DRINK – Barrel tasting in Livermore Valley

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Livermore Valley is one of my favorite wine growing regions in northern California. It’s easy to get to and is not over run with traffic and tour buses (not yet anyway!) If you’re not familiar with this area, it’s south east of San Francisco, in what the locals call the East Bay. As in many wine regions, there’s an annual barrel tasting weekend, where you can visit the wineries, talk to the winemaker and taste barrel samples.

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The first stop was at Bent Creek Winery, where they were not only offering samples, they were also doing a blending demonstration. You first tasted samples of Cab from barrels with two types of wood — French and Hungarian oak. There is a difference, one was rounder and softer (French oak) the other much bigger in tannins (Hungarian oak). Then you blended the two samples and the result — it tasted better than each wine on its own — is a good example of the art and importance of blending. Adding just a drop of Petit Sirah showed us how a small amount of another wine can make a huge difference in taste and texture.

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On to Big White House and John Evan. I’d heard of BWH, but not John Evan. Turns out it’s a family operation — like most Livermore wineries — and Big White House Winery is the father’s label and John Evan Cellars is the son’s. Winemaker John (Evan) Marion was sampling the ’07 Les Amoureux that’s a 50-50% blend of Cab from a vineyard in Calistoga and their Livermore estate Cab. It’s smooth and powerful. They also offered a vertical tasting of Syrah, starting with the ’09 and ’08 in barrel. There’s a big difference between the two, with the ’09 having spent just about six months in barrel. It’s all fruit, not a lot of complexity yet. Then, you tasted the finished wine in bottle, the ’07 Syrah “Rapscallion,” which was fantastic. It’s a Rhone style Syrah, a little smokey, meaty, spicy and fruity.
All the label art is painted by John’s sister Laura Marion, who has a distinctive style. The photos show her artwork for “Les Amoureux” Cabernet and Roussanne bottlings; her paintings are on display in the tasting room.

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Last stop was at Page Mill Winery. Here they were sampling the ’08 Walker vineyard Cab from Livermore Valley. It’s drinking really well right now.

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The barrel tasting event happened to fall on the 3rd Sunday of the month, and that’s also when Page Mill holds its BYOB event. On the 3rd Sunday each month you bring empty, clean wine bottles and for $8.49 per bottle, the winery staff will fill, cork and label your bottle. Winemaker Dane Stark says the program is very popular. Well, for under 10 bucks you get a better wine than you’d find at the same price point in the grocery store. Dane calls this “Recovery Red.” If you don’t have your own bottles, no worries, you can buy them for a couple dollars from the winery.

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