If you think of the Livermore Valley as that mess of suburban rooftops south of I-580, then we've got a surprise for you. From the two dozen wineries clustered at the eastern end of the valley to the sidewalk cafés of Pleasanton to the romantic eccentricities of Sunol in the west, this is a place to slow down and wander. Whether you want to cycle through vineyards or play golf, taste some of California's best wines or just cocoon yourself in rural sounds and smells, this is a place for a weekend away.
The Livermore Valley exudes romance. On weekends, matrimony abounds. Recently the Vineyard Inn at Crane Ridge, a bed-and-breakfast in Livermore, was draping silken canopies and arraying sitars for a traditional Indian wedding. And that same evening at Wente Vineyards, bagpipes skirled out a ballad to a newly wedded lass and her bekilted laddie. Love was definitely in the air.
One of the valley's oldest love affairs is with wine. In 1889, a white wine from the region beat out 17,000 competitors and harvested a gold medal at the Paris Exposition. Murrieta's Well, founded by French wine-maker Louis Mel, imported its first sémillon vines from Château d'Yquem in France in 1884. Its white vendimia is a blend of sémillon, sauvignon blanc, and just a small proportion of muscat de Frontignan. The balcony off Murrieta's tasting room overlooks a fountain that provides its own splash of historical romance. The legendary Joaquin Murrieta, dubbed "the Robin Hood of El Dorado" by Walter Noble Burns in his 1932 book, is celebrated in the tile work. Murrieta and his men regularly watered their rustled horses at this artesian spring en route to Sonora, Mexico.
Biking the Livermore Valley is a popular way to explore the various wineries and take in the spring wildflowers as well. From the Bay Area, cyclists who would like to sample the valley's wines can take their bikes on BART to the Dublin/Pleasanton station, then ride down Stanley Boulevard east to the town of Livermore.
Along with several other wineries along Tesla Road in Livermore,two of the valley's oldest growers, Wente and Concannon vineyards, are must-stops for the serious wine aesthete. Wente, which also has an excellent restaurant and golf course, is the area's largest winery, producing 300,000 cases a year. At its tasting room, the chardonnays, merlots, and sauvignon blancs are especially in demand. Concannon, nearby, delivers 85,000 cases of petite sirah, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, and sémillon. Farther along, Tamás Estates and the Steven Kent Winery share a refurbished 19th-century farmhouse that boasts simple picnic facilities under two shady olive trees. Stony Ridge, another Tesla Road stopover, specializes in Italian-style wines. Its award-winning sparkling malvasia bianca is a crowd pleaser. The casual restaurant there offers Italian-inspired lunches that range from chicken parmesan panini to antipasto misto.
All two dozen of the valley's wineries have tasting rooms. At the Cedar Mountain Winery, the sign at the tasting room said closed. But when owner-vintner Earl Ault stepped out from the bottling shed and saw a motley group of disappointed tasters, he took down the sign and opened bottles. "It's the southern exposure," he explained as he poured a magnificent chocolate port, selected as one of the top six ports in the country in 1995. "It's perfect here, with beautiful cool evenings. That and the fact that we're at a 700-foot elevation mean we can also grow great chardonnay."
Elliston Vineyards, at the southwestern end of the valley in Sunol, delivers another kind of winetasting experience. At the three-story, 17-room Victorian mansion, chef Brian Krediet's Wine-taster's Dinner matches local wines with an award-winning menu that changes quarterly. The pairing of the 2001 Livermore Valley Chardonnay with the smoked Sonoma half chicken and sweet potatoes with sage-infused brown butter is a special treat.
If you do tire of tippling, the Purple Orchid Inn in Livermore offers "the most comprehensive spa east of the Claremont in Berkeley," according to owner Karen Hughes. This picturesque two-story Lincoln Log structure is surrounded by 18 acres of olive trees.
Drive farther east along Cross Road to the rolling hills and you're suddenly in Don Quixote country. The more than 4,500 wind turbines at the Altamont Pass Wind Farm range from 85 to 150 feet in height and produce enough electricity to provide power to about 150,000 homes.
At the west end of Altamont Pass lies the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The lab's newly designed Discovery Center has just opened and is well worth a visit. A history tunnel leads you into a sphere-shaped model of the lab's big laser-target ignition chamber. The three areas around it have displays summarizing the lab's current research: everything from global climate simulations to the development of antiterrorist weapons such as L-Gel, a decontaminant used against anthrax.
A dozen miles to the southwest in Sunol, you come to the Niles Canyon Railway. This 6 1/2-mile stretch of the original transcontinental railroad was reopened in 1988.
Drive west along Niles Canyon to the historic town of Niles and you'll find yourself wandering amid the ghosts of Charlie Chaplin, Broncho Billy, and other silent-movie stars. Opened in 1912, the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company made at least two 15-minute one-reelers there every week until it closed in 1916. The Broncho Billy Festival, held each June, celebrates this almost-forgotten golden era of silent shorts.
Pleasanton, some five miles east of Niles, can also boast of a brief moment of movie fame. Mary Pickford's 1917 version of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was shot there. But Pleasanton entices more than silent-movie buffs. Main Street has restaurants and cafés that spill over the sidewalks. The Pleasanton Hotel serves a popular Sunday brunch.
And to think all this is just off that freeway.
Photography by Paul Mason
This article was first published in January 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.