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Crush Course

Notes from the wine world, from here to... Livermore?

By Stett Holbrook

The East Coast has the Hamptons. Here on the West Coast, we have the wine country. Northern California's wine country evokes images of rustic comfort and living the good life. In this potent mythology, gentleman farmers walk their vineyards with golden retriever in tow. Beautiful people host casual but elegant dinner parties in the golden light of a waning summer day. As an outdoor fireplace crackles, the wine flows.

Trouble is, unless you've got fistfuls of cash, about as close you'll get to this ideal is an expensive weekend in St. Helena. The winemaking life is the playground of the wealthy--or the overextended, as the case may be.

While a vintner estate is out of reach for most of us, a new San Francisco company is bringing winemaking to the people. Crushpad allows the unwashed masses to dabble in premium winemaking. Working with Crushpad's in-house winemakers, you decide what kind of wine to make, select grapes from a number of premium sources and craft wine in the company's "community winery" in the city's Mission District. You can be as involved or uninvolved in making your wine as you like. Crushpad will even work with you to design labels and market your wine. The minimum lot size is one barrel of wine--that yields about 25 cases. Depending on the source of the grapes and other factors, the wine will cost you $9 to $14 a bottle. Crushpad president and CEO Michael Brill, a tech-industry veteran and home winemaker, says that same wine would cost $25 to $45 if purchased in a store. That's a small price to pay for a taste of wine-country living. Check out crushpadwine.com for more info.

The Wine Beast From the East

Bay Area wine drinkers are lucky. Within a short drive, there are three world-class winegrowing regions. There's our own Santa Cruz Mountains, and its winemaking neighbor to the south, Monterey County. There's Napa and Sonoma counties, of course. And then there's the Livermore Valley. Yup. Livermore doesn't often come to mind when people think of Northern California wine country, but the region has got it going on.

Most experts point to 1976 as the year the world started taking California wines seriously. That's when two Napa Valley wineries, Chateau Montelena Winery and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, stunned everyone and the French in particular by beating out a number of French wines at the now infamous Paris Tasting of 1976. But 1976 wasn't the year when California wines won their first international award--it was 1889. And the winning winery wasn't from Napa Valley, but from the lesser-known Livermore Valley.

The Livermore Valley's wine-making history dates back to the 1840s when the first commercial vines were planted, making the region's winegrowing tradition as old as that of the better-known Napa Valley. Since then, the region has always struggled under the shadow of the wineries to the north, but now it's undergoing something of a renaissance. The area has 5,000 acres of vineyards and some 25 wineries, with more on the way. Petite sirah, zinfandel, sangiovese and Rhone-style reds seem to be some of the best varietals the area produces. Thomas Coyne Winery, Crooked Vine Winery, Wente Vineyards, Concannon Vineyard and Mitchell Katz Winery are some of the standout wineries in the Livermore Valley.

So the next time you've got a hankering for a day of out-of-town wine tasting, save yourself the drive and crowds of Napa Valley and check out the Livermore Valley, Northern California's other wine country.

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From the November 3-10, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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