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Livermore Endures A Wine Snub
June 9, 1999

JOE GAROFOLI

ONCE AGAIN, the Livermore wine country has been snubbed by the international wine aristocracy. Alert the first lady: We smell a vast wine-wing conspiracy.

What's wilting our vine is the latest cover story in the Wine Spectator. (I paged through it in the check-out line while waiting to buy a six of Bud and a brick of sharp cheddar.) There it was, a swift kick in the grapes to our local vintners, right on the glossy cover of the industry bible: "California Wine Country Vacations: Napa Valley. Sonoma. Mendocino. Santa Barbara. Monterey."

But no Livermore. Not even a hint of a flowery bouquet.

Yet the Spectator had this to say about the "wine country" of Mendocino: "It's a bit of a stretch to call Mendocino a wine-country town the only tasting room in town, operated by Fetzer, is tucked into a humble storefront and the nearest vineyards are half an hour's drive away."

One stinking tasting room beats Livermore's 15 homespun wineries and 4,000 acres of planted vineyards?

"It's the usual story," says Earl Ault, who has owned Cedar Mountain winery in Livermore since 1990. "Livermore is not on the map yet to the Spectator."

To the rest of you Bud drinkers, inclusion in a Spectator spread such as this would have been huge. Especially to a growing wine region such as Livermore's, where nearly everybody runs small, boutique wineries that can't spend much on national advertising.

A spread would have caught the eye of industry types and turned the heads of yuppie wine snobs who enjoy quoting from articles on "Sauvignon's New Style." It also would have reached desperate single guys who toss an issue or two of the Spectator on their coffee table before big dates. A Spectator in the bachelor pad says, "Yo, baby: I've got style. Or at least I'm willing to spend $4 an issue to try to make you think I do."

Predictably, a Spectator vice president denied perpetuating any wine conspiracy against Livermore: "This list wasn't meant to be comprehensive of everything." VP Niki Singer added that the Spectator mentioned Livermore wineries extensively in its Dec. 15 issue, and the mag has done complimentary spreads on the Wente Vineyards, Livermore's most-recognized international player. Phil Wente told me that he had "no problem" with the Spectator's piece: "It was a very focused article. I think they've given us more than our share of just desserts."

But smaller winemakers such as Ault say while they bear no hard feelings to the Spectator, the exclusion is indicative of a larger story: It shows how far the valley has to go to be a national resort.

Of course to be a resort, it would help to have more than one bed-and-breakfast in town. And more than one four-star restaurant. All the towns mentioned in the Spectator article are cutesy little tourist towns with a lot of other stuff to waste money on besides wine-tasting. Such as mudbaths. Livermore needs a mudbath, preferably within 10 minutes of Concannon Vineyards, so you can preserve your wine-tasting glow while neck-deep in mud. Mmmmmm, muuuuud. Being covered in thick, smooth muuuuuud ...

Sorry, I drifted off there. Wente president Carolyn Wente -- who hates mudbaths -- snapped me back to reality. Be patient, Carolyn said. You don't grow good wine or a wine country overnight. You need a critical mass of wine-growers and wineries, and the Livermore Valley is growing; it has 1,500 more acres planted today than it did four years ago. Carolyn anticipates Wente opening a 30- to 40-room resort near their world-class restaurant within a few years. "Twenty years ago, Napa had one white-tablecloth restaurant, and now they're drawing the top chefs from all over. It just takes time."

She's right. Twenty years ago, the word "Napa" made people outside the Bay Area think of auto parts, not wine. OK, it made me think of auto parts. Then again, I'm buying cheddar by the brick.

A rose by any other name
Which brings us to the real reason Livermore isn't on the map yet: It's the name. Livermore. It doesn't evoke the sensual image needed to be a resort. To the East Coast oenophiles, "Livermore" evokes an image all right. The image of mounds of ruddy, tasteless meat covered in onions. Not cabernet. Not merlot. Not yet.

So in the spirit of Richmond Councilman Tom Butt, who recommended changing Richmond's image by changing its name to Richmond-by-the-Bay, I propose a short-sighted solution: A renaming. Let's change the name to something which includes the fruits of the region's other major resident, the nuke experts at the Livermore Lab.

We can see the signs on I-580 now: "Welcome to Glowing Valley. Where our grapes outshine everything. Straight ahead to the mudbaths."

Joe Garofoli writes about life in the East Bay. He's at 925-943-8061; e-mail joeg@cctimes.com

 

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