LIVERMORE -- The vineyards of this historic winegrowing region are slowly rousing from their winter slumber. By month's end, tight brown vines will sprout buds as white as cotton balls. As the weeks pass, the vines will turn green, developing tiny leaves and, eventually, gorgeous grape clusters.

This spring ritual, or bud break, signals the start of the 2013 grape-growing season for the 4,000 vineyard acres planted in the Livermore Valley AVA, a region driven not by a specific varietal or marketing plan but rather an unflinching community spirit. For the next six months, grape growers from Danville to Sunol will nurture their vines in anticipation of the fall harvest.

Julio Covarrubias is photographed in his vineyard on Tesla Road in Livermore, Calif., on Sunday, March 3, 2013.
Julio Covarrubias is photographed in his vineyard on Tesla Road in Livermore, Calif., on Sunday, March 3, 2013. (Jim Stevens/Staff)

The growers behind three vineyards in particular -- the Galles Vineyard, Ghielmetti Vineyard and Casa de Vinas -- are working tirelessly to return Livermore Valley to its glory days more than a century ago, when trailblazers planted the state's first commercial grapes in the 1840s and a sauvignon blanc-semillon blend was the first from America to win a gold medal for wine at the 1889 Paris Exposition.

Three vineyards

Linda Galles, Steven Mirassou and Julio Covarrubias are quietly growing some of California's most prized grapes, including cabernet sauvignon, and it is possible that the buzzworthy wines made from their fruit finally will land the Livermore Valley and its 50 wineries back on the global wine map.


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Covarrubias, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1967, purchased the 21-acre Casa de Vinas property on Tesla Road from the Wente family in 2002. He grows petit sirah, malbec, barbera and cabernet sauvignon. He is meticulous about his vineyard practices, taking soil samples beginning in February to see what his vines will need to thrive come bud break.

"You get one chance a year to get it right," he says. "Once you cut it off, you can't glue it back."

Fog, wind and hope

Winemaker Collin Cranor of Nottingham Cellars says Casa de Vinas produces "three-dimensional" cabernet sauvignon with body and structure suggesting 10 years of age-ability. Cranor has been working with Covarrubias since 2006, and Nottingham's vineyard-designate cabernet sauvignons from Casa de Vinas regularly score 90 points.

But, if you ask Covarrubias, it is the valley's unique orientation and low rainfall that gets the credit.

Unlike other grape-growing regions in Northern California, Livermore has an east-west orientation, he says, which allows the coastal fog and marine breezes to slide in from the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay and cool the warm air to a crisp temperature at night. The valley also has relatively high mountain chains on both sides, west and east, which enhances the cooling effect of the ocean breezes.

"We're the first to get the heat from the (Central) Valley and the last to get the breeze from the bay," Covarrubias says. "We tend to start and end harvest later than Napa and Sonoma, and we also get less rain, so we are able to control irrigation. We're blessed to have this privilege."

The blessing behind the Galles Vineyard on Jerrold Road is the property's elevation and sun exposure, says Linda Galles, who has farmed the vineyard with her husband, Harry, since 2000.

Their three acres of cabernet sauvignon sit 100 feet above the valley floor, or about 850 feet above sea level. Meteorological data estimates that for every 1,000 feet of elevation, the temperature drops 3 to 5 degrees, ensuring grapes with balance and good acidity, such as Occasio Winery's 2009 cabernet sauvignon, which features Galles grapes and won best in show at the Livermore Valley Uncorked competition in 2012.

Because of the season's lack of rain, the Galleses have been forced to irrigate four times since January. If the warm weather continues, Linda Galles says bud break may arrive early, even before Easter.

"The vines can heat up and think it is already spring," she says. "But we're hopeful to make it to early April."

'Premier cru'

Vineyard manager Steven Mirassou is hopeful that Mike and Jill Ghielmetti's 55-acre vineyard on the eastern side of the valley will yield yet another vintage of "premier cru" quality Bordeaux varieties, such as merlot and cabernet sauvignon. He farms a total of 10 varietals, including a stunning sauvignon blanc, organized into 19 separate blocks.

In 2005, Ghielmetti Vineyard became the predominant fruit source for his Steven Kent Portfolio, including the rare and opulent cabernet sauvignon-based Lineage, which fetches more than $100 and is frequently cited as Livermore's best wine.

The vineyard is special because it is shaped like a rectangle but tends to flow downward from all sides toward a north-south arroyo. "It's like a tablecloth that falls down the middle at both ends," he says.

This gives it topographical variation, Mirassou says, with elevations ranging from 500 to almost 1,000 feet above sea level. Within the site are a number of undulating blocks that provide different exposures to sun and wind.

"The vineyard was laid out specifically to take advantage of these changes and the six different soil types comprising the site, with varieties and rootstocks carefully selected to match the micro terroir," he says.

With Lineage, Mirassou is striving to craft an iconic California wine, he says, to leave something behind not only for his family but for the entire Livermore Valley. He wishes every winemaker in the valley would approach their craft with a similar perspective.

"The winemakers here need to understand how great of an area this is to work in," he says. "They need to embrace that and take it into themselves. Not taking advantage of this amazing historical place with such potential to grow world-class fruit is sort of immoral."

Follow Jessica Yadegaran at Twitter.com/swirlgirl_jy.

Livermore
by the numbers

First grapes planted by
missionaries
First grapes planted for
commercial use
C.H. Wente, James Concannon and Charles Wetmore establish first wineries in the valley
Livermore winery Cresta Blanca captures America's first gold medal for wine in the 1889 Paris Exposition with a white blend.
Livermore Valley approved as an American
Viticultural Area
In California to label chardonnay, petite sirah and sauvignon blanc as varietals
Acres of grapes planted in Livermore Valley today
Wineries, and growing

-- lvwine.org