Livermore and the Haden Sisters

On June 6, Gail and I decided to visit the Historical Landmarks in Livermore. To liven up the event, we asked Read Phillips and Catharine Ratto to join us. For those that don’t know, Read and Catharine are twin sisters and have more energy, chutzpah, and joie de vivre than any two people I can think of. Spending time with them is always a treat.

We started the ride at Casa Real, which is one of Read’s event centers in Pleasanton (the other is the Palm Event Center, just down Vineyard Road). As Gail and I pulled into the parking lot with our tandem on the roof of the Subaru Forester, we got a couple of curious looks from the folks preparing Casa Real for the activities of the day (a blow-out wedding). However, since we were going to meet up with the Big Boss in a few minutes, we just kept driving and didn’t return the stares.

Read and Catharine arrived together. After greetings (we hadn’t seen Catharine in quite a while) and a little chatting, I said that it was time to get going. We could yak on the road. With full water bottles (it was supposed to be a scorcher in Livermore that day), we rolled out onto Vineyard and headed toward Livermore.

I had mapped out a route for the day, riding in a clockwise direction and hitting the northern-most Landmark first and then working our way back to the south. There were two historic wineries on the agenda and I had it in my mind that we might stop and do a little sampling. Not more than 2 minutes after we started, Read suggested an alternate plan: it the wineries to the south first and then she and Catharine would split off while Gail and I visited the last of the Landmarks. Read had the local knowledge, so we changed plans on the fly.

In preparation for our Trek Travel trip to Vermont with Read and her husband, George, we had done a ride from Pleasanton to Livermore. Our route today would cover some of those same roads. As we headed southeast toward the hills of Livermore, we jumped onto a nice bike path through the Sycamore Grove Park. The bike path dumped us off almost directly in front of our first destination of the day: The Cresta Blanca Winery (Historical Landmark # 586). At this site, Charles A. Wetmore planted his vineyard in 1882. The Cresta Blanca wine he made from its fruit won for California the first International Award, the highest honor at the 189 Paris Exposition, first bringing assurance to California wine growers that they could grow wines comparable to the finest in the world.

Interestingly, the Historical Landmark is located in the midst of the Wente Event Center, which is a competitor of Read’s businesses. As we rode into the entrance, the fellas directing traffic were not totally sure that they should let us in. However, after we explained the situation, they let us pass and told us in general terms where to find the Marker. It took some looking but after some scouting around and asking, we were pointed toward the Historical Marker. Unfortunately, there was a wedding going on at the same time that we were there and the lovely bride and her new hubby were standing next to the Marker while cooling their heels, waiting to make their grand entrance into the wedding reception. I was going to stomp over and ask them to take a photo of me next to the Marker but cooler heads prevailed. After they made their entrance, we all went over and took some photos. Of course, we also had to do a little mugging for the camera, creating a scene of great hilarity for all. The grounds are very pretty, nicely shaded, and out of the wind. We didn’t sample any wine and we didn’t get any appetizers from the wedding, so I can’t comment on the food or wine, although I am certain that it doesn’t stand up to Read’s places.

The wind was coming up as we rolled off toward the next stop. Fortunately, Read knew all of the roads in the area, so she directed us to some great shortcuts that I had never even thought to try. Along the way, we passed Ravenswood Historical Site, which is where Marie and Doug held their wedding reception.

It is a good thing we had Read with us, since my map with directions was now useless because we were riding in exactly the opposite direction from what I had planned. As we rode down some narrow country lanes, Read pointed out some of the great, small wineries in the area. She seems to know everyone in the Tri-Valley (which is where Livermore is located). The grape vines were just starting to get leaves, making the fields lovely.

As we rode, Gail commented that the area was really lovely but there didn’t seem to be any place to stay (e.g., no bed-and-breakfasts in the vineyards). She even speculated that she and I could open up such a place. Being a small business person, I wasn’t quite as optimistic about such a plan and told Gail that running a B&B would be tough. At that, Gail dropped the bomb of the day: She said that running a B&B wasn’t rocket science! When she said this, I just about steered the bicycle into a ditch! Having an expert on the hospitality industry on our riding team (i.e., Read), I had to ask her opinion about Gail’s cavalier attitude about running a hotel/restaurant. As expected, Read wasn’t too thrilled that Gail had basically said that anyone could do what Read does for a living. She wasn’t ready to drop her gloves and go at Gail but she seemed a little shocked. I had to stifle a laugh as Gail tried to smooth things over.

Fortunately for us, we arrived at the next stop: the Concannon Vineyard (Historical Landmark #641). At this vineyard, in 1883, James Concannon founded the Concannon Vineyard. The quality it achieved in sacramental and commercial wines helped establish Livermore Valley as one of America’s select wine-growing districts. Grape cuttings from this vineyard were introduced to Mexico betweeh 1889 and 1904 for the improvement of its commercial viticulture.

Unlike the Cresta Blanca winery, this place was out in the middle of the Livermore Valley on Tesla Road, which has pretty fast traffic. After a couple of false starts, we managed to get into the driveway and rolled around to the back, where we expected to find the Historical Marker. It wasn’t obvious where it was, so we leaned our bicycles against the wall and went into the tasting room. Now we were talking! However, rather than sampling the wine, we just asked about the location of the Marker. As we started to leave, there was some sort of altercation between the hostess and one or more members of our group, where the hostess made some sort of crack about “…if we weren’t going to taste some wine, then what were we doing there?” I didn’t hear this myself but Catharine, Read, and Gail were floored (it wasn’t a cat fight but it sure seemed like some words were going to be exchanged). Evidently, Concannon is no longer a family-owned winery, having been purchased by a large conglomerate.  Perhaps that was what caused the hostess to diss us. Regardless, it didn’t make us want to come back and try their wines in the future.

We left the tasting room and found the Marker, took some snaps, and hit the road. The place wasn’t even that pretty.

Next stop was almost directly across Tesla Road, which meant that we had to cross the speeding traffic again. Accomplishing that, we rolled into the Wente Bros. Winery (Historical Landmark #957). At this location, the first Wente vineyard of 47 acres was established by C. H. Wente in 1883. In 1935, his sons, Ernest and Herman, introduced California’s first varietal wine label, Sauvignon Blanc. The efforts of the Wente family have helped establish the Livermore Valley as one of the premier wine-growing areas of California. In their centennial year, Wente Bros.is the oldest continuously operating, family-owned winery in California.

Unlike the event center at Cresta Blanca (which was also a Wente enterprise), this location was more industrial. It has a tasting room but the focus of this place appeared to be production and distribution of wine. Read explained how Livermore could well have been as famous as the Napa Valley except that there was no one driving force to push it in that direction. As a result, there are some good wineries but it is not the destination that Napa has become (although Gail has plans to change all that!)

We stood around for a while, chatting and catching up with Catharine about her sons (who went to elementary and middle school with Avery and Risa). Her sons are spread all over the west: Anthony is working for a farm labor contractor in Arizona and California, Andrew just moved to Oregon, and Robbie is living la vida loca in the mountains of Colorado, working at a golf course in the summer and at a ski resort in the winter. They all are healthy and happy, as are Catharine and Ron.

The Hayden Sisters had to hit the road to get to an event, so they headed back to Casa Real and Gail and I took off for the last stop of the day. Since we had lost our guide, we were on our own in trying to find this place. Trying to read directions in reverse is tough but we ultimately found the Livermore Memorial Monument (Historical Landmark # 241). Robert Livermore, first settler of Livermore Valley, was born in England in 1799. He arrived in Monterey in 1822 and married Josefa Higuera y Fuentes in 1830. On his Rancho las Positas, where he settled in 1835, “Next to the mission fathers, he was the first man to engage himself in the culture of grapes, fruit, and grain.” He died in 1858. The Livermore hacienda was a short distance north of the location of the Historical Marker.

There really isn’t much to see here. The Marker is on the edge of Portola Park, which is surrounded on two sides by fast roads and on the third side by an auto repair shop…it is an urban park. It didn’t look like many people actually used the park but at least it was clean and the grass was green.

After checking out this spot, it was time for lunch. Gail and I headed to First Street, where we had some yogurt and a most excellent burrito. After lunch, we rode into a stiff head wind back to Casa Real and loaded the tandem onto the car, getting ready to head home.

While we were driving out of Livermore, we decided that we had some unfinished business in Benicia, so we headed north on I-680 to see some more landmarks. More on that later

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