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Livermore: Cabernet & Cowboys

No longer a poor man's wine country, Livermore is full of tasty surprises.

Baughman's in Livermore, Calif., has paired boots with people for 129 years.
Photo caption
Baughman's in Livermore, Calif., has paired boots with people for 129 years.

A man walks into a bar. The bar being in Livermore, Calif., the man might be a cowboy, a biochemist, or a blue jean–clad winemaker.

"We get all types," says Lisa Scardina, bartender and owner of the Riata Diner & Tavern, a Western-themed restaurant and watering hole that serves vibrant Bloody Marys and juicy New York steaks. "And you can't always tell who they are from what they wear." Her business is a regulars' hangout in a city where regular is hard to define.

It's easy to cop out and just call Livermore a suburb, situated about an hour east of San Francisco. But it's really a suburb with an asterisk. On its quiet cul-de-sacs, homes have picket fences and 2.5 children. But the city also makes room for 40-some wineries, an annual rodeo, and the planet's largest laser, used at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for simulated nuclear tests.

It is, in short, an eclectic city: a little bit country, with a lot of white lab coats and world-class cabernet thrown in. "Where else are you going to go where the guy in the Stetson scribbling tasting notes is also a PhD in physics?" asks Karl Wente, whose family has been making wine for five generations at Wente Vineyards. That distinctive blend—cutting-edge science and Old West—flows freely along First Street in the heart of downtown, where home decor shops coexist with restaurants, tasting rooms, and a time-warp saloon boasting a legal card room. A few blocks down, a life-size fiberglass horse (locals call him Charlie Horse) sits outside Baughman's and marks the entrance to the city's longest continually operating business, an iconic purveyor of Western wear established in 1881. Inside you'll find Wrangler jeans, snap-button shirts, and everything you need for life on the range—and some things you don't, like toy sheriff badges, personalized for kids. A separate room in back sports floor-to-ceiling displays of cowboy boots in a dizzying assortment of colors and styles. It's the kind of collection Imelda Marcos might have had if she'd moved to Texas and married John Wayne.

Back when Baughman's opened, cattle ranching ruled these parts, but the wine industry was also taking root. By the early 1920s, Livermore was home to more than 50 wineries. Though Prohibition put a temporary cork in their business, nothing changed the region's grape-friendly climate (warm days, cool nights, like parts of the Napa Valley) and its gravelly soil, which scientists from the University of California-Davis have likened to that of Bordeaux.

Few people, of course, would mistake Livermore for Napa, except perhaps in a blind tasting. For starters, Livermore is a lot less spendy; several of its wineries pour flights for free. And unlike the tasting rooms of Napa, Livermore's wineries aren't apparent from the highway. Sampling local labels requires a trip through town.

A convenient first stop is Blacksmith Square, a rustic brick courtyard at Railroad and South Livermore avenues where five local wineries run tasting rooms. In total, they pour more than 40 boutique wines, including a 2008 Thomas Coyne Viognier that comes with a hint of ripe peaches and a 2007 Madden Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, produced with grapes from the vineyards of former NFL coach and TV commentator John Madden.

Farther across town, Tesla Road cuts a wavy two-lane path through green seas of vineyards to several restful ports of call. Turning onto Cross Road takes you to the Purple Orchid Inn, a rustic-chic log cabin with eight guest rooms and a luxury spa. Ringed by olive groves, the inn sits close by La Rochelle Winery, producer of premier pinot noir, and its sister operation, Steven Kent Winery, known for its cabernet sauvignon.

"In the past, there was the sense that Livermore's wine region had to be like Avis and try harder because we weren't as good as everyone else," says Steven Mirassou, owner of La Rochelle and Steven Kent. "But that perception has changed. I expect to have my wines held up against the finest in the world."

Another must-do destination is Wente Vineyards. Since 1883, when C.H. Wente planted his first grapes here, the family business has expanded to include a Greg Norman–designed golf course and a concert series with acts such as rocker Chris Isaak and jazz singer Diana Krall.

On Thursday nights, the Restaurant at Wente Vineyards strikes a casual note with family-style dinners (reservations required) that bring guests together at communal tables for rustic dishes including smoked pork chop and duck leg cassoulet. And on weekends, winemaker and avid guitarist Karl Wente performs frequently around town with his band, the Front Porch.

Other local entertainment isn't hard to come by. The 500-seat Bankhead Theater spotlights regional orchestras, dance troupes, and plays, while the Livermore Rodeo, held in June, features the skills and derring-do of some of the world's best riders, ropers, and steer wrestlers.

Lisa Scardina knows when the rodeo is in town by the crowd that gathers at the Riata Diner & Tavern. Some are rodeo stars. Others are spectators, though it can be hard to tell the difference. They amble in, bowlegged, wearing wide-brim hats and denim, and looking very much like cowboys, whether they're scientists or buckaroos.

Photography by Mitch Tobias

This article was first published in March 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.