On my last wine country trip, I took a left hand turn and ventured in to the little-appreciated Livermore Valley. It’s certainly not as large, and definitely not as popular, as big brother and sister Napa and Sonoma — the region is just shy of 50 operating wineries. Lucky for me I was invited by a legend in the winemaking business, Steven Mirassou, to learn a bit more about the Livermore wine region and to sample from his new line, Lineage.
About the Region: You may know the names Wente and Concannon, and well you should, as they are the founding fathers of Livermore Valley commercial wine. Indeed, if Livermore was to have had a “peak” it would have been at the turn of the century (late 1800s, early 1900s) when these two names put Livermore on the winemaking map. At that time, there were upwards of 70 wineries. In fact, early wine producer Charles Wetmore, who established Cresta Blanca Vineyards (no longer existing, though the land is now owned by Wente), entered his first vintage 1884 dry white wine (probably a Sauv Blanc) in the 1889 Paris Exposition, and, winning Grand Prize, virtually put California on the wine-making map. (Take that Judgement of Paris).
So with these big-name founding fathers and award winning wines, what happened? Why is Livermore perceived as the underdog wine country today? One word: Prohibition.
As Lineage Assistant Winemaker Craig Ploof pointed out during my visit, the difference between Livermore and Napa was that Napa stuck it out. There were multiple, well-established wineries that got by during that time — whether it was making “sacramental” wine for the churches, or basically creating a speak-easy situation at their wineries. But in Livermore, only Wente and Concannon had the resources to hold it together. The rest of the land? Well a lot of it became residential, as you’ll very well see once you get off the freeway and search for “wine country.”
But today Livermore is making a comeback. And if you want to get in on what’s “new in wine,” I’d take a look at the less-loved regions like Livermore. There’s a close-knit community between grape growers and winemakers that translates to the wine tasting experience — it’s a more boutique, home-style experience.
“But what about Wente and Concannon?” you may ask. Well, I can’t speak for Concannon, but talking to the crew at Lineage, there’s really a “no-compete” issue with the big Wente name. They’re well established, own a lot of property, and are happy doing their thing providing wine for the masses. (Here are a few of my Wente favs.) Added bonus, they’re generous to the little guys, letting them use facility space and other resources boutique wineries need to get themselves going in the industry.
About Lineage: Now that you have some background on (and hopefully a little love for) Livermore, let me get to the point of my venture out to the east-side and that is Lineage.
Steven Mirassou is part of a long (long, long, long, long, long…) winemaking legacy that dates back to those post-Prohibition grape farming days. His family actually hales from the Santa Clara Valley, not far from where I currently call home. And if you don’t know the name Mirassou, well, go to Safeway and look at the bottom shelf (no offense, here, this is just where they keep the Mirassou, and Steven’s family no longer owns the label). Well Steve wanted to do anything but winemaking. He, again like me, studied literature with dreams of becoming a writer. But when he finally made the Prodigal Son journey back home, he found that winemaking wasn’t just in his blood, but in his heart.
In 1996 he, along with is father, started his own project, Steven Kent Winery and, while those wines were well-received (and still are), he wanted a focus. Or maybe he just wanted a challenge. What he noticed about Livermore is its affinity for growing great Bordeaux varietals — the hearty grapes just thrive in the cool (for California) climate and well-drained, gravely soils. So, Lineage was born — a winery specifically dedicated to creating the robust, quality wines likened to those found in Bordeaux, but that speak of California terroir and California attitude. More specifically, as Steve says, “It’s the Livermore Valley expression.”
About the Wines: What Lineage does, and does quite well, is create red blends with enough depth and complexity to age and meld those rich, classic Bordeaux varietals (Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petite Verdot, Malbec). And yet those very same blends are just ripe enough that you could pop the cork of a new release and enjoy it fireside with a delicious meal…today.
Note that these are by no means “easy drinkers.” The way Lineage releases their wines attest to their complexity. Wine club members will receive 6 bottles of the latest released vintage — no single bottled varietals or other options available. What this does provide is wiggle room — taste a bottle now and love it, drink the whole lot. But I challenge anyone to taste a Lineage bottle and not wonder, what will this taste like a year from now, 3 years from now, a decade?
Steve and Craig — who are long-time friends turned business partners — both strive to create wines with “purpose and pace.” Meaning each vintage produced will take you on a journey — on the palate, in the mind, for the soul. As Craig says, “If you’re drinking a wine and you’re not talking about it, well…” And to my taste and mind (and soul) — Steve and Craig produce wines that are well worth talking about.
So let’s talk about…
Lineage Wines to Try:
- 2011 Red Blend: 62% Cabernet Sauvignon; 19% Merlot; 14% Cabernet Franc; 3% Petite Verdot; 2% Malbec; 14.1% ABV
- Tasting Notes: This vintage has an almost cologne-y aroma upon first inhale. Swirl, give the wine some air, sniff again and enjoy some of those deep fruits. The taste will take you on a textural journey starting out with a very open palate, like fresh river water. Mid-palate will brighten the senses with those fruit components coming forward, and yet the overall mouthfeel is quite round. The brightness subsides and you are lead to a place of meditative darkness. Here the tannins come a bit more forward, speaking of that river gravel soil, for a full, rich finish.
- 2012 Red Blend: 72% Cabernet Sauvignon; 14% Cabernet Franc; 10% Merlot; 4% Petite Verdot; 14% ABV
- Tasting Notes: Compared to the previous year, the 2012 is more fruit forward on the nose, rich with lush bush berries. Appropriately, secondary aromas speak of a brambly, woodsy earth. On the palate, this wine is quite thick, almost candy-like (not in sweetness, but in texture). The mid-palate takes that away, dries out the palate, and brings forward savory spices, like white pepper or ground coriander. The finish ends in a dusty, earthy place. An interesting contrast to the previous vintage. In my opinion, this will be a fun one to keep in the cellar and taste a few years down the line.
- 2013 Red Blend 50% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Cabernet Franc; 15% Merlot; 3% Petit Verdot; 2% Malbec; 14.4% ABV
- Tasting Notes: Note the distinct reduction of Cab Sauv and increase in Cab Franc here. This absolutely comes through on the nose and the palate. Initial aromas speak of fresh green herbs (think mint, basil, maybe even anise stalk) as well as a fruit aroma I can only describe as purple. That’s the innate vibrancy of the Cabernet Franc contrasting, yet all the while uplifting and complementing, the rusticity of the Cabernet Sauvignon. The palate is surprising plush, almost reminiscent of over-ripe, deep-red apple. There’s just the thinnest line of acidity that runs through the tasting. And, again, the finish is all about the terroir — a lonesome, dust-bowl of a ghost-town.
Now I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a taste from Steve’s other label, Steven Kent Winery. Because, as he says, “Cabernet Sauvignon is the backbone to the Bordeaux blends.” So…
- Steven Kent Winery 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon (from Ghielmetti Vineyard): This is a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. A rarity, I find, as most are blended with some percentage of either a riper (more fruit forward) or plusher (texturally) wine to help calm the intensity of the grape.
- Tasting Notes: Can a Cab Sauv be plush? The answer is officially yes. On the nose, this wine is rich. Rich with dark fruits (plump black cherries, boysenberries), with undertones of herbaceous leafy greens. On the palate, the wine is like a silk blanket just soothing the tongue. Yes, those fruits remain the center of attention, but there’s an undertone of those leafy greens (that themselves seem to be plump), and a lingering essence of fertile soil. The tannins are present, but maintain a mellowness, never drying the tongue or detracting from texture. Acid is just as delicate, only noticed by the presentation of those squishy fruits. So well rounded, so balanced. This is what age does for a Steven Kent wine.
More Info: I learned about Lineage through the winery’s active social media engagement. You can follow Lineage and winemaker Craig on Instagram. Of course for more specific information about the winery, when to visit, and how to purchase wines, please visit the Lineage website.
Many thanks to Steven, Craig, and Brian who hosted this amazing experience…Cheers, boys!
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nice….hits home for me as I’ve been to SK several times and tasted through some of those to include the Lineage label…most I remember needed time…I have several SK cabs sitting in a rack, waiting. Interesting how SK uses the Wente facility next door. As noted, I cant a Wente to like, but a nice golf course. super work Stacy.
It was a real pleasure having you and your husband out at the winery to taste. Thank you so much for the kind words, and I hope to share many more wines with you down the road!
Thanks for having us! It was such a pleasure to taste and talk with all of you. Looking forward to coming in again — you and Craig are both so passionate and fantastic teachers.