Bent Creek: Livermore

Bent Creek Winery is located in the scenic rolling hills of the Livermore Valley. It’s adjacent to several other winery tasting rooms, making it a convenient destination when you’re tasting around here.

View from Bent Creek Winery
Those hills are rolling, right? It's not just me?

The tasting room experience here was the exact opposite of the one at the unnamed, unwelcoming winery. The unnamed winery’s tasting room was large, nearly empty, and we couldn’t get any attention from the (at best) indifferent staff. Here, the tasting room is on the small side, it was overflowing with people, yet we felt very welcome and got personal service from the outstanding staff. It was a festive, fun experience.

Bent Creek Winery Tasting Room
It's actually bigger on the inside. (I'm the Doctor.)

Bent Creek has a deep list of wines for tasting, including three (three!) dessert wines.

The Wines

These are from Livermore Valley AVA, except as noted.

Note: As my palate gets fatigued it gets more sensitive to tannins. I’m not really sure if Bent Creek’s offerings are actually more tannic than the other wines we tasted today, or if I was just more sensitive to them at this point (it was our last tasting of the day). In any case, the tannins were never overwhelming in these wines, they were well-matched with the other flavor components. I just thought I should mention it, since tannins appear in my notes for every red we tasted here.

2009 Sauvignon Blanc (Mendocino County): An ideal summer sipper, this wine had an abundance of tropical fruit on the nose and tongue, including pineapple, guava and citrus, but with a little warmth to temper the bright flavors.

2009 Chardonnay: This has a lovely pear scent and flavor and a hint of oak, with a rich character. I detected a note of coffee in the aroma which I found intriguing.

2008 Cabernet Franc: My note upon sniffing this: “Tanninberry!” I’ll admit, I haven’t learned to love Cab Franc yet, but in Bent Creek’s the tannins are well-matched to the fruit, and there were pleasing notes of tobacco and earth.

2007 Syrah: I got a whiff of lipstick here, in addition to mild fruit. If I had been blind tasting I would have guessed this was a Pinot Noir – it wasn’t as bold or spicy as many Syrahs. It was a nicely structured wine with a good balance of tannins and fruit.

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon: Toasted sugar greeted my nose then gave way to an aroma of red fruit. The tannins are evident again here. I’d call this a medium-bodied wine, with mild fruit and a slightly malty flavor.

2008 “Red On Red” Blend: Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah play nicely together in this blend. There’s an aroma of toasted sugar, and the flavor is dark with notes of tobacco, grape and tannins. This is a pretty bold wine and would be excellent paired with meats or spicy foods.

2007 Zinfandel: An enticing aroma leads into a more fruit-forward flavor enhanced with spice and framed by tannins with a toasty character.

2008 Petite Sirah: The fruit on the nose is almost cranberry. This has a richer, darker flavor than many of the other reds here, with tannins that provide solid structure without overpowering the fruit.

2007 Port (Amador County): This offers a lovely sweet, rich aroma. The first flavor to present was alcohol, followed by sweetness, then more alcohol. I felt the alcohol flavor was too dominant here.

2007 Petite Port: I got a rich, fatty aroma here. On the palate this has a very creamy mouthfeel. Sweet fruit is mated with tannins and minerals.

2007 (or 2009?) Zinfandel Port: I wrote this down as a 2009, but the Bent Creek website lists a 2007. I most likely wrote it down wrong. Just thought you should know. Anyway, the aroma of this port was sweet and raisiny, reminding me strongly of Viognier dessert/ice wines I’ve tasted. Based on aroma alone, that’s what I would have guessed it to be. I would have changed my guess upon tasting it though. It was very much like a liquid version of brandied cherries in chocolate. This was my favorite of the three ports.

We send our thanks to the staff and winemakers of Bent Creek Winery for an excellent experience tasting wonderful wines!

Charles R: Livermore

I had a sense even before we began rolling down the driveway to Charles R that we were going to like the place. Why?

Charles R winery gates
We have ARRIVED!

Awww, yeah. Not only is it a wrought-iron arch with the name of the winery, but the R is a knockout, showing blue sky. Clearly, I thought, someone involved with this winery has excellent taste.

We walked in the door, and I got more confirmation that I was going to like the place.

Charles R tasting room
A woman's outfit is made by her accessories: one lovely purse and a man with a cute butt.

Yup, that’s my purse, on a purse hook, right next to Mike’s adorable butt. If you’ve read a couple of posts on this blog, you know that purse hooks are a thing for me. I always take note as to whether they’re there, and it’s always a big selling point when they are. We later learned that Charles R. and his son had built the structure themselves, so kudos to them for including this critical detail.

Item number three in their favor: the staff. The young lady who was our tasting room associate (and, darn it, I did not write down her name!) was lovely. Plus, there was a handsome older gentleman at the end of the bar who had tons of interesting things to say. Later I learned that the gentleman was Dick, otherwise known as the Charles R that the winery is named after!

The bachelorette party we’d run into earlier was having a lovely meal out on the terrace, with another tasting room associate lending her assistance. Another group was enjoying a picnic meal on the front porch. After our experience earlier that day, we would have expected to be neglected. Instead, the staff at Charles R made us feel warmly welcomed, and like they cared what we thought about their wines.

Charles R tasting room
Normally we have to ask...but they suggested that we get a shot behind the bar with them!

As seems to be common among Livermore Valley wineries, all of these wines were in the Livermore Valley AVA.

The Wines

2009 Chardonnay: This was very tart, with a little bit of oak on the nose. Mike noted creme brulee in the aroma and flavor. He found the acidity to be just right, and liked the rich finish.

2009 Pinot Noir: The scent was spicy, sultry and reminded me a little of an after-shave my dad used to wear (in a good way). This tasted like a high-alcohol wine; I also tasted strong wood overtones. Mike detected a hint of toasted marshmallow and found that the tannins imparted a velvety feel.

2007 Syrah: This Syrah was savory and tannic, the sort of thing that would be perfect with a steak or even some ribs. There was a hint of bell pepper here.

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon: The scent was fruity, with a hint of raisin. Mike also found some cherry and pepper in here and felt the flavor had some warmth. The flavor was surprisingly sour, with a sharper edge than I’m used to in a cabernet sauvignon.

2007 Zinfandel: This had a soft raisin scent and tasted of frosted raisins with a tannic edge to balance it out. Mike described it as warm toasted sugar and felt it had a slightly austere quality which he liked. These red wines were all the sort of thing that would go well with red meat, and made me wish there were a vegetarian version of red meat.

2008 Petite Sirah: This wine had a meaty quality with plenty of fruit – blackberry mostly – plus toast. The fruit took center stage, but tannins gave it the right amount of structure and kept it from being jammy.

2006 Vino di Amor: Lives up to its name – I love it! It was sweet, like milk chocolate with a hint of cinnamon. This would make the perfect end to the night. Mike noticed the tanginess of tamarind followed by marshmallow in the aroma. He described the flavor as “sweet fruit, then toasty tannins.” Mike was also a big fan of the homemade brownies they served as an accompaniment to the vino and felt their chocolate flavor worked better than the dark chocolate many places serve with their red dessert wines.

In summary, item number four in their favor was the wines!

Our terrible experience at a nameless Livermore winery

I hate slamming wineries on the Internet. I really do. But our first tasting in Livermore was, without a doubt, the worst wine tasting experience we’ve had in the entirety of the Appellation Trail project.

Every time we go out tasting, Mike and I wonder whether the tasting room experience affects our palates. Our experience at this Livermore winery suggests it does, and it certainly affects our likelihood to buy. While I won’t name the winery in question, I think it’s worthwhile to detail the factors that made this our ultimate terrible tasting experience.

Anatomy Of a Terrible Tasting Experience

From the outset, it seemed like the tasting room associate who served us (let’s call him Grump) really wished we were somewhere else. Grump seemed to wish he was somewhere else, too, rather than pouring wine. Grump treated the few other customers in the tasting room with equal dislike, so at least we know it wasn’t just us. The other tasting room staffers we saw seemed to share the same malaise, save for one associate who was working a bachelorette party on the patio.

I understand when a staffer is curt because they are slammed, but when we started tasting there were four tasting associates and only two couples in the large tasting room, which is a one-to-one ratio of staff and clients. The staff, however, more often than not had their backs turned or adopted a 20-yard stare and wouldn’t make eye contact with customers. When a third couple came in another staffer reluctantly poured for them; the other two staffers continued to ignore the customers.

Early on in our tasting Grump poured Mike’s wine and took the bottle away before Mike had the chance to take notes. We politely said, “Excuse me, sir.” He looked at us but when we began to ask if we could see the bottle he simply turned and walked away, ignoring us. We said “Excuse me,” again, trying to get Grump’s attention.

It is unlikely that the issue was that we were too quiet. Anyone who knows me can tell you: I’m not quiet. I have one of those voices that is politely described as “carrying.” I grew up in a loud family and one of my biggest problems in life is bringing my volume of speech down to normal human levels. Mike spent years in theater and knows how to make his unamplified voice heard over large distances.

Other staffers also clearly heard us – they looked up and made eye contact, then shrugged and looked away. When the couple tasting next to us prompted Grump, pointing out that we had a question (probably because they were tired of our ever-louder “Excuse me!”s) Grump looked over and gave us an annoyed “wait a minute” gesture with an attitude that clearly conveyed the extra message “You are not a prority.” When he brought the bottle back for us to look at, he treated it as if it was a burden and he was doing us a special favor.

Grump did converse with the couple tasting next to us, but what started as his diatribe about how people don’t know how to swirl wine properly became, out of the blue and apropos of nothing, a monolog forcefully expressing his political views. It was clear from their evident discomfort and lack of eye contact that the couple either didn’t agree with Grump’s politics, or perhaps they just didn’t enjoy being bombarded with politics when they were out trying to relax and enjoy themselves. Though we could read their body language loud and clear, Grump didn’t seem to notice, and it looked to me like he lost a sale out of it.

I took many notes on the wines I tasted, but I feel that any write-up I would do of the wines would not be giving them a fair shake. I felt so unwelcome that I think it literally left a bad taste in my mouth; all of the wines tasted flavorless and bland to me. Mike felt the wines were agreeable but not memorable, but his most emphatic tasting note is “DID NOT FEEL WELCOME.” Given the attitude in the tasting room he says it’s unlikely he will be giving them another try. We both agree that our experience was overshadowed by the generally unfriendly air of the tasting room. It felt very much like an impersonal corporate entity providing poor customer service because the employees have no stake in the company mission, and the executives and managers have failed to set appropriate expectations for the staff.

Tasting Rooms, Beware

If someone has a negative experience like we did, they might post it on Yelp – or they might just tell all their friends coming to your area to stay away. I plan to send an email to the winery in question because I think it’s only fair, but I don’t foresee myself going back and I have no desire to ever buy their wine.

If you can’t afford to hire a secret shopper, find a friend or relative that’s not known to your tasting room staff and send them in to do a covert wine tasting operation. You might be surprised, and not in a good way, by what you find.

Eagle Ridge Vineyard: Livermore

Our visit to Eagle Ridge Vineyard was exactly the kind of experience we were hoping for on this trip, and it restored our hopes for the area after our less-than-stellar experience at the first Livermore winery we visited (which shall remain nameless).

We rolled up the gravel drive and parked next to a row of grapevines a minute or two before the posted opening time for the tasting room. We kicked back, watching a red-tailed hawk gliding by about 10 feet above the vines. Then a friendly woman walked over from the house. We stammered an apology for getting there so early; she smiled and said, “Come on in!” We learned that this was Cheryl Perry, co-proprietor of Eagle Ridge along with her husband Jim.

To hear Cheryl and Jim tell it, they got into the wine business by accident. They’d moved to Livermore and bought a large piece of land to build their house on. Unfortunately, the land had a lot of weeds. Cheryl says that a friend told them, “Just plant some grape vines! That’ll take care of the weeds.” They did…and by the end of the growing season they had enough fruit to produce 300 cases of wine. Since then they’ve taken classes in order to ensure they’re producing the best wine they can, and boy are they ever.

The tasting room looks like a regular metal-clad farm building from the outside, but the inviting patio tables and festive yard-art in front hint strongly of the building’s true purpose. On the inside the tasting room is spacious, with racks of barrels at one end, a retail/merch area in the center and the bar on one side near a big rolling door in front. The back bar looks like a wonderful antique, rescued from some elegant establishment. When we remarked on its splendor Cheryl told us it’s actually a new piece, made by a local woodworking firm. The whole area was filled with curios and antiques – a child’s pedal tractor, Hardy Boys books, old board games and much much more. Jim and Cheryl both mentioned they were relieved to open a tasting room – they finally had someplace to put all their stuff!

Antique Livermore map at Eagle Ridge
Stuff like an antique map of Livermore!


Eagle Ridge tasting room
Of course the best stuff is in the bottles just peeking out...

We were happy they opened a tasting room too, but for a different reason, namely, their wines are fantastic!

There are a couple of characteristics common to virtually all the wines we tasted here, so I’ll mention those up front. One is, the wines all have multiple layers. There’s not a monolithic wine among them. The second is that the layers all present themselves on the palate in a fairly rapid sweep right away, which to me seemed exhilarating. Initial tastes were a little like hearing an overture to a musical, with introductions to the themes that will be developed later in the show. I’ve never experienced that kind of rush in a wine before, and I liked it.

The Wines

All Eagle Ridge wines are made from grapes from the Livermore Valley AVA.

2010 Pinot Grigio: Lovely, clean aromas of pear and star fruit. The flavor contained those, with just a little acidity. There’s an unexpected richness here too. It was like a hint of lightly toasted marshmallow overlaid with the type of buttery flavor one might find in a Chardonnay. Nikki adds: This was fruitier than I expected but with a nice tart edge, kind of like a wine Sweet Tart but more complex.

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon: Love at first sniff. This has a very juicy nose, but without any suggestion of jamminess. The scent reminded me of plum hard candy with a trace of toasted sugar. There are a lot of layers welcoming the palate to this wine, including a unique minerality, restrained fruit and esters. There’s a slight astringency that is framed in nicely by the minerality. This tasted sophisticated and mature without the austerity often associated with such wines. Nikki adds: The scent reminded me of gravy for red meat, and the flavor made me think of meat roasted with a tomato sauce and dusted with a little bit of sugar.

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon: This was off the list – they only had three bottles left. But we were so enthusiastic about the ’06 that they decided to pour a taste for us, and we are sure glad they did. The aroma here had fruit and caramel, contained more structured aromas of tobacco and minerals. On the tongue this wine first revealed a wonderful, estery richness, followed by fruit, then some smooth, balanced tannins. The finish is long and retains that warmth from the very beginning. I wish I had better words to describe what I’ve referred to as minerality above – it’s not that ashy character that tannins can often provide, but something different with a sharper peak near the center of the tongue. It stopped short of being metallic and had a savory quality. For some reason it strongly evoked images of the sea in my mind. I’ve never tasted that specific flavor in wine before, but I hope to again. Nikki adds: I could drink this all day.

2006 Zinfandel: This isn’t the type of bold, fruit-forward style we’ve tasted so often – this had a lighter body, and while there was plenty of fruit it was rich without being jammy. (Nothing against jammy, btw, I like jammy too.) On the nose this has a hint of vanilla, fruit and a whiff of perfume. That perfume quality is present on the palate as well, seeming to emerge from the fruit and providing an elegant finish. Nikki adds: I tasted plums, cinnamon and A-1 sauce. It sure doesn’t taste like the high-alcohol wine that it is!

2005 Petite Sirah: This one has a much bolder, fruitier aroma than the previous wines with elements of toasted sugar, fruit and spice. The first flavor is a rich estery taste which then yields to a nice acidity. There are perfume overtones and a definite grape flavor restrained by mild tannins. On the finish, the fruit emerged as raisins. This wine also had that unique savory mineral taste I so eloquently described above.

2006 Petite Sirah: The aroma here was also fruitier than the earlier wines, but with a gentle, soft quality. The flavor is anything but soft – this wine is assertive right away, with a cascade of flavors: mustard seed, fruit, lacquer, tannins and bread. The assertiveness is welcome, and this wine emerges as exuberant, friendly and complex. Like me! Nikki says: It was spicy, savory and so enjoyable, with a hint of prune…like Mike!

2005 Mad Lyn Port: The aroma has plenty of sweet fruit, but also a distinct scent of coffee. The flavor is round and sweet with a very rich mouthfeel. Tannins, wood and earth keep the sweetness from stealing the show and provide a nice, well-balanced structure. Nikki adds: I tasted candy, candy, candy, but in the best possible sense.