The Wine Guy - Greg Walter


Visiting a different kind of island…

In the latest installment of what has become a loosely-structured series of reports from off the island of Sonoma, I had the opportunity recently to do some “island hopping.”  I headed down with a friend to visit another interesting wine “island” only 90 minutes (depending on traffic) south of Sonoma: the Livermore Valley, and a particular winery destination: the Steven Kent Winery.

The Livermore Valley shares many things with Sonoma—two of the most obvious being 1) just about the longest history of wine of any place in California, and 2) the shared experience of being mostly overshadowed by the Napa Valley.

Fine wine grapes were first planted in the Livermore Valley in the mid-1800s by Charles Wetmore from cuttings he brought back from Chateau Margaux, and by 1889 Livermore Valley was far ahead of the Napa Valley in terms of being a Bordeaux varietal specialist. Throughout the 20th century, pioneering wine families like the Wentes and Concannons worked hard to establish Livermore Valley as a superstar region. Pressures ranging from the encroachment of suburban development to the popularity of other wine regions have made that a long, slow process.

Of late there has definitely been a renaissance in the Livermore Valley—many new names and some cutting edge wines have emerged. One of those producers, the Steven Kent Winery, is not a newcomer, but the efforts of its founder have definitely helped raise the bar for—and awareness of—wines from the Livermore Valley.

Steven Kent Mirassou is part of a family that has had more than 100 years of pioneering history in California wine with the founding and development of Mirassou Vineyards in San Jose. Steven’s wine ventures are under his three-brand Steven Kent Portfolio that includes Lineage, Steven Kent and La Rochelle.

I am an unabashed fan of the La Rochelle Pinots — I really love them — but was not all that familiar with the Bordeaux side of the winery’s palette and was looking forward to trying those wines too.

The Steven Kent Winery was founded in 1996 and is focused on wines from Bordeaux varieties from Livermore Valley. Bottlings under the Steven Kent label include The Premier which is the best Cabernet Sauvignon of the vintage; the Single Vineyard Series, made up of bottlings from the winery’s long-term vineyard partners; Lola, a classic Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend; and Merrillie, an elegant, balanced Chardonnay made from Wente clone plantings.

The name “La Rochelle” comes from the French port from which Steven’s great-great-great grandfather departed more than a century and a half ago for the New World. Steven and Winemaker Tom Stutz source fruit from superstar vineyards up and down the West Coast such as our own Donum Estate and the Soberanes Vineyard in Santa Lucia Highlands to create several vineyard designate Pinot bottlings as well as appellation blends. Some classically proportioned Chardonnay bottlings, a Pinot Meunier and a delicious Rose of Pinot Noir are also produced. The La Rochelle Pinots are texture driven, not shy in flavor, long lived and impeccably balanced.

Lineage is the third leg of the Steven Kent portfolio and its top-of-the-line red wine. Steven’s goal with Lineage is to make a wine that truly represents the heritage and outstanding quality of fruit from the Livermore Valley. Sourced from the Ghielmetti Vineyard, a 64-acre site in the upper Livermore Valley, Lineage is a classic blend of the five Bordeaux grape varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, and Petite Verdot. I tasted the 2010 Lineage when I visited and it is truly great; complex, bold and layered but also incredibly well balanced.

Make the trip and check out the Steven Kent and La Rochelle wines. I would recommend that you make a day out of it and visit some of the other wineries in the area. Check out the Livermore Valley Winegrowers (Lvwine.org) for more information. As for a lunch or dinner break, I can heartily recommend the First Street Alehouse (2106 First Street, 925.371.6588) for a beer and a burger, or Terra Mia (4040 East Avenue, 925.456.3333), a terrific Italian restaurant that reminds me a little of Della Santina’s here in Sonoma.

The Steven Kent/La Rochelle tasting room is located at 5443 Tesla Road in Livermore, and is open daily from 12 noon to 4:30 p.m. For more information, visit Stevenkent.com or call 925.243.6442.

Happy New Year!

As always, you can email me with questions or comments at gswalter@pinotreport.com.

Greg Walter, a Sonoma resident for more than 20 years, has been in wine and food publishing for more than 30 years, 15 of which were spent as a senior editor and later president of Wine Spectator magazine. Today he writes the PinotReport newsletter (Pinotreport.com) and publishes books through his Carneros Press imprint (Carnerospress.com).

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