For my mother's birthday picnic we decided to visit a couple of wineries in the Livermore area. I printed out a list of wineries from the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association, and my sister and I picked Chouinard Winery randomly based on the fact my sister liked the description of the grounds.
It proved to be an excellent choice. Chouinard is a small, family-owned and operated winery tucked in Palomares canyon on the far west side of the Livermore Valley region. They grow some chardonnay and cabernet on the property, but also make a wide variety of wines from growing areas around the state. They sell 85 percent of their wine direct from the winery, with some being retailed by local area Costcos.
With five of us we tasted most of their product line (after we determine we like the wines enough to want to try all of them, we tend to take one pour and pass it around -- even though I know it's accepted, I hate to waste a winemaker's wine!).
From their reds we tasted an old vine Zinfandel, a Cabernet, an Alicante Bouschet (not a varietal I'm familiar with), a Petit Syrah and their red table wine (a 70/30 Cabernet Zinfandel blend).
From the whites we tried a Chardonnay, Gewurtztraminer and a dry wine made from Granny Smith apples.
Finally, we tried their California "Champagne", their Orange Muscat "vin glace", and a Zinfandel Port.
I've visited a lot of wineries over the years, and I can't remember the last time I hit so few clinkers. I would have thought it was just me (I tend to like a low-oak, high-fruit wines, which these were), but everyone in our party was impressed. The standouts were the Petit Syrah and the "Champagne" (a Chenin Blanc/Chardonnay blend). We bought bottles, opened them on the spot, and had them with our picnic on the back deck. I'm actually not a Champagne fan, but this had delicate bubbles and a nice fruit character.
I also liked the Gewurtztraminer (off dry, with gorgeous, perfumey gewurtz nose), although my father thought it was light on the finish. He really liked the old vine Zin; my Mom, to her surprise, liked the apple wine. The Chard, Cab and the red table wine were decent but not exciting. None of us cared for the Alicante Bouschet. The dessert wines ... I love sweet wines, so I'm not an exacting judge, but the orange muscat was delicious. The Chouinards were charming hosts, and the setting was lovely for a leisurely picnic.
Just in case you think we were going soft, we later went -- on the recommendation of Mrs. Chouinard -- to Thomas Coyne in Livermore and were very disappointed with everything except their estate-grown Syrah. To be fair, they were tasting their Rhone varietals that day, not the Merlots they're apparently better known for.
We barely scaped the surface of the wineries in the Livermore area -- there are a couple of dozen listed on the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association site. Considering how convenient it is for East and South bay and Peninsula 'hounds, I think it would be great to become more familiar with the wine country in our backyard!
Anyone interested in doing a chowhound day exploring some more of these wineries should email me (we could arrange to meet at the Dublin/Pleasanton BART station for people who don't want to drive).