Editor's note: Organizers of the 36th annual Harvest Wine Celebration announced Thursday afternoon that the event planned for Sunday and Monday has been canceled due to near record-breaking heat expected in the Tri-Valley this weekend.
Both Sunday's celebration at Las Positas College and free tastings scheduled for ticketholders at wineries Monday have been called off and will not be rescheduled, Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association executive director Chris Chandler said in a statement. All ticket purchases will be refunded.
“We were very excited about the 2017 Harvest Wine Celebration, which would have brought all of our member wineries together at the top of Las Positas College, but our first priority is the health and welfare of our community,” Chandler said. “The excessive heat forecasted by local and national weather services is a safety risk we are not willing to take. Our board explored moving the event to an indoor location but the tight timeframe and size of the event made moving impossible."
Friday's cover story, "Fruits of their labor," was sent to press Wednesday before the cancellation announcement. Below is the original story as it appears in the Sept. 1 print edition in its entirety.
On a pleasantly warm morning last week, a small crowd gathered under a canopy of wine grapes at Concannon Vineyard in Livermore for a centuries-old ceremony in recognition of the pending wine grape harvest.
Organized by the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association, the annual Blessing of the Grapes saw local clergy, winemakers and grape growers come together to give thanks for the upcoming bounty. While many growers there did not anticipate they would start picking until after Labor Day, those like Steve Burman of Livermore's 3 Steves Winery were eager and ready.
"For winemakers, this time of year is what we live for," said Burman, who has been a full-time winemaker and winery owner for nearly a decade. "I feel like a little kid and Santa's on his way."
This Sunday, Burman's winery will join more than 40 others for the first day of the 36th annual Harvest Wine Celebration, which will take place for the first time at the Las Positas College sports field. Against a backdrop of windmills and vineyards, attendees 21 and older will be able to taste Livermore Valley wines, enjoy live music and art and buy fare from food trucks between noon and 5 p.m.
And on Monday more than 30 wineries will honor event wristbands for additional tastings and special events, which will take place at the wineries themselves as in previous years.
"The event (Sunday) will take place on the top of the hill at Las Positas College, on their sports field area,” said Bethany Wallace, Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association events and marketing manager. “This is the first time an event like this has taken place there, and it is a perfect setting. You can see vineyards, the windmills, and look out over the Valley.”
"I hope participants take away the spirit of Livermore Valley and an urge to visit our varied tasting rooms and to share the magic with their friends and networks,” she added.
This year's harvest holds much intrigue for local winemakers and growers because in recent history, none have gone through several years of drought immediately followed by a winter of abundant rainfall, according to Burman.
"No one has gone through five years of drought followed by rain -- we're creating the first data point in this regard," Burman said.
"It's part of the excitement for winemakers," Burman added. "If the weather and fruit cooperated every year, we'd get bored. Our job is to take whatever fruit we get and make the best wine we can."
All about the process
The Livermore Valley American Viticultural Area -- the moniker given to a federally designated wine grape growing region -- is one of the oldest in the state and encompasses seven cities, according to Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association media liaison Tami Kelly.
"A lot of people think of it as just Livermore, but it's a much larger area," she said, pointing to other communities covered like Pleasanton and Sunol.
The window to harvest wine grapes in Livermore Valley wine country opens in mid-August and can close as late as Halloween, with different varieties ripening at different times.
Picking by hand and sometimes by machine, workers convene in the vineyards early each morning -- often hours before sunrise -- so that day's harvesting can wrap up before the heat becomes a factor.
Aug. 25 proved to be the first day of crush season for McGrail Vineyards and Winery in Livermore, as that morning fruit was picked and brought over from nearby Ghielmetti Vineyard, where McGrail gets their Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
Winemaker Mark Clarin, who joined McGrail in 2009, said that day he anticipated Cabernet Sauvignon grapes would be the first of the grapes grown on McGrail property to be picked this season, but not until mid-September. Besides Cabernet Sauvignon, McGrail also grows Merlot, Malbec, Touriga Nacional, Souzao and Tempranillo wine grapes on 27 acres.
A slight breeze blew through the vineyards as McGrail employees laughed and talked while processing the wine grapes. The grapes slowly spilled out in bunches onto a conveyor belt, where they continued on into a membrane press for crushing before fermenting.
Their red grapes, meanwhile are de-stemmed and crushed into tanks before fermentation, Clarin explained.
"Once fermentation is done, depending on the grape varieties you can do different things, like Sauvignon Blanc I'll rack it off the leaves, start heat and cold stability and get it ready to bottle right away," he said. "With Cabernet Sauvignon, I rack it into barrels and let the wine age for almost three years."
That means McGrail's 2017 Sauvignon Blanc will come out in 2018, while the 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon won't hit shelves until 2020. Each year, the winery produces 6,000 cases -- or 72,000 bottles.
"The neat thing about winemaking is your job changes as the year goes by," Clarin said. "I don't pick grapes every day, I don't press grapes every day, I don't fill barrels every day, I don't fill bottles every day -- I just do it throughout the year, which is kind of cool."
Celebrating the harvest
Among the benefits of growing wine grapes in the Tri-Valley is the rainfall pattern, according to Clarin.
"When the rain comes in to the Bay Area, most of the rain gets dumped in the mountains to our west and we get a little bit of rain," he said, adding that gives McGrail better control over their vines by utilizing drip irrigation.
"For some reason, the bad storms that come during crush or the ones that come during bloom in the spring tend to miss Livermore," Clarin continued. "They either go to the south central coast or north central coast like Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley."
This past winter brought an end to several years of drought in California. Clarin said the rain "seems to be impacting things in a positive way."
"The canopies have been very healthy and the crop load has been really well-balanced," he said. "What I'm probably most happy about with the amount of rainfall that we got is the snow runoff has been through the whole summer, so the quality of our irrigation water is excellent. In the drought years with increased salinity, you're watering your vines with a little bit of salty water and they don't like that."
But at the same time, Clarin said, there's a lot more to grape growing than the water.
"Drought obviously is part of the weather, but how hot is the summer, how warm is the spring, did we get any rain during spring? Those types of things have affected each vintage as well," he said.
Burman, whose winery grows Cabernet Sauvignon grapes on seven acres of land, said this year's harvest is looking good at the outset.
"It looks like we're slightly above average in overall yield," he added. "From a quality standpoint, the fruit tastes wonderful."
Amid the busyness of crush season, Labor Day weekend gives winemakers like Clarin the opportunity to pause with the annual Harvest Wine Celebration. Besides tasting other local wines, he will play guitar as a member of the Bacchus Brothers (aptly named for Bacchus, the Greek god of wine) at Las Positas College on Sunday.
"It's a great publicity event for Livermore Valley winegrowers, for all of us to get new people to show up to Livermore Valley and try our wines," he said. "It's amazing to me how many people live in the Bay Area -- in fact live in the Livermore Valley -- that don't know that we grow grapes.
"I think we need to keep continuing to hammer the idea that we are a wine-growing region, we've been here a long time and we want to be here a lot longer."
The 36th annual Harvest Wine Celebration, a fundraiser of the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association, will take place this Sunday and Monday.
* From 12-5 p.m. Sunday at the Las Positas College sports field (3000 Campus Hill Drive in Livermore), attendees 21 years old and up can taste Livermore Valley wines from more than 40 wineries, buy fare from food trucks, and enjoy art and live music from Icelandic Underbelly, Kingsborough and Bacchus Brothers.
Tickets are $55/person through today and $65 at the door. VIPs (at a cost of $85 through today and $100 at the door) get preferred parking, complimentary small plates of food, lounge seating and exclusive tasting of signature wines. All tickets include wine tastings, a commemorative Livermore Valley wine country glass, a program and wine discounts at select wineries on Monday.
Parking is $5 per car and complimentary for VIPs, and there will be a designated drop-off area for limos, Uber, Lyft and other transportation.
* On Labor Day more than 30 wineries will honor Sunday's event wristbands for tastings and special offerings like live music and food.
For complete information visit www.lvwine.org.