Food & Drink

Beer, Wine, and Sunshine in California’s Tri-Valley Region, 2021

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I can offer no good excuse for never having visited the Tri-Valley region in northern California. The area, which includes the towns of Danville, Livermore, Pleasanton, and Dublin, is a whopping 45 minute drive from San Francisco. There’s even BART train service, at least nearby.

The region serves primarily as a bedroom community for people working in nearby SF or Silicon Valley, but what hits you when you finally approach iconic Mount Diablo and as you exit the 680 freeway is not the sense of suburbia but one of ruralness — and not like nearby Sonoma or Napa, which are dominated by vineyards as far as the eye can see. The Tri-Valley is largely a sea of bucolic pastures, with the occasional vineyard interrupting the view. Only 2,000 acres of land are under vine in this region. In Napa, over 44,000 acres of grapes are currently planted.

Steven Mirassou, CEO of the Lineage Collection, which includes his premiere Steven Kent wine label, is the head of the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association, and he says he’d like to see that acreage grow to 5,000 by 2030 — which would bring the region back in line with the level of wine production as it was here before Prohibition. We spoke in his pristine tasting salon, overlooking a small vineyard that was adjacent to an empty, unplanted field. “I’d love to get that dirt,” he says, but the owner of the land isn’t interested in selling.

Despite a municipality that seems somewhat ambivalent about promoting wine (and wine tourism), 55 wineries manage to thrive here, including some well-known names like Wente and Concannon. The region has a 19-stop beer trail, an ice cream trail, and even a caffeine trail, studded with 18 coffee spots — only one of which is a Starbucks. (The largest outlet mall in the state of California is also located here, and the throngs visiting on a recent Saturday were proof to this writer that Covid-19 is rapidly being put behind us — at least when there are bargains to be had.)

Any trip to the Tri-Valley will generally start from the north as one passes through Danville, the smallest of the four cities in the region. Lunch at Danville Brewing is a solid idea, not just for some hearty pub fare upon which to build but also to sample its range of brews. My personal favorite was the gloriously hazy Eagle Peak IPA, but I also had a surprising soft spot for the Savoy Express, a higher abv lager that exceeds expectations from a notoriously “simple” beer style. During our visit, the brewery even trotted out a special cake frosted with a reduction made from Danville Brewing’s Lucky 4 Leaf Stout — decadent, but almost too much after a fat fried chicken sandwich and pretzel bread.

After a day on Mount Diablo — surprisingly steep once you’re up there — and the aforementioned mall, we settled into our hotel in Pleasanton, the well-appointed Rose Hotel, with spacious rooms, a cozy lobby, and a full breakfast buffet included for all guests. Dinner was just a stroll down Main Street away at Sabio on Main, which is arguably the top restaurant in this area. A five-course menu will set you back all of $75, and the restaurant offers cocktail and wine pairings, too. Bartender Eian Cathcart serves up his competition-winning libations, including the fresh Tennessee Tiki — whiskey meets island spices — and the seductive El Rojo Loco, a surprisingly balanced drink which includes mezcal, Aperol, and maraschino. We were stuffed full after the delightful meal, which included bouillabaisse, roast quail, a decadent crab galette, and a rich orecchiette pasta — but I have to say that, aside from the exquisite desserts — my favorite dish was the spring garlic veloute, a creamy soup I could have eaten by the bowlful.

Day two took us to a pair of wineries in the area, first stopping at McGrail Vineyards, the oldest winery in the region and home to a powerhouse cabernet, McGrail’s James Vincent bottling, which we sampled in both its 2015 and 2017 vintage from tiny jelly jars served on its outdoor patio. The presentation is perfect for pandemic times, your samples all served simultaneously much like you’d receive a flight of beer tasters.

A much different vibe is present at Lineage down the road, where we had an indoor tasting of some eight high-end wines, presided over by owner Mirassou and assistant winemaker Beth Refsnider. Mirassou’s devotion to cabernet franc is infectious, and while his cabernet sauvignon wines are knockouts, it’s the cab franc wines that were the most impressive. That said, it’s hard to go wrong with the Lineage red blend, though at $175 for the 2017 vintage, it’s definitely a special occasion offering.

We’d intended to take lunch to go from Dublin’s Burma! Burma!, but eating a tea leaf salad, salt-and-pepper calamari, and chicken curry in the car seemed a bit daunting, so we finished up our trip with a final al fresco meal before spending all of an hour to wind our way home just north of San Francisco. While the region is clearly doing its tentative best with the easing of pre-post-Covid restrictions, I’m looking forward to going back once everything is, as they say, back to normal.

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