Many people are unaware that there is an AVA on the East Bay of San Francisco. The Lamorinda AVA, a hidden gem, is part of the Central Coast and San Francisco Bay AVAs. Located in Contra Costa County, the Lamorinda AVA encompasses the cities of Lafayette, Moraga, and Orinda. Let’s discover more about this little-known appellation and the micro-boutique wineries in this region.
Established as an AVA in 2016, Lamorinda, whose name combines the three cities that lie within the AVA. The Lamorinda AVA’s 30,000 acres consist of 139 acres planted with vineyards. These are suburban vineyards on residential lots. Most vineyards are terraced with thin clay-rich and sandy soils on hillside terrain. Because of the steep hills, vineyard maintenance and harvest are accomplished manually.
The climate is maritime. The Berkley Hills and the oceanic breeze and fog coming in from San Francisco Bay affect the area. With the variation of temperature throughout the AVA, warm and cool climate varieties grow depending on the location. The varietals grown include Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc in the whites and Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, and Syrah in the reds.
The Lamorinda Wine Growers Association consists of 80 members and six bonded wineries. In addition to the bonded wineries, there are many home winemakers. I had the privilege of sampling the wines of five of the bonded wineries.
Deer Hill Vineyards
Bill Scanlin, owner and winemaker of Deer Hill Vineyards planted his vineyards in 1998 with mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and a field blend of Merlot, Cabernet, and Malbec. The winery was bonded in 2010. In addition to his wines, he makes wine for other people with vineyards in the area.
When Bill purchased his home, he did not know what to do with his hilly acreage. Shortly after, a neighbor suggested he grow grapes, which Bill did with three-quarters of an acre. His first vintage, a Cabernet Sauvignon, occurred three years later in 2001. Bill started as a home winemaker, but as his passion grew, he not only got bonded, but he created an Italian grotto for tasting in what some might call his basement, an extension of his garage. A local muralist created murals that bring the outdoors inside. You walk in and go, wow, it makes for an extraordinary experience. The ambiance adds to the lure of Bill’s wines.
Bill started making Sangiovese in 2016. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his Sangiovese each year. His Sangiovese won Best in Class at the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition in 2017. Image his joy of producing a wine that can compete with the big guys of Napa.
Bill’s philosophy is to use low intervention, which comes through in his wines. He sources grapes for his Chardonnay from UC Davis and a vineyard in Walnut Creek. The Chardonnay ages for one year in oak.
My favorites were the Sangiovese, with its rustic qualities of red fruit, and the Cabernet Sauvignon showcasing dark fruit and lower tannins. The Sangiovese and the Cabernet Sauvignon were dryer on the palate and aged for two years in oak.
Los Arabis Vineyards
Named after the Arabian horses that ran around the hillside where winemaker/owner Jim and Leslie Ward live, the winery focuses on Pinot Noir. Leslie planted her vineyard in 1999 with 1500 Pinot Noir vines. In 2002 Los Arabis Vineyards produced its first vintage. The idea to plant vines came as they worried about the maintenance and potential fire hazard of their 3-acre hillside during the summer months. The Wards chose Pinot Noir because Lafayette’s climate has a diurnal shift from day to night that lends itself to growing Pinot Noir.
The property, located in the Happy Valley portion of Lafayette, includes a wine cave with a private tasting room, and the hillside terraced vines have a southwestern exposure. Winemaker Allison Schneider oversees production. The Pinot Noir ages 18 months in both French and American oak. I found a medium-bodied wine with lovely aromatics and cherry flavors.
Meadow View Winery
Winemaking started as a hobby for Bill English, a chemical engineer, and later became his 2nd career. He first began making wine in 1976. With some hiatuses in between, Meadow View Winery was licensed in 2014. He has steadily produced wine for about thirteen years. Until that time, he called himself an amateur.
Today, Meadow View Winery aims to create the best possible wine from fruit sourced from the Lamorinda AVA. Bill strives for balance, which means good body without excessive alcohol. The acidity is refreshing.
Bill mainly utilizes fruit from three vineyards whose temperature profiles are similar to Sonoma and Napa. The first vineyard, Isabelle’s Vineyard, just outside Moraga, Bill sources Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Sangiovese. This vineyard has a cool temperature profile. Mary Leigh’s Vineyard is located in Moraga, sourcing Chardonnay, Sangiovese, and Syrah. The third vineyard, Jon’s Vineyard, next door to Mary’s Bill, uses their Sangiovese, Merlot, and Chard.
Bill pick the grapes early from all three vineyards, avoiding excessive alcohol. Fermentation and aging occur separately.
The wines are far from amateur. Bill makes Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and a wine called Super T, his version of a Super Tuscan. I sampled the Super T and the Cabernet Sauvignon. Both were excellent.
Meadow View Super T 2019: Mainly combining Sangiovese with small portions of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, the wine utilizes grapes from all three vineyards Meadow View sources fruit. The wine ages 20 months in French oak and represents Meadow View’s most popular wine, and I can see why. The wine displays a nice balance and integration with subtle fruit nuances.
Meadow View Cabernet Sauvignon 2018: This Cabernet combines Cabernet Sauvignon primarily with Cabernet Franc. I found depth of character that exhibits a savory, herbaceous wine with dark fruit.
Raisin d’Être Vineyards
Daniel Howsepian, proprietor of Raisin d’Être Vineyards as a child, would visit his French relatives in France during the summer. While in Burgundy, he would spend time with his uncle JoJo, who was Cellar Master of “Dufouleur Père et Fils” in Nuit St Georges. His uncle and his family inspired Daniel to dream of one-day making wine and eventually owning his winery. Daniel’s dream also inspired his son, Julien, the winemaker at Kosta Brown.
Daniel’s career path took him into building development, primarily residential. Of course, that experience played a role in constructing his winery. The winery is built into a hill and constructed around the concept of gravity flow.
The name Raisin d’Être is Daniel’s take on the French expression Raison d’Être, which means ‘reason for being.’ I think it describes Daniel’s love of growing grapes and making wine and his reason for being.
The vineyards are located in Lafayette and planted in 2013 with Cabernet Sauvignon and a small portion of Merlot. Daniel sources his Petite Sirah from a neighbor and his Petit Verdot from someone in Moraga.
Daniel perfects his wines by using organic methods to nurture the soils, hand pruning, harvesting, and in the winery, minimal intervention.
Raisin d’Être Cabernet Sauvignon 2018: The wine blends Cabernet Sauvignon with a small percentage of Petite Sirah. While the wine ages for two years in both new and neutral oak before bottling. I found a big brooding Cabernet with dark fruit.
Raisin d’Être Petite Sirah 2018: The wine blends a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon with the Petite Sirah and ages for two years. I found Petite Sirah exhibits dark black fruit flavors and reveals itself as dryer than other versions of this variety.
Thal Vineyards was established in 2010 by Larry and Esther Thal. With over 2000 vines, principally Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc, the Thal’s harvested their first vintage in 2012. Like others in the area, they planted vines to provide a drought-tolerant and fire-resistant solution for their hillside property. Bill English is their winemaker.
Thal Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2020: This Sauvignon Blanc is created like Chardonnay. The wine barrel ferments and ages ten months in French oak. The barrel aging gives the wine its creamier texture. I found floral aromas followed by citrus, mainly lemon, accented by stone and tropical fruits on the palate.
Lamorinda AVA Wineries and Winemakers
Unique to the Lamorinda AVA, besides all the vineyards situated on hillside slopes, is the community’s camaraderie and the love and passion exuded by these winery owners and winemakers. The community wants everyone to succeed as they work together, encouraging and supporting each other. This cooperation will come full circle when their joint tasting room, Local Vines, opens in 2023.
The quality of the wine and the price points make this an area to keep on your radar. If you visit the East Bay, include the Lamorinda AVA in your wine tasting itinerary.
I want to thank Visit Concord for exposing me to this fabulous AVA.
Note: Common to the wine industry, this writer received a hosted winetasting and samples. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure.
Featured photo courtesy of Los Arabis Vineyards.