Frustrated when his offer on a new home was rejected, Larry Dino soothed his disappointment.
A stubborn real estate agent told him to “take it or leave it” and refused to budge on the list price of a Sonoma, California, home. As Dino headed back to Fremont, he passed a purple 1970 Plymouth Barracuda.
In its window was a “For Sale” sign. With his wife Margie’s reluctant blessing, he made the owners an offer they couldn’t refuse. He didn’t get a house that day, instead, he got a car that took three years to refurbish in his garage.
Dino’s friends joked his first homemade wine had notes of gas because the barrels were adjacent to the car. Its picture was on the label of bottles he’d share with friends, and when he opened a winery, it was named Cuda Ridge Wines, an homage to the car.
Dino’s Cuda Ridge is one of 60 wineries in Livermore Valley, an area with an academic think tank, a commitment to agriculture that has ensured a quieter way of life, and winemakers who have turned out a diverse collection of excellent wines.
“My wife hated that car,” Dino joked. “I spent a lot of money on it, and it always broke when she went into it. She’d call it my mistress. When we had a bottle party to celebrate our home winemaking, we were going to call it Dino’s Vino, but a buddy of mine who is a car enthusiast came up with the name. Today, the car is in the garage, I don’t have a lot of time to work on it now.”
While Livermore Valley has grown since Dino founded his winery in 2007, and Dane Stark of Page Mill Winery arrived in 2004, a program called the Urban Growth Boundary required new properties to be large farms, and any housing development reserved an equal-sized land plot for agriculture. Stark said Livermore Valley reminded him of what Napa Valley was like 30 years ago.
“I’m not ashamed to say that in 2004, when I’d go down the wine trail, there were a few places that I would not want to go back to,” Stark said. “But, I feel like today the quality has skyrocketed. It’s incredible. There is camaraderie in the valley that’s just part of the wine industry, because we are all down-to-earth people that are farmers to begin with. The learning curve was steep, but the progress has been phenomenal.”
Even though his father started as a home winemaker at the family’s Palo Alto house, it wasn’t until Stark spent a year in France that he realized he too would find joy in wine.
But, he had to find a winery. The cost of living in the Palo Alto zip code was too steep.
“When I went away to college, I preferred beer,” Stark said. “But at Colorado, I got into a study abroad program and spent a year in Bordeaux. That opened my eyes to the wine business and the fabulous thing that is winemaking. I had to get away from the homestead to see what other people were doing that was really cool. I was like a climber from the plains looking at a mountain.
“What tipped the scales is the way the French approach wine,” he said. “It’s with such reverence. We don’t have the history they do. There are so many classifications and tiny appellations. The minutiae in the details really turned me on.”
Both winemakers made authentic wines. They earnestly represented the growing season without any flair or dramatic tinkering in the vineyard or cellar.
The varietals changed, but the wines were delicious. Each winemaker was humbled when comparisons were offered to their respective wines.
For the Page Mill Winery GPS 2018 ($38), it was reminiscent of a wine from France’s Cote Rotie. The grenache, petite sirah and syrah blend had blueberry cobbler on the nose with black olive tapenade, raspberry and cinnamon stick flavors. It’s lighter on the palate than the nose suggested but very expressive and fun. The wine’s acidity ensured it would maintain a verve.
Stark wanted a wine that spoke of place, hence the GPS name, and has the blend dialed in with 80% syrah, 16% petite sirah and 4% grenache. Petite sirah can be burly, and Stark was surprised by the amount needed to make the wine really shine.
“Petite sirah is the only grape I can identify just walking past it, the extraction is instantaneous,” Stark said. “The juice on the bottom of the pick bin is already red. Every other grape, it’s just juice. I love that I don’t have to think about extraction at all, I actually have to consider too much extraction. It’s also hard to add new oak; my favorite barrels to use are 1 year old.”
The Cuda Ridge Melange D’Amis 2016 ($60) has green bell pepper, white pepper and dusty dark chocolate on the nose, flavors of blackberry, black currant and raspberry with hints of mint and dark chocolate on the finish. The mix of red and black fruit is tantalizing, there’s a silky mouthfeel and the Livermore Valley winemaker vibe. They aren’t chasing a specific style or trend. They’ve simply made the best wines possible.
“I really want balance in fruit and earthiness,” Dino said. “My preference is for European wines. When wines are over fruity, it masks some of the spiciness, the forest floor, leather and chocolate flavors I enjoy.”
The Melange D’Amis bottle is massive. Dino said when he started a reserve line, he wanted a bottle that “stood out.”
It did, as do the wines from Livermore Valley.
Darcie Kent Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (N/A): Flavors of black cherry, dried violets, currant with a dusting of espresso on the finish; all hang from a scaffolding of well-integrated tannins.
Wood Family Vineyards “The Captain” 2018 ($44): Black cherry, milk chocolate and a soft mouth feel. An easy drinking cabernet.
McGrail Vineyards “James Vincent” Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($48): A rich nose of black currant, berry and tar. There’s licorice, anise and grippy tannins that keep pulling on the finish.
• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.