A rustic red barn, kid’s toys, wandering chickens and a pretty spot looking up into the rolling, grapevine-covered hills are some of the features of the small, friendly BoaVentura de Caires Winery in Eastern Livermore. Winemaker Brett Caires is entertaining and outspoken about the wine business in his region.
A big, friendly dog nips at a roaming chicken while four-year-old Venture hauls around his toddler sister Indio like a small sack of laundry. Dad Brett Caires runs over to rescue both the chicken and the baby with a “no biggie” shrug. Welcome to Livermore’s BoaVentura de Caires Winery, the region’s most funky, convivial and charming wine operation.
With a red blend called “Mutt,” The Doors and Nirvana playing in the red barn/tasting room at volume and a tasting bar made from old tables from an orphanage, BoaVentura de Caires is the antithesis of the groomed, faintly Tuscan, impersonal wineries so common today.
Proprietors Brett and Monique Caires, who both grew up in Livermore, have consciously recreated on their five-acre property the kind of small family winery more commonly found in Europe. And it must be working because their 1,500-case production sells out within six months, they say.
Here they answer some questions about their self-described “shabby chic” operation.
Q: Why a winery? You must have heard the line about how starting a winery turns a large fortune into a small fortune.
Monique: That’s a pretty accurate statement.
Brett: Luckily, I grew up with the Wentes. Carl Wente and I have been friends for a long time. Him and I traveled to Europe together in ’97. His father set us up in Saint Émilion, France. We traveled around to different wineries there. We were traveling and I saw tiny wineries and I said, “I want a small winery. I know it’s gonna be a lot of hard work. It’s not glorious. I’m not gonna be flying a Lear jet anywhere and be a rock star but this is what I wanta do.”
Q: Any plans to expand your vineyard property?
Brett: We’d like to, but we don’t have any money.
Monique: Not that kind of money. Remember, we own a winery, not a small fortune.
Q: In terms of your history, in 1999, Brett bought this property in an “estate sale” that came with more than just some old buildings and empty land, right?
Brett: They had 14 sheep, four or six goats, a 30-year-old donkey, 40 geese, about 20 chickens, a dog. The poor dog came with it. A turtle cage, a monkey cage. The turtle and the monkey were gone, thank god. I don’t know what I would have done with a turtle and a monkey. It took long enough to get rid of the damn donkey and the sheep and the goats. It took three years until we were able to get rid of the geese.
Now, we have about 20 chickens that the kids harass every day. And one and a half cats. He spends more time at the neighbors because he doesn’t like the new dog.
Q: Monique, since you grew up on a local winery, what was your response to this project when you got to know Brett?
Monique: When we started dating, he said, “Hey, I started this winery.” And I was (phht). That doesn’t impress me. (They both laugh). That’s in the negative column.
Brett: It probably would have scared her off with the donkey and the sheep and the goats. I had gotten rid of most of them but I still had the geese. She wasn’t thrilled at first. It still looked like they lived here. I had already planted the vineyard but they weren’t very big yet. Just sticks. It was pretty ugly. Like she said, it wasn’t on the positive list because she knew what I would be doing 24 hours a day.
Monique: I had lived on a winery so I knew what it entailed, yeah.
Brett: In the early years, it was a train wreck. All we did was work on it and work on it and spend money. It began to take shape and look like something in late ’05.
Q: The winery is named in honor of Brett’s grandfather, BoaVentura Baptiste de Caires, who was born in Portugal’s Madeira Islands. How was he an inspiration?
Brett: My memories were when I’d go to Oakland to see my grandfather, we’d spend hours in his garden. He was always tinkering with grafting trees and all sorts of plant cuttings. He always drank wine but it was cheap wine. When I was a kid, you’d always get a little glass of red wine, a big glass of milk and a little glass of port or apricot brandy.
Q: What’s the story behind your port, which you call “Deported” and which has your great-grandfather’s Portuguese passport on the label?
Brett: My grandfather and great-grandfather arrived in Boston in 1917 and (they worked their way from Boston to Oakland). Sometime during Prohibition, my great-grandfather Antonio got arrested a few times for making bootleg wine in Oakland. My grandfather wasn’t very fond of his father because he kept getting thrown in the hoosegow with him. My great-grandfather ended up dying back in Portugal. He couldn’t get back in because he was deported.
Q: What grapes do you grow here?
Brett: We have a little over 5,000 cab vines, 200 port varietals, infilling with some petite sirah or muscat.
Q: Why do you identify your cabs by colored labels, like the maroon label, black label and green label?
Brett: I’ve been a bartender and I knocked off Johnny Walker.
Q: You offer an unusual white table wine that’s modeled on vinho verde, a young, dry Portuguese wine, that you make with Alvarino (also known as Albariño), sauvignon blanc and a little orange muscat. Is it well received by tasting room visitors?
Brett: We have this big joke. People say, “We want some chardonnay.” We say, “We don’t make chardonnay, we make Alvarino, it’s a Portuguese grape.” (Then they try some) and say, “We want some more of that chardonnay.” We say, “Okay, great. Enjoy your chardonnay.” You can’t change the public’s mind on some things.
Q: What’s it like to come here for a wine tasting?
Monique: We’re not meant to be a Wente. We’re small. We want to keep it small.
Brett: If you want marble columns, go up to Napa. (In here) kids will be behind the bar. There’ll be a chicken in here half the time. It’s pretty comical. A lot of people who come up will be like us. Our age, have a couple of rats. They think it’s cool. They can drink wine while the kids have something to do.
Monique: I think people enjoy going to a winery and meeting the people who are actually making the wine. You’ll see at least one of us if not both of us. Our kids are running around and our dogs are running around and people bring their dogs and their kids. It’s a family place.
Q: How do you compare with other Livermore wineries?
Monique: We’re a rare breed out here. When you travel abroad, there are tons of little mom-and-pop kinds of places but not so much out here.
Brett: We grow it, we crush it, we do everything at our winery all the time and a lot of them don’t. Half the wineries don’t have their own vineyards or make their own wine. Or they hire a consulting winemaker who makes it at another winery for them and put their label on it. You’re not really a winemaker. Four (wineries) are in an industrial park now. That’s not a winery in my eyes. It’s a different thing. I have a hard time with that.
Q: Monique, how did Brett talk you into marrying him and doing this winery together?
Monique: That’s a good question. I continually ask myself that.
Brett: I told her she could go to Berkeley and San Francisco at least twice a year to get food and real culture.
Click this link to find out five surprising things about the Livermore Valley wine region.