These days, California wine country evokes names like Napa, Sonoma, Santa Barbara. But if you arrived in San Francisco on a steamship in 1890, stepped out on the dock and asked anyone directions to wine country, they would have told you to get back on another boat and head across the Bay to the country's largest wine region, The Livermore Valley.
It comes as a surprise to many people that Livermore, now well known for its government research labs and astronomically high population of PhD's per capita, was once one of the most well known winegrowing areas in America. It's hard to look through the suburban sprawl and golden hillsides, but perhaps with the help of a movie special effects artist, we could wipe this river delta region clear with a single swipe of a gigantic broom and fly over it with a bird's eye view. From the vantage of this view, to which we'd have to add a little geologic X-Ray vision, just because we could, we would see a vast drainage of ancient streams broken up by rolling hills covered evenly in the stony, gravel-based soils which early French viticultural pioneers would compare favorably to Bordeaux's Graves district.
This geologic similarity invariably led to the planting of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, which was easily sold in large quantities to the booming population of nearby San Francisco. Throughout the 1870's and 1880's, the region blossomed with scores of wine producers, and the wine industry matured just in time to be crushed, like all the other wine regions in California, under the boot heel of Prohibition.
While the much more nascent regions of Napa and Sonoma seemed to recover a bit after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Livermore simply faded into memory, only to be gradually revived in the latter half of the century by a select few winegrowers interested in reclaiming some of the region's potential.
Today, amidst the sprawl and golf courses, Livermore Valley now plays host to nearly thirty wineries, and has become the secret weapon of several other wineries around the state (who secretly source grapes from the region in amounts that don't require them to disclose it on the label).
Tamas Estates was founded in 1984 by Ivan Tamas Fuezy, a Hungarian dissident who found early work in the wineries of California, and Steve Mirassou. Mirassou, a man whose family was actually one of the early producers in the region nearly a hundred years earlier, is one of the most influential figures in the renaissance of Livermore Valley as a wine producing region.
One of the old guard of Livermore wineries, the estate built a reputation for producing Italian varietals through the 1990s, and when the winery was finally purchased by Wente Family Estates in 2001, the parent company decided to retain and build on that focus.
Winemaking at Tamas is done under the direction of Bay Area native Chris Graves, a UC Davis educated enologist, who joined the operation in 2005 after two years working for Wente.
One of the nice things about Chris' winemaking regimen is the restrained use of new oak for the red wines. The winery, which produces around 60,000 cases annually, uses only estate grown fruit, including Pinot Grigio from its vineyards in Monterey.
Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.
2005 Tamas Estates Pinot Grigio, Monterey
near colorless with a light blonde tinge to it, this wine has a nose of slightly yeasty aromas with a bit of fruit aroma that approximates Juicyfruit gum. in the mouth it is bright and mineral with excellent acidity and primary flavors of pear and citrus zest. The wine has just the barest tingly hint of effervescence to it, and finishes clean and refreshing. 8.5/9. Cost: $9. Where to Buy?
2004 Tamas Estates Sangiovese, San Francisco Bay/Livermore
Light blood red in the glass, this wine has a pleasant nose of cherry, cedar, and a bit of tobacco aroma. In the mouth it is solidly cherry, with a core of fruit surrounded by notes of cinnamon and incense and barely perceptible tannins. Though the wine lacks profundity, it's clear that whoever grew these grapes knew how to take care of Sangiovese better than most, which has yielded an altogether pleasant wine that has true varietal character, which is rare in many other California renditions of the variety. 8.5. Cost: $10. Where to Buy?
2004 Tamas Estates Barbera, San Francisco Bay/Livermore
Medium purple in color, this wine has an intense nose of cassis, wet earth, and black cherry fruit aromas that veer toward the floral when the wine first comes out of the bottle. In the mouth the wine offers smooth tannins and good acidity supporting flavors of tart red cherry and ripe black cherry that are full and robust at the front of the palate, but fade to quickly, leaving the wine feeling a bit thin on the palate. Nonetheless, this is a very drinkable wine that many will enjoy. Contains 20% Merlot. 8.5. Cost: $10. Where to Buy?
2004 Tamas Estates Zinfandel, San Francisco Bay/Livermore
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of cassis and blackberry aromas. In the mouth it offers polished flavors of blackberry and other blue fruits, made bright with good acidity, but is missing a depth that would help the wine become more than just a simple expression of fruit. 8/8.5. Cost: $10. Where to Buy?
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