Charlene S. Mixa
The Perfect Pairing – Great Wine and Great Golf!
Wine and golf the perfect pairing for a wonderful get away. Whether for a weekend or a day, Livermore, California is terrific for meeting each of these goals. Initially, our visit to Livermore is for the golf but after some quick research, we learn this area has a lot more to offer. Over 40 wineries dot the landscape of this beautiful hillside country along with some great golf courses. A short drive east from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco, San Jose, Walnut Creek and Oakland the Livermore Valley Wine Country is a visitor’s haven.
To our surprise, Livermore has been the home for vineyards and wineries since 1849. Its microclimate is perfect for growing grape varietals of Sauvingnon Blanc, Semillion and Cabernet. Our trip offers us the opportunity to pair two great golf courses, Poppy Ridge Golf Course and The Course at Wente Vineyards with time for wine tasting at Livermore’s wineries.
Teeing it up in Livermore
Poppy Ridge Golf Course has a 4-Star Rating from Golf Digest “Best Places to Play Guide” and was also rated by Zagat Guide as one of the top 15 courses in the nation in value. A 27-hole Rees Jones designed course offers three challenging nines of Merlot, Chardonnay and Zinfandel.
We turn off Greenville Road into the entrance of Poppy Ridge Golf Course. A long driveway winds through vineyards, leading to an impressive clubhouse. From the clubhouse, we see many of the holes along the grassy foothills surrounded by vineyards. After a quick warm up we tee off on the nine-holes of Zinfandel followed by Chardonnay’s nine-holes for a fun day of golf. Having recently played courses along California’s Pacific Coast in foggy and very chilly conditions, we enjoy the Livermore Valley’s warmer weather and sunny skies. The rolling hills of Poppy Ridge create beautiful views of the course, adjacent vineyards and the Livermore area. Playing as a links Scottish style course, we find plenty of challenge yet a comfortable course. Following the hillside the course slowly ascends in elevation for more excitement. A few holes have the extra challenge of landing areas and hidden greens. One hole may play uphill to an elevated green and the next one downhill. There is little water on the course but plenty of bunkers. We carefully check the cart’s GPS system that provides excellent information for distances, “hints” on playing the hole and any potential hazards. In the true links fashion, there are few trees allowing for spectacular views from each hole. From the highest elevation on the Chardonnay Course, the view is awesome! We can see the entire course. Each hole is a vibrant green with white sandy bunkers woven among the tan grassy hillside and vineyards.
Golf is great this day and we loved the courses. For lunch we stop in The Grill at Poppy Ridge for an excellent meal. The clubhouse has scenic views of the course and its surrounding vineyards. It’s fun to watch golfers on the finishing holes, while we enjoy our lunch.
The Course at Wente Vineyard was voted Best of the East Bay by Diablo Magazine readers. The past three years, The Course at Wente Vineyards has hosted the Wine Country Championship, the 5th stop on the PGA’s Nationwide Tour. Designed by Greg Norman The Course at Wente Vineyards 18 championship holes winds through rolling hills, grasslands and the Wente Vineyards of Livermore Valley. Touted as one of the most beautiful and challenging course in Northern California, we prepare to take on this exciting course.
With an afternoon tee time, we first have lunch at The Grill in the clubhouse electing to eat inside. In The Grill’s relaxed casual setting we watch players finishing on Hole #18. The weather is sunny and clear! After some practice putting, we follow the starter up a steep hill to Hole #1. From the teeing area, we look down to the fairway below set between a vineyard and grassy hillside. Quickly, we learn that the front nine is primarily in the valley and along a steep hillside. Vineyards actually come into play as the course winds through the Wente Vineyards in the valley and hillsides. Of course, you don’t play the ball from the vineyard!
Challenging is an excellent term for describing the The Course at Wente Vineyards. A few holes in the valley give the false impression this can be an easy course. As soon as we play the holes with fairway landing areas hugging the steep hillside and an extremely elevated green, we quickly learn otherwise. Missing the landing area results in hillside shots from the thick deep rough or tall wheat like grass areas. As the course winds up a hillside, we enjoy the scenic views of the vineyards and finishing holes. The back nine starts at the top of a very steep hill which appears to be the highest elevation in the Livermore Valley Area. From the tee box we can see for miles across the valley of vineyards, grasslands and Livermore. The view is spectacular! The course still demands carefully placed shots on the holes atop the hill and as it winds back to the valley. The Course at Wente Vineyards provided plenty of golfing excitement. One recommendation is to get a yardage book to help know the “hints” for playing this course. We enjoyed our round of golf on this beautiful sunny afternoon.
Tasting the great wines of livermore valley:
Touring the Livermore Valley wineries is an education in the wine industry and its people. The majority of the winegrowers and winemakers sell their wines through their tasting room and wine clubs. Each tasting room we visited had its own story, adding that extra charm to the winery and the wines. The Tasting Rooms of the majority of wineries are only open Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon.
Wente Vineyards Being an avid Chardonnay fan and having bought lots of Wente Chardonnay, at the top of our list of wineries is the Wente Vineyards Estate Winery and Tasting Room. Arriving in time for the 11:00 AM tour, Jennifer, the tour guide, takes us on an excellent 30 minute tour of the winery. Sharing a wealth of information on the history, the wine industry, the wine making process and the Wente family, we are most impressed with all the Wente Vineyards has accomplished. As the country’s oldest continually operated family-owned winery, Wente blends traditional and innovative winemaking practices. In the wine tasting room, we enjoy the tasting of the fine wines of the Wente Vineyards, buying a special bottle of Chardonnay for our upcoming anniversary celebration. Additionally, we decide to have dinner at the Restaurant at Wente Vineyards and Jennifer makes reservations for us. It seems the Wente Vineyards has it all – great wines, terrific golf course, and a national award winning restaurant.
Charles R. Vineyards is just down the road from Poppy Ridge Golf Course off of South Greenville Road. As the road appears to end, turning into a gravel road, an old mining trail, we find the new rustic building of the Charles R. Vineyards tasting room. In the tasting room Randy Bartlett, the winemaker, is doing the pouring, giving us a chance to chat with him. The winery is named for Randy’s father, Charles R. He and his father built this tasting room building themselves. Randy has been a winemaker for many years and just started the Charles R. Vineyards in 2005. Currently, he gets all his grapes from other vineyards. Randy has already achieved some bronze and gold medal winners for several of his wines. The wines are impressive and we loved the Vino de Amro (port) with the chocolate accompaniment.
La Rochelle Winery is part of the Stephen Kent winery and shares their parking lot. Entering La Rochelle’s we realize it is not a typical tasting room as they feature only wine and food pairings We select the Pinot Flight having just become interested in the Pinot Noir wine. With each wine and pairing, Domenick, our server, educates us on where the grapes are grown for the particular wine and the appropriate food pairing. The Pairing Platter includes items of La Chevriotte (goat milk camembert), Chistou (complex cheese blend of cow’s milk and goat milk), Quince Paste and Truffle Mousse (mousse of chicken and pork). The food and wine pairing is fun and would be great to share with friends for a leisurely visit.
The Stephen Kent Winery Tasting Room is behind two large doors off the parking lot adjacent to the LaRochelle Winery. Entering this dark cool room with its’ many high top tables for wine tasting is inviting. It is a busy Friday afternoon with many guests enjoying the wine tasting. The tasting room features high top tables for the wine tasting rather than a long wine tasting bar. Cindy Turchino, the Tasting Room Manager, assists us with our wine tasting and shares information on the Stephen Kent Winery. Known for their Cabernet and Chardonnay, we like the 2006 Merrillie Chardonnay being sure to purchase a bottle. An extra feature at Steven Kent Winery was the Trio of Treats including Marcona Almonds (we had to buy some of those, too) Dried Cranberries and Parmigiano-Reggiano. We learned in our Russian River tour that having some “treats” with wine tasting truly does enhance the flavor of the wines and the wine tasting experience.
Fenestra is housed in an historic winery with a large barn like feel. Upon entering this casual laid back winery with a country charm on a Friday afternoon, we are amazed to see that the majority of their patrons are younger. We happen to meet Lanny Replogle, a retired chemist, who started the winery in 1976, while still working at San Jose State University. Lanny’s passion for winemaking shows in the success he has had with the winery and wines. We enjoy our wine tasting as Lanny shares the uniqueness of the wines with many being not only medal winners but gold medal winners.
Ruby Hills Winery Tasting Room is a beautiful Mediterranean Style with an expansive open Tasting Room. The staff quickly welcome us to the tasting bar. The Hospitality Attendants are wearing some funky tied dyed shirts to promote their newest wine the “Grapeful Red”, the tie dye being a take off of the Greatful Dead. Hospitality is foremost at Ruby Hills Winery. As we begin our tasting, John the Wine Ambassador, who is also an avid golfer, shares golf stories and several suggestions for Livermore Valley Courses. The wines again are excellent. It seems wherever we go in Livermore, we love the wines. Ruby Hills Winery Tasting Rooms also has some great wine gift ideas and merchandise.
Deer Ridge Winery and Tasting Room is much more than just wine tasting. The winery and visitor center are among vineyards on a portion of the Old Wetmore Ranch, the historic home of some of the oldest and most famous vineyards in California history. As we begin our tasting, I notice the Scottish Stewart Coat of Arms, inquiring about it. Carl Lyle, the owner shares, that he is of Scottish descent as his mother was a Stewart. I am also a Stewart and we chat to see if we are long lost relatives. Carl also provides information on this beautiful winery and the ideas of opening it. Taking us on a quick tour, Carl shows us the event rooms of the barrel seating room, dining room, inviting picnic area and the fully furnished two bedroom two bath guest house for rent. The wines are wonderful and Deer Ridge Winery has created a new dimension to wine tasting venue.
Experiencing the foods:
The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards
Arriving for our dinner reservation at The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards, the hostess greets us taking us to a corner table with window views. The open architecture style gives an inviting yet classy feel. The view is of the Wente Vineyards and a lovely outdoor seating area. The restaurant is a fine dining experience and perfect for celebrating a special occasion. The menu offers simple foods with complex flavors using organic locally grown ingredients. The meal ranks as one of the best ever! The service is impeccable. A perfect ending to an exciting day of golf and wine tasting in Livermore Valley.
Campo di Bocce
Seeking a more laid back atmosphere for our second evening in Livermore, we have reservations to Campo Di Bocci. The restaurant occupies a large building to accommodate its World Class, State-of-the-Art Bocce courts. The fare is traditional Italian Cuisine and of course Livermore Valley wines. We ask to be seated where we can be entertained watching the locals in their personal Bocce competitions. FUN! FUN! FUN! Bocce is a game that is usually played in teams. A small ball is tossed down a long court and must pass a specific line. Then the teams, taking the Bocce ball and attempt to get their ball as close to the “little ball” as possible. Just when one team appears to be close to winning, the opposing team often tosses their ball hitting the “little ball” and totally changing the winner. A fun evening of great food and excitement of Bocce watching.