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Livermore-Contra - Notable Wineries By District And Region

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(Note: Information Originally Published In 1955 - Presented For Historical Perspective!)


Concannon Vineyard, Livermore

An old firm with a famous name, strong in Roman Catholic traditions, and known for its high-quality wines. The main accent in production is on table wines of the sauterne family, as is to be expected in the heart of the Livermore district. Sacramental wines form a major factor in the winery's business.

James Concannon, the founder, was born in the Aran Islands, County Galway, Ireland, in 1847, into a family descended, according to an ancient tradition, from the Milesian Kings of Spain. As a youth James helped his family raise the customary potatoes, but he soon determined to carve out a career for himself in what he called "that shining land across the seas."

He saved enough money for his passage to Boston, where he found a job with the Singer Sewing Machine Company. He moved to Augusta, Maine, where he worked as a bellboy in the Mansion House, attending school at night, and rose to become the hotel's manager. By 1874 he could afford to marry and a year later brought his bride to San Francisco.

In the West James Concannon found full opportunity to apply his energy and resourcefulness. He managed a sheep ranch in Oregon, sold books from door to door, and pioneered the rubberstamp business, a new industry which proved highly profitable. He became agent for the whole of the Pacific coast and included Mexico in his travels. In Mexico City he criticized the then prevailing sanitary conditions in no uncertain terms with the result that the famed dictator of Mexico, Porforio Diaz, sent for him. Diaz took a liking to the forthright and energetic young Irishman and entrusted him with full authority to remedy the situation. For a number of years Concannon was in charge of the city's hygienic rehabilitation, eventually disposing of his franchise to a syndicate on profitable terms.

The rubber printing stamp, however, backed by his pioneering spirit, was what made Concannon's fortune. By 1883 he had amassed sufficient capital to settle down with his family and farm. It was at the advice of his friend, the colorful Archbishop of San Francisco, Joseph S. Alemany, that James Concannon decided to produce wines for religious use and that he purchased, in the Livermore Valley, a suitable ranch from Horace Overacher, a homesteader. Concannon's success as a vineyardist and wine maker became rapidly established and the high tradition he set has been carried on down continuously to the present day.

After James Concannon passed away in 1911, management of the winery passed to his son, Joseph S. Concannon, the present head of the firm. "Captain Joe," as he is known to all, is a figure of profound charm, energy, and wit. A former U. S. Cavalry officer, the military touch at Concannon is nearly as evident as that of the master winegrower and the fact that he is a devout son of the Roman Catholic Church. Concannon wines are familiar to Catholic dioceses near and far, including the Vatican.

Captain Joe has managed the winery for more than forty years with the sole exception of the period I9I6-I8, when he joined the cavalry to take part in General Pershing's expedition against Pancho Villa in Mexico. During Prohibition Concannon Vineyard continued to operate, producing altar wines as permitted by the dry laws.

Today the third generation of the Concannon family is gradually taking over control. Captain Joe continues as president, aided by his two sons, Joseph Jr., a Notre Dame graduate, and James, who graduated from St. Mary's College in California. Two daughters complete the picture of the family-owned business, of whom Nina Concannon is vice-president of the firm.

Concannon produces the following table wines commercially under the Concannon Vineyard brand and with the Livermore designation of origin on the label:

WHITE: Sauvignon Blanc (Concannon's prize white vintage table wine and a great wine indeed), Chateau Concannon (sweet sauterne from late-picked Semillon and Sauvignon blanc grapes), Haut Sauterne (similar to a French Graves), Dry Semillon (vintaged), Dry Sauterne, Chablis (a blend of Folle blanche and other grapes), Moselle;

RED: Cabernet Sauvignon (vintaged and similar to a red Graves in character owing to the gravelly soil on which it is grown), Zinfandel (exclusively from that grape), Burgundy and Claret;

ROSE: Cardinal Rose.

A few Aperitif and Dessert wines are also produced under the same brand and with the Livermore appellation: Pale Dry Sherry and Sherry, Port, and a vintage Muscat de Frontignan (sweet and soft and with a very perfumed bouquet and aroma).

The Concannon Vineyard altar wines (available only to the clergy) include:

Dry wines: Chateau Concannon, Haut Sauterne, Dry Sauterne, and Chablis; Cabernet, Zinfandel, Burgundy, and Claret;

Sweet wines: Muscat de Frontignan, Port, Tokay, and Angelica.

Cresta Blanca Wine Company, Livermore

A great name in the California wine industry, Cresta Blanca is owned by Schenley Industries. Since 1941 this company has operated the winery and tended the vineyards, which nestle in the gently sloping hills in the southeast corner of the Livermore Valley. Lucas Hat, whose family has been interested in growing grapes and making wine for generations, is in over-all charge of the vineyards and winery. The wine maker is Myron Nightingale, who has been closely associated with some of the industry's important experiments and achievements. A bonded winery is also maintained in Tulare County, right across the county line from Delano, Kern County. All Cresta Blanca wines are marketed through the CVA Corporation of San Francisco.

Founder of Cresta Blanca was the celebrated California wine pioneer Charles A. Wetmore, who purchased part of the old Rancho El Valle de San Jose in Livermore in 1882, planted his vineyards with selected imported cuttings, and built the Cresta Blanca winery in 1883. He named his winery and his wines after the limestone ridge which still dominates the vineyards and where a landslide at one time exposed a great white crest, sliced off the mountainside as by a giant's carving knife.

Charles Wetmore was born in Portland, Maine, in 1847 and came to California with his parents when he was nine years old. After attending public schools in Oakland he entered the newly established University of California, graduating with its very first class, of which he was valedictorian. He worked as a reporter on various newspapers, including the Alta California and the San Francisco Chronicle. Deeply interested in viticulture, he was appointed in 1878 as a delegate of the California State Vinicultural Society to visit the Paris Exposition. During this trip he made a thorough study of French winegrowing methods. On his return he organized the Board of State Viticultural Commissioners and served on it with prominence for a number of years. As an official of the California wine industry, as a winegrower, and as the author of treatises and articles on viticulture and wine production, Charles Wetmore was an outstanding authority on California wines for over half a century.

Wetmore considered that the gravelly soil at the mouth of the Canyon of the Arroyo del Valle in Livermore Valley offered every condition essential for producing the finest wines of the Bordeaux types. In Cresta Blanca he planted vines brought over from France, among them cuttings from Chateau d'Yquem in Sauternes and from Chateau Margaux in Medoc. He was a perfectionist in his methods, and the reputation of his Cresta Blanca wines became solidly established within a short time and their fame spread far and wide. The "Grand Prix" awarded to Cresta Blanca at the Paris Exposition of 1889 is said to mark the first time that California was officially recognized by France as a competitor in the production of fine table wines.

Clarence J. Wetmore, also a University of California graduate, became associated with his brother Charles in Cresta Blanca at an early date. In 1893 Clarence purchased the property from his brother and retained his connection with Cresta Blanca for over forty years, operating it until 1920, when he sold Cresta Blanca to L. B. Johnson. During Prohibition business was carried on, as allowed by the dry laws, for sacramental and medicinal purposes. With Repeal the corporation was reorganized with Clarence Wetmore once more as president and Johnson as general manager. With the death of Clarence Wetmore in 1936 Johnson became the sole owner. In 1941 the latter disposed of Cresta Blanca to Schenley.

Cresta Blanca produces table, aperitif, dessert, and sparkling wines of high quality, some of which are outstanding. The winery has continued to feature its white table wines grown in the Livermore Valley and also emphasizes its red table wines from grapes grown in the Napa and Sonoma valleys. Cresta Blanca has been a leader in the field of high-quality California sherries and also developed a flor sherry which will be marketed in the near future. High-quality ports and vermouths have been produced; some special port wines have not as yet been put on the market.

All wines are marketed under the Cresta Blanca brand, some with the added Souvenir labeling.

Table wines: WHITE: Dry Semillon, Sweet Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chateau Sauterne, Haut Sauterne and Sauterne, Grey Riesling and Riesling, Chablis;

RED: Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Red Pinot, Burgundy and Claret;

ROSE: Vin Rose.

Sparkling wines (bottle-fermented) : Champagne (medium dry, available also in magnums), Brut Champagne (quite dry), Pink Champagne (medium dry), and Sparkling Burgundy;

Aperitif and Dessert wines: Dry Watch Cocktail Sherry (pale, dry) and Triple Cream Sherry (golden, sweet), aged in small cooperage and outstanding sherries both, Palomino Sherry (pale, dry) and Souvenir Sherry (medium dry); Tawny Port and Ruby Port; Golden Muscatel; White Vermouth (Triple Dry) and Sweet Vermouth.

Wente Bros., Livermore

Bearing one of the greatest and most respected names in the whole of the California wine industry, the brothers Wente are the producers of some of the finest white table wines of the country, notably of the sauterne and white burgundy varieties.

Carl H. Wente, the founder of the firm, was a native of Hanover, Germany, and came to this country in r88o. He received his first experience in California wine making under the personal supervision of Charles Krug, the great pioneer viticulturist of Napa Valley. Carl Wente soon branched out for himself and purchased, late in the fall of 1883, some vineyards in the Livermore Valley south of the town of Livermore. On this land the original Wente winery still stands.

From the beginning Carl Wente specialized in the production of the finest-quality table wines, for which he found a ready market and at prices considerably higher than the average at that time. Both the Semillon and Sauvignon blanc grapes of the Sauternes region in France soon proved themselves to be particularly well suited to the Livermore soil and climate, and so, later on, did the Pinot Chardonnay of white burgundy and champagne fame.

Gradually the Wente holdings were extended, first by the founder and later on by his sons, Ernest and Herman Wente, the present owners. An important acquisition was that of the neighboring El Mocho vineyards. When that highly regarded winegrowing pioneer of the Livermore Valley, Louis Mel, retired at an advanced age, he sold his treasured El Mocho property to the Wentes. Mrs. Mel-de Bire was a friend of the contemporary Marquis de Lur-Saluces, owner of the world-renowned Chateau d'Yquem in Sauternes, near Bordeaux in France, and when Charles Wetmore, as delegate of the California Vinicultural Society and the founder of Cresta Blanca, was charged with obtaining cuttings of the finest European vine varieties, she gave him a letter of introduction to the proprietor of Yquem. Wetmore returned with cuttings of the Semillon, Sauvignon blanc, and Muscadelle du Bordelais vines from the vineyards of Chateau d'Yquem itself and naturally gave some to Louis Mel, who propagated them in his El Mocho vineyards. When the present Marquis de Lur-Saluces visits California, he never fails to call on the Wentes to enquire how his California Yquem children are doing and to taste with appreciation what California is capable of producing in the way of sauternes.

The Wentes have never ceased to concentrate on creating the very best. Ernest Wente is more the farmer and winegrower, while Herman specializes in the wine making and sales end of the enterprise. Much of the soil of the Wente vineyards is alluvial deposit, washed down from the hills to the east and containing considerable heavy gravel, well suited to the finer grape varieties that like to mature the hard way. The sight of these gravelly vineyards is a perpetual source of wonderment to the novice.

The grapes are picked, variety by variety, at the peak of ripeness for wine making. The juice is pressed in small batches; the wines racked in small cooperage, then aged in oaken puncheons, and finally aged again in the bottle to full maturity.

Herman Wente, unassuming and simple in his ways, is one of the great wine makers in California today and there are many who say he is the greatest.

The famous specialties of the Wente brothers are their white table wines, which are generally and rightly considered unsurpassed in California. Only table wines are produced at the Wente winery and mostly varietals. These are marketed under the Wente Bros. brand and all but one carry the vintage date on the labeling. The generic wines, white, red, and rose, are labeled with the Valle de Oro brand, the romantic name the Spaniards gave to the Livermore Valley.

Wente Bros. white wines:

Dry Semillon (similar to a French Graves though less sweet, vintaged), Sweet Semillon (produced from late-picked grapes to ensure the maximum richness and sweetness, non-vintaged), Sauvignon Blanc (from that grape, vintaged) ; Grey Riesling (a very popular wine, the demand for which far exceeds the yearly supply, vintaged), Pinot Blanc and Pinot Chardonnay (from those grapes and both vintaged);

Valle de Oro white wines:

Chateau Wente (from a judicious blending of Semillon and Sauvignon blanc grapes with the addition of a little Muscadelle du Bordelais, and as fine a sweet sauterne as produced in California); Chablis;

Valle de Oro red uiine and rose: Burgundy, Rose. Note: A little-known Wente wine is the Wente Bros. Claret, available only in larger containers at the winery and in nearby localities. It is an ideal wine for daily use by the home bottler who likes to have an inexpensive but more than pleasing red wine at dinnertime.

Garatti Winery, Pleasanton Frank Garatti, a native of the Italian province of Lombardy, founded this firm in rgoa. He planted the vineyards and operated the winery until his death in 1948- Since then his son-in-law, F. W. (Bill) Brenner, has been in full charge.

Most of the firm's business is derived from the sale of generic and varietal table wines in bulk to other wineries, including wines such as Semillon, Sylvaner (Franken Riesling), and White Pinot in the whites. Some fine red table wines and aperitif and dessert wines are also produced. A little wine is marketed directly to consumers under the Garatti brand.

Ruby Hill Vineyard Company, Pleasanton Ruby Hill is a beautiful winegrowing ranch with tall and stately palms lining the driveway to the residence, with vineyards stretching out on all sides. The great winery, which lies beyond the residence, was built in 1887 by John Crellen, later succeeded by C. L. Crellen, and by whose family name the estate was known for many years. In iqzi the property was purchased by Ernest Ferrario, the present owner and wine maker.

Ernest Ferrario was born near Lake Como in Italy and came to this country in zqoi, first to New York, and then to California. He worked on the railroads in San Raphael and in the brickyards in San Francisco. Accustomed to wine in his native country, he had always been interested in wine making, but what made him go into the wine business in California, according to his own story, was Prohibition. The reason for this had to do with the high prices obtainable for grapes grown for home wine makers, as allowed by law. During the dry period he also made wine for medicinal and sacramental purposes.

Since Repeal Ernest Ferrario developed Ruby Hill into a magnificent vineyard property and established a more than enviable reputation for his wines. He does all of his own wine making, selling most of his production to other wineries. At the same time Ruby Hill is a very popular place for those who like to buy their wines at the winery itself, be it small quantities or by the barrel.

Ruby Hill produces only table wines, all of high quality and mostly of the white types. They are marketed for the public under the Ruby Hill brand and include:

White wines: Semillon (semi-dry), Malvasia Blanca or White Malvasia (a specialty of the house), Pinot Chardonnay, Riesling, Haut Sauterne, and Sauterne;

Red wines: Barbera (another specialty and one of the finest of its kind in the state) and Burgundy.