of the towns in the Tri-Valley area, Pleasanton was founded in the 1850s. Despite the ‘pleasant’ tone of its moniker, this was home to mostly rowdy, rambunctious characters and known as ‘the most desperate town in the west.’ Today, many residents swear their spirits linger but don’t worry, you’re perfectly safe wandering the tree-lined streets, nipping into shops and stopping for a tasty treat (Pleasanton is on the Tri-Valley Ice Cream Trail) or exploring the 1200 acres of parkland.

Danville was established in 1854 when brothers Daniel and Andrew Inman invested their earnings from the Sierra Gold rush in 400 acres – now the vibrant, historic heart of this affluent area. You’ll find plenty of upscale shops, restaurants, and galleries next door to more ‘interesting’ establishments like ‘Elliott’s,’ voted the #3 Best Dive Bar in the Bay Area by the local NBC affiliate. 

Reverence for the past continues at the nearby   Blackhawk Museum Complex.  The main floor houses a dazzling display of rare, vintage automobiles encompassing early examples through the 1970s.  The upper galleries are devoted to African Art and an extensive exhibition, ‘The Spirit of the Old West.’ The story of the westward expansion is told through an incredible collection of artifacts from the 1700-1900s, representing the culture and history of the Plains Indians and the impact of European settlers.    A new building is currently under construction which will house the Asian Arts and Natural History collections of this fantastic museum complex.  A real hidden gem.

Danville’s most famous resident was Nobel Prize-winning playwright, Eugene O’Neil. In 1937, after years of traveling, O’Neil and his wife Carlotta purchased 158 acres of ranchland near Danville.  They built a Spanish Colonial, adobe style home with Asian inspired touches. Deep blue ceilings and red doors reflected their admiration of oriental arts and eastern philosophy.  They named it Tao House, meaning ‘the way.’

Here, in what he referred to as his ‘final harbor,’ O’Neil would lock himself behind the 3 doors leading to his den and write for much of the day, creating classic works such as The Iceman Cometh, A Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten.

The house and grounds are now operated by the National Park Service and preserved as a National Historic Site.  Surrounded by residential areas, visitors are shuttled from Danville to Tao House where you can stroll the paths and gardens that so inspired the Greatest American Playwright.

Life is slower in Livermore- you can go wine tasting on the weekend without being overcome by the crowds. You’ll find Victorian buildings and modern office blocks, old fashioned bakeries, and the hottest restaurants in the Tri-Valley. It’s a wine country that is proud of its accomplishments and humbled by its history and its future. 

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Although Robert Livermore planted grapevines in the 1840s, it wasn’t until 1882 when San Francisco journalist, Charles Wetmore purchased land in the Livermore Valley that the region began to make its mark. Wetmore sensed that the unique east-west orientation of the valley, coupled with the gravelly soil and moderate climate, created the perfect spot for vineyards and, was intent upon showing the world what California could do.

Wetmore traveled to Bordeaux, returning to his winery, Cresta Blanca with cuttings from prestigious Chateau Y’quem and Chateau Margaux. He made history as the first US winery to win an international award:  Grand Prix at the Paris Exposition of 1889.

His contemporaries were people like Carl Wente and James Concannon. The Wente family, now in its 5th generation of winegrowers, imported Chardonnay vines from France which, after decades of cloning, are now in thousands of vineyards throughout the country. Concannon brought cuttings of Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux, and it’s estimated that 80% of all California Cabernet is a clone of those Mother vines.

After Prohibition and through to the late 1960s, Livermore’s wineries declined from 50 to 6, and the threat of increased urban development could have meant the end of this historic area.  A committee was formed in 1987 to create a plan that would generate investment and protect agriculture land.  This evolved into the Tri-Valley Conservancy, which now ensures that parks, farms, trail, ranches, and wildlife are protected. 

Eight miles of paths through Livermore Wine Country allow visitors to bike or walk between wineries – you can visit 5 or 6 all within 1 mile. With wineries ranging from modern to historic, small to iconic, this region has it all.

Cuda Ridge is happy to be one of the ‘new kids.’ Owner Larry Dino started small, in 1999, making a few barrels for fun, which grew to a few more barrels that filled his garage to becoming a bonded winery.  They focus on Bordeaux varieties like Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Malbec and craft wines in a more ‘Old World’ style.  And the unusual winery name? A reflection of Larry’s other passion – his 1970 purple Baracuda.

Retzlaff Vineyards sits on the historic Connelly Estate and is the only Certified Organic winery in the East Bay.  The vineyards, planted by Phil Wente for new owners Bob and Gloria Taylor in the early 1970s, have always been organic. “We don’t take sides” Bob has been known to say, “no pesticides, no herbicides….”. First planted to Trousseau Gris the rootstock was grafted over to Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1980s.  The charming gardens, shaded by 100-year-old pepper trees, offer the perfect spot to enjoy their outstanding estate wines.

George True was an early Livermore pioneer, planting vineyards in 1880 and opening his winery 9 years later.  Today, this heritage building houses the tasting room of Fenestra Winery.  Considered the 1st family owned boutique winery in the area, winemaker Aaron Luna continues to tend the 16 acres of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre planted by owner Larry Replogle.  Their most popular offering is ‘True Red’ in honor of George True who would, no doubt, be pleased.

Every region has its iconic wineries, and for Livermore, one has to be Wente – the oldest continually operated family winery in the country.  In the 1980s, the Wente’s honored another historic Livermore name purchasing Cresta Blanca Winery. The buildings were restored, and the site became the hub for Wente’s wine tourism experience with a world-class golf course, concert series and restaurant.  One of the highlights is ‘Diane’s Garden’ lovingly tended by Master Gardener Diane Dovholuk.  After years in the restaurant, many spent ‘pitching’ for an organic kitchen garden, Diane was given a half acre of old vineyard land.  The project took off and now supplies all the fresh produce, herbs, and edible flowers any great chef could want. 

If you go:

Stay central –
Dublin’s Aloft Hotel offers comfortable, ultra-modern accommodation, incredible hospitality and a congenial, communal vibe.

Eat Well –
Danville: Enjoy farm to table creations in a 1903 heritage house at Danville Harvest

Dublin: Dim Sum Brunch at the Mayflower Restaurant is a must.  The real deal.

Pleasanton: Sabio on Main proves that ethical, locally sourced ingredients are the foundation for delicious.  And the custom cocktails are amazing.   

BottleTaps creates imaginative brew and food pairings that will really open your eyes and your palate.  A local secret.

Livermore: The hottest spot in town, Range Life, takes local, seasonal ingredients, fun cocktails and a great wine list and serves them up in a cozy environment. Relaxed and delicious.

See: https://visittrivalley.com/

Hilarie Larson’s passion for wine began in the 1970’s while in the European hospitality industry. In 2003 she began her wine career in earnest in her native British Columbia, Canada, working at several Okanagan Valley wineries. Along the way, she acquired her certificate from the Court of Master Sommelier, worked for an international wine broker and as ‘Resident Sommelier’ for wineries in Washington State and California. Hilarie’s greatest joy is spreading the gospel of wine, food and travel. In addition to her own blogs at www.NorthWindsWineConsulting.com, she contributes articles to a number of online publications. She was honored to be awarded the 2013 Emerging Writer Scholarship from the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association, for whom she is now the Administrative Director.

 

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About the Author:

Hilarie Larson’s passion for wine began in the 1970’s while in the European hospitality industry. In 2003 she began her wine career in earnest in her native British Columbia, Canada, working at several Okanagan Valley wineries. Along the way, she acquired her certificate from the Court of Master Sommelier, worked for an international wine broker and as ‘Resident Sommelier’ for wineries in Washington State and California. Hilarie’s greatest joy is spreading the gospel of wine, food and travel. In addition to her own blogs at www.NorthWindsWineConsulting.com, she contributes articles to a number of online publications. She was honored to be awarded the 2013 Emerging Writer Scholarship from the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association, for whom she is now the Administrative Director.

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