Look at these bottles to the left. Have you seen these before? Of course you have. They’re among the most widely used wines for glass pours in restaurants, house wines for bars and taverns, and banquet wines, for which they are nearly omnipresent, mainly for their absurdly low price point but also, like Beringer and Mondavi, they are unwaveringly consistent and enjoyable, vintage after vintage, bottle after bottle.
BUT, as with those of us here in Seattle and in many parts of the US, those bottles are all we see from Concannon Vineyards, the oldest continuously-operated family winery in the United States. Founder James Concannon, who planted much of his own vineyards, back in 1883(!), is universally recognized as one of the true Founding Fathers of American wine. This is straight out of the Concannon website:
“James recognized that the terroir of California’s Livermore Valley was strikingly similar to the premier vineyards of Bordeaux. So, he established Concannon Vineyard, which not only became the first successful winery founded by an Irish immigrant, but also established Concannon as a founding family of the California wine industry.
After intensely studying winegrowing while in Bordeaux as well as at University of California – Berkeley, James was one of the first to craft Bordeaux-style wines in California. He became well-known for his meticulous selection of only the highest quality vines, which he imported directly from Bordeaux, including from renowned Château Margaux and Château d’Yquem.“
Most – as in 80%! – of the American Cabernet you drink can be traced back to clones propagated from the original Chateau Margaux cutting that James Concannon brought over from France and planted in 1893. After the disastrous phylloxera blight that almost destroyed the French wine industry, in the mid-1800s, (causing soiled undies among winemakers all over the globe) oenologists began looking in earnest for vines that would prove resistant to such aphid and fungal blight. In the 1950s, when the California wine industry was still shaking off the effects of the long layoff caused by Prohibition, Dr. Harold Olmo – University of California/Davis’ renowned “Indiana Jones” of viticulture – came up with a vine certification plan, aimed at propagating and distributing virus-resistant rootstock; a sort of vinicultural defibrillator for reviving the moribund California trade. It seems like a joke, now, to look back and see that in the early 1960s, a measly 700 acres, in all of Cali, were planted to Cabernet Sauvignon. Dr. Olmo was sold on the potential of California red wine and began a dogged effort to locate the best, most prolific Cabernet vines that would combine productivity and disease/pest resistance…and his main accomplice was Jim Concannon, third-generation winemaker for Concannon Vineyards.
Again, from the Concannon website:
“Jim was an avid proponent of Dr. Olmo’s visionary work in clonal selection and contacted him about our extremely rare 19th century Bordeaux vines. Hoping to develop Cabernet clones benefiting all California winemaking, in 1965 Jim collaborated with Dr. Olmo and Curt Alley of UC Davis in developing the Concannon Clones 7, 8, 11, sired by three cuttings taken from a single vine, the “Concannon Mother Vine”, propagated from extraordinary Cabernet that our founder, James, had imported in 1893 from Château Margaux, one of the legendary, five “First Growth” chateaux of Bordeaux.
These three cuttings were heat-treated to eliminate any virus disease, propagated and observed in UC Davis’ Oakville vineyard. As observed by UC Davis, the Concannon Clones consistently produce high yields of best quality fruit and make exceptional wines. From 1970-1974, UC Davis registered and released the Concannon Clones 7, 8, 11 to the industry.
Then, with the historic, 1976 Judgment Of Paris and California’s new excitement for producing Cabernet, the Concannon Clones quickly became an essential asset to the enormous expansion of Cabernet plantings in California that ensued from the 1970s to the present.”
I usually never lift copy from websites of producers I’m profiling but Concannon’s story is SO compelling and so pivotal that I’m more interested, here, in getting this to you unfiltered that with my writerly ego. The simple fact is that, lurking behind most of those California Cabs that you and I and Greek billionaires and Norwegian fishermen and Australian sheep farmers have swooned over for generations, is Concannon and an amazing tract of land that nurtured those original Bordeaux cuttings and has been producing wines from those roots for 124 years. According to Dr. Deborah Golino, PhD, Director of Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis, America’s foremost oenology school, “In this day and age, there’s an explosion of clones, but the solid clones that built the Cabernet industry in California are the Concannon clones.”
And that tract of land, the literal Mothership of the California and American Cabernet industry is located in…
For those who don’t know, Livermore is a small city of about 85K, located about 15 miles east of the Hayward/San Leandro/Oakland East Bay ‘burbs of San Francisco. It’s not one of those atmospheric, wine-soaked, tourist-intensive Wine Valhallas like Napa and Sonoma and Piedmonte and Barossa and Mendoza and Red Mountain. Much more than wine, in fact, Livermore is known as the home of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the planet’s most hard-science-intensive, ultra-secret, national defense-related research facilities, where all manner of weird, borderline scifi shit is worked at and developed, mostly to benefit national security efforts. I took a short tour, while I was in Livermore, and I still have almost no idea what they do there…and probably don’t want to.
But James Concannon noted that eerie similarity to Bordeaux, back in the 1880s, thought “Hmmm…“, and literally put down roots there. And, to my eye – imaging away the condos and the Laboratory and the In ‘N’ Out Burger – I quickly understood why James came under the spell of the place: gently rolling hills, loose soils with exceptional drainage, clay lying under a thin skin of gravelly topsoil, and that NorCal climate that offers hot days and cool nights, with moisture-laden ocean air seeping in as the sun goes down. The area around Livermore Lab is wall-to-wall vineyards and dozens of small, boutique wineries, most of which you never heard of. 3 Steves? McGrail Vineyards? Garré? Nella Terra? Vasco Urbano?…No? Don’t blame you. I hadn’t either. And, just to come clean, even though I did know some of this history about Concannon – as well as the fact that James Concannon planted the first Petit Sirah vines in the US and is solely responsible for one of my favorite grapes being available to me at all – I wasn’t going to visit.
Like most Americans, all I had seen of Concannon for twenty years was those bottles above. In fact, a couple of years back, Concannon’s PR firm sent me a bottle of the Coastal Cabernet for review and, as I don’t write up anything to which I have to assign a sub-90-point score, I didn’t review it. The wine was solid and clean and had nice body to it but wasn’t hitting any buttons. So, when I walked into Concannon’s handsome, California Mission-style tasting room building, I was mainly jazzed about the architecture and the vineyards and some mid-February sunshine.
One sip changed all of that.
Most wineries have a value tier and a premium tier; sometimes several of each. When I walked in and looked at their pour list, I wasn’t surprised as much as happy. This might be good, I thought, but I wasn’t prepared for how good. This was Livermore, for God’s Sake, not the epicenter of American wine. There in the massive shadows of Napa and Sonoma and Carneros and Spring Mountain and even kinky, nearby Lodi, Livermore disappears. And the total number of wineries that most Americans know from Livermore is…two: Wente and Concannon.
I told the women pouring that I was mainly interested in tasting wines made from their own estate vineyards and she complied with a smile. First up was the flat-damned gorgeous Concannon Reserve Viognier 2015 – one of my all-time favorite white grapes – that would have stood toe-to-toe with any domestic Viognier I’ve sampled in ten solid years. It exploded with fresh, pure tree fruit aromas, jasmine, and baked pears and followed all that on the palate. The cliched California over-oaking was nowhere in evidence. Their staff sommelier later told me that the final wine was a blend of 80% steel and 20 new French oak lots and that kiss of oak was flattering, rather than dominating. The mineral content of that lovely, rocky soil was front and center, shining through as a tangy sweetness that balanced prettily with that farmstand full of shockingly vivid fruit.No one would ever mistake it for a Condrieu or even a better Willamette Valley Viognier but few people would ever guess that it came from California. I’ve been plagued by quite a bit of disappointing Viognier over the past few years and this was like giving a starving beggar a fat steak. Just lovely wine. 96 Points
Now, I’m fully engaged. Any winery that shows that sort of judgment about a grape as finicky as Viognier must have Something Happening and, sure enough, out came the Concannon Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2015 that came out of the glass with zero trendy affectations – no grapefruit overdose, no wild acidity, no cat pee or burnt matches or wet stones – just crystalline purity and crisp tree fruit that played happily off subdued grapefruit, mellow citrus, mild saline, and gooseberries. I think, if I tasted it before the Viognier, I would have been even more impressed but it still lit me up like the Bay Bridge to San Francisco and reminded me why I ever drank California Sauv Blanc to begin with. It straddled the flinty austerity of the Loire with the refined opulence of our Washington Horse Heaven or Walla Walla Sauv Blanc and walked that line nimbly, while remaining distinct from both. 92 Points
Next up was the first red, the Concannon Reserve Zinfandel, maybe the wine I was most curious about, as it came from vineyards literally just over the hill and was 100% Livermore fruit. Another shock: in a state in which Zin shows its different origins as distinctly as any grape grown there, this Zin tasted nothing like Russian River, nothing like Napa, little like Dry Creek, not at all like Mendocino, and really not much like Lodi – arguably the most interesting current source for Zin – just 40 minutes north on I-5. This Zin reminded me more of a a slightly scaled-up Puglian Primitivo than the usual, peppery, brambly, spice-rubbed Cali Zin. This wine was rich, deep, soulful, emphasized dark berries over red, had near-perfect balance of tannins, alcohol, and acids, and betrayed not a trace of heat. The ABV is actually very modest, as California Zins go, clocking in at 14.7%, amply masked by rib-sticking dark fruits and baking spices. The Concannon Stones (as I had by then come to think of the emphatic minerality) was there but muted a bit by the bonanza of flavors. I had about a 2 ounce pour; fairly generous by tasting standards, and I sampled almost all of it, spitting grudgingly, just trying to put this wine into some frame of reference. Fail. This is very much its own species: dark but not muddy, rich but not heavy, spicy but not pushy about it, and familiar but not really. I didn’t run into any other Zins in Livermore (several of the wineries were closed, on that Wednesday afternoon) but I plan to. If this is what Livermore Zin is like, I Want More, like NOW. 95 Points
So….Concannon Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Livermore Valley 2014…The Big Enchilada. Or, it would be the Enchilada at any other NorCal winery, were it not for the fact that American Petit Sirah originated here, on the very same ground as the tasting room. That all-pervasive Cabernet has, of course, its progeny scattered to the four winds, all across America’s winescape, while Petit Sirah is still, irrationally, almost as scarce as Liberals in Alabama. Thus, Concannon Cabernet steps back just a millimeter or two on the broad stage of their wine roster. Not that that made any difference at all to me, standing in a room full of happy Thirty Somethings, all happily quaffing Petit Sirah. I got this enormous and totally unprecedented sense of the sheer depth of history and tradition involved in pulling the cork on a bottle of Concannon Livermore Cab and approached that glass as though I was in an audience with the Dalai Lama. And I was not disappointed.
Again, Concannon estate Cabernet immediately negates my All-American tendency to turn everything into a contest; see who’s best and what this one may lack as opposed to that. This was absolutely nothing like the unctuous, 30-weight, decadent palate bombs served in tasting rooms just 60 miles north, in Napa. The weight was maybe 75% of one of those. The palate was just as broad and the flavors, again, not laden with some oaky facade that stands in for fruit expression or grace notes. This was pure, clean, uncluttered Essence of Cabernet; lithe, pretty, subtle, even a dash exotic. The first flavor was something like blackberries with rosemary, a herb-tinged rush of dark berries, black currants, plums, black cherry, cocoa, and baking spices. The distinct aroma of pipe tobacco carries onto the palate, as a dark, smoky note like burnt sugar or leather. The balance of the elements is, to me, better than the usual run of Napa Cabernet. I love Napa Cabs but they can often be Much of A Muchness. The overall impression of this wine headed in that direction but knew when to stop. It winds up medium-to-full bodied and became softer and more expressive as I swirled. I could drink this stuff all day and this is not even their show-pony Cabernet. That title belongs to their Clone 7 Cab, a wine sourced directly from cloned vines of their original Concannon Clone 7 vines, as grown in Chalk Hill, Sonoma County, 100 miles to the north. I hope to taste that wine, someday, but, at $90 a pop and as much of a skinflint as I am, the likelihood of that happening is about the same as the chances that I’ll become a Republican. This stuff, though, is going to do me just fine, even if I never get a sniff of the Clone 7. 95 Points
Finally, it was time for the Concannon Reserve Polo Field Petit Sirah 2013. More than even with the Cabernet, this wine gave me a massive blast of history and tradition; the sheer gravitas of that estate being the literal American birthplace of all Western Petit Sirah, solely due to the great grandfather of the current Concannon, John, who was somewhere within a quarter mile or so of me, carrying on those inquisitive genes that led his Greatgramps to look at those small, fat, black, little-used grapes and think, “Maybe we could do something with this.” What they have done is create a roster of six different, earthy, chewy wines that are a perfect expression of this much-traveled varietal that came from France’s Rhone Valley under the name “Durif”, after its discoverer, Dr. Francois Durif.
Polo Field refers to the site of the source vineyard which, in Concannon’s distant past, was an actual polo field. The vineyard lies on the valley floor and sits under a blanket of slightly cooler air than the hillside vineyards around it. The grapes are notably more expressive and reflective of their environment than any other Petit Sirah wines I’ve ever tasted. Here in Washington, the grape is becoming more widely planted but much of the wine traditionally wound up blended, to add bottom end and heft to other grapes. But in this wine, whose vines are the oldest in the US, the soulful character is off the charts. Notes of blackberries, cherries, peppercorns, violets, licorice, and black currants erupted on my tongue and hints of teaberry and sumac and gunpowder followed. The texture is rich and just faintly viscous, like much-diluted glycerine. The finish was long and lingering and the core flavors – the blackberry liqueur and cherries and cassis – resurfaced assertively. It was an outright bewitching wine and one that my freakish sense memory burps up in my sleep, some nights. “Unforgettable” would not be inappropriate and, again, this is not even the top of the Concannon line. 96 Points
LeAnn Kaufman, Concannon’s bright, very articulate staff sommelier, graciously spent about 30 minutes answering questions about the estate, each wine, and the winery’s processes. She was the model of hospitality and provided a surprise: the Concannon Reserve Grenache 2015. I’m a sucker for this quirky, expressive, medium-weight grape, especially in its Spanish incarnations, and this wine was a flat-out stunner. Huge volleys of red berries, dried cranberries, Mediterranean spices, rhubarb, Maraschino cherries, red currants, and those Concannon Stones shot out of the glass and swamped my palate. The texture was viscous and yet light and supple and the intensity of the wine, the sheer Presence of the stuff, was a little overwhelming. I came home with two bottles of wine from this visit, after checking with people back home to make certain that any of these wines are available in and around Seattle: the Viognier and Grenache, which is now limited to wine club sales. I cannot wait to taste these again and this Grenache is going to be one of those special treats that begs to be shared with family and dear friends. 96 Points
The moral of this story is simply this: If I had indeed not bothered to swing in to Concannon’s gates, out there on Tesla Road, just south of downtown Livermore, I would have sailed right on, thinking that Concanon was all about solid but unremarkable value wines…and in that I would still be half right: a quick glance at the wines listed on their website shows that not one of these genuine gems costs more than that $90 Cabernet and only five of the Reserve Series wines run above fifty bucks. In fact, out of the 23 wines in their whole roster, only those five are over fiddy and an entire spectrum costs under $20.
Concannon is one of the most emphatic and pleasurable shocks I’ve been given in my last ten years as a wine writer and I would urge anyone, down visiting the California glamour destinations, to at least consider getting out of the Napa-Sonoma strait-jacket for a day trip down to that tiny, well-kept, secret oenological miracle that wraps around Livermore like a one-armed hug and offers surprises like those I found on Tesla Road. Concannon may be under-appreciated but it is absolutely NOT under-skilled, under-evolved, or “under” anything else but its comfortable obscurity and a beautiful blanket of California sunshine.