LIVERMORE — The withering economy has not soured business in Livermore's burgeoning wine country, where six wineries have opened in the past year.

Business continues to pour in, as evidenced by a growing number of small but tenacious startup wineries that have taken root in the area.

The region now boasts 44 wineries.

Meanwhile, the area's older wineries are finding innovative ways to stay fruitful, despite the less-than-fertile economy.

High gas prices and other stressors are actually helping some businesses, insiders say.

At six-year-old Tenuta Vineyards, customers get rebates on bottles of wine if they show their gasoline receipts at the tasting-room counter.

"People love that," owner Nancy Tenuta said of the gimmick. Profits are better than ever at her winery, and Tenuta thinks it's because local folks have been cutting down on travel to save money, and are enjoying the wine country closer to home.

"Why go to Napa, why go to Sonoma with gas prices being what they are? People still want to have fun, but within reason," Tenuta said.

Some of the area's most robust wine producers are also benefiting from the economic slump.

The weak American dollar has helped raise export sales in Europe for 120-year-old Concannon Vineyards, the Livermore Valley's second-largest winery after Wente Vineyards, said Concannon General Manager Jim Ryan.

"Any economies where the dollar is stronger, it really helps," Ryan said.

And tight budgets are not preventing wineries from opening, either.

In recent times, some ambitious novices in the Livermore Valley have caught on to a growing trend in the wine world that saves millions of dollars: They are starting wineries without owning a vineyard.

Longevity Wines, a husband-and-wife-owned winery, opened Friday in Livermore. It is the latest so-called "urban winery" to materialize in the Bay Area.

There isn't a grapevine within sight of Longevity, which is tucked in a light industrial park not far from the city of Livermore's wastewater treatment plant. The 1,000-square-foot tasting suite hardly fits the traditional image of a country winery.

Founders Phil and Debra Long said they are following the lead of dozens of passionate, limited-production winemakers in Berkeley, Oakland and other urban areas who buy grapes from established vineyards, and produce their wine wherever they can find space.

"The first thing people ask us is, 'How much is a vineyard?'" Phil Long said. "We don't have a vineyard. You don't need one; you can make wine anywhere."

Though they had always enjoyed wine, the Longs said their love for it grew when they moved to the Bay Area from Southern California about six years ago.

They started a monthly wine club, which led them on excursions to dozens of Northern California tasting rooms. Everywhere they went, they learned another winemaking tip, made another contact.

"I walked around with a notebook," Phil Long said, describing one of his first conversations with a wine consultant he met in Concord. "I said, 'I'm thinking about making wine. I just want to learn, but I don't think I'm going to be ready for crush.'"

It didn't take long before the couple were picking their own grapes from the vineyard of a grower they found in Oakley. They rented a wine press, bought a 30-gallon barrel and made their first wine in the garage of their San Ramon home.

"You learn by the seat of your pants," said Phil Long, creative director for the retail display company Rapid Displays. His "day job" pays the bills, but winemaking is his passion.

His wife, Debra, described the evolution of their admittedly expensive pastime: "You start accumulating stuff over time. Instead of buying Christmas gifts, you buy a barrel," she said.

Recently, they leased the suite on Rickenbacker Circle in Livermore. After jumping through all the licensing hoops required to sell wine, they are open for business.

The goal is to produce 500 cases in 2008, Phil said. He added that his dream is to one day purchase a vineyard.

"I think you're going to find that not only are urban wineries growing, but they're probably in the greater scheme of things representing well over 30 percent of (wineries)," said Jim Frost, another urban winery entrepreneur in the Livermore Valley.

Frost, who owns three-year-old Hidden Creek Vineyard & Winery, makes his wine out of an industrial space in Pleasanton and sells it from a tasting room in bustling downtown Livermore.

This is the first year he expects to make a profit, said Frost, who after spending more than 20 years in biotechnology, "took the plunge" and opened a winery in 2005.

"No normal person can afford to open a vineyard and do the whole thing. But if you can rent a space for a couple thousand a month you can start immediately," he said. "The vast majority of people I've talked to who are in the urban winery setting have no intention whatsoever of ever buying a vineyard."

About the economy's effect on wine sales, Tenuta said, "The good news about the wine industry is that when people are happy they drink wine — and when people are depressed they drink wine."

Reach Jeanine Benca at 925-847-2125 or jbenca@bayareanewsgroup.com.

LIVERMORE AREA WINERIES
  • The Livermore-Amador Valley is home to 44 wineries, six of which opened in the past 12 months.
  • The region has more than 5,000 acres of vineyards.
  • Wineries vary in size from limited release, 100-case producers to the largest winery in the East Bay, 125-year-old Wente Vineyards, which produces 400,000 cases annually.
  • The Livermore Valley is one of California's oldest wine regions. This year, growers will make their 159th annual grape harvest.
  • In the 1840s, pioneers looking for vineyard sites began planting grapes in the region. Robert Livermore planted the first commercial vines in the 1840s. Pioneer winemakers C.H. Wente, James Concannon and Charles Wetmore founded their wineries in the early 1880s.
    Source: Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association