The “getting there” part of a wine tour is typically the least-fun aspect as you sniff auto exhaust for miles on end. But things are different in the Livermore Valley. This compact, close-by wine region’s unique layout features clusters of wineries and encourages a new definition of wine touring: by horse, by bike, by foot, by train, even by BART.
“We’re very accessible,” explains Chris Chandler, executive director of the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association. “Some people even take limos from the BART station.” That would be the Dublin/Pleasanton stop, which is less than 10 miles from the wine area. Loading a bike on BART is an even better idea.
Avoiding clogged roads, belching tour buses and navigation disputes is easy in this region where “the wineries are so close together,” says Chandler. First-time visitors expecting suburban sprawl instead find open space and gentle hills carpeted with vineyards. This topography has inspired a handful of would-be entrepreneurs over the years whose short-lived businesses have offered wine tours by horse-drawn carriage, Jeep, electric scooter and even plans for a zip-line vineyard tour.
The most enduring approach is four-year-old Livermore Valley Wine & Cycle Tours, which takes advantage of Livermore’s mellow byways and plentiful bike paths — and hopefully, the climate. “If it’s over 93 degrees, I reschedule. I don’t want anybody to have a heat stroke on my watch,” explains owner Barbara McCall. Tentative cyclers can always hop into the accompanying van. “We affectionately call it the poop-out mobile,” she says.
McCall’s tours are laid back rather than hardcore, extending less than 10 miles. Another option is self-catered tasting hikes, which cover short distances while packing in a large number of wineries. For example, there are six wineries within less than a mile on bucolic Greenville Road in Southeast Livermore, where winemakers themselves use foot power to visit neighbors, according to John Marion, owner of Big White House Winery.
The walking is easy and the views can be as intoxicating as the wine. As co-owner Pat Heineman of nearby Bent Creek Winery describes it, “The French guests say, ‘This looks just like Provence.’ People from Italy say, ‘This looks just like Tuscany.’ ”
Another good walking route is along a veritable wine avenue: Tesla Road, a country lane teeming with wineries like Wente, Tamás Estates, Stephen Kent, La Rochelle, Stony Ridge, Concannon and others.
Besides adding a little exercise to wine tasting, walking also eliminates the designated driver problem. But the least-strenuous way to taste Livermore Valley wines is on the Niles Canyon Railway, whose vintage rolling stock runs on tracks that were part of the first transcontinental railroad. Chugging between Sunol and Fremont through wooded scenery inhabited by deer and wild turkeys, the trains deliver a two-hour ride while guests consume five Livermore wines and paired nibbles.
“We don’t go zipping by there at 50 miles an hour, we go very slow,” reports Steve Ferree, who runs the wine tastings. “On the old trains and old tracks, slow is much better.” Last year’s wine-tasting trains sold out and plans are brewing for additional wine-related events such as dinner trains, assisted by Ferree’s thoughtful wine curation. “The smaller boutique wines that people might not have heard of, I want to spread that word,” he says.
For those in the horse set, another way to go wine tasting is on a guided ride during the Spring Stampede in Livermore, sponsored by the state horseman’s association. Clomping through trails in the vineyards, this equine approach has some restrictions, according to stampede coordinator Carolyn Hendrickson. “No kids, no stallions,” she explains. Other than that, “It’s whatever your style of saddle so long as you can stay in it,” says Hendrickson.
Whatever the mode of transportation, wine tasting in the Livermore Valley is invariably a sweet surprise for first-timers. As Chandler from the winegrowers association explains it, “We could run a whole campaign called the ‘I had no idea’ campaign. When people come out here for the first time, they always say, ‘I had no idea.'”
BART – The Dublin/Pleasanton stop is close to the Livermore Valley and bikes can be brought on the train. For more details: http://www.bart.gov/stations/dubl/index.aspx
Livermore Valley Wine & Cycle Tours – Weekends only starting end of May and into the fall, weather permitting. Regular tour includes lunch and tasting wines from three wineries: $85. VIP tour also includes olive oil tasting and dessert and port pairing: $150. Look for Groupon and other discounted tickets. Bike rentals available. http://www.livermorewineandcycletours.com/
Tasting Hikes – Three routes are mapped out here.
Niles Canyon Railway – Summer wine tasting trains, alternate Sundays, end of July through August. Tastes of five Livermore wines plus paired cheeses: $37.50. Annual “Romance on the Rails” on Valentine’s Day weekend in vintage ’40s lounge car. Several Livermore wines plus cheeses and hors d’oeuvres: $75. http://www.ncry.org/
Winery Trail Rides – During Spring Stampede in Livermore, April 27-28, 2013. Guided rides through vineyards plus visits to three wineries including tastings and paired food. Horses not provided. $50. http://www.californiastatehorsemen.com/Region_05/csharegion5/springstampede/ss-wine.html