Getting there is the least fun part of a typical wine tour, as you sniff auto exhaust for miles on end, but things are different in the Livermore Valley. This compact wine region's unique layout features clusters of wineries and encourages a new definition of wine touring: on foot, by horse, bike or train, or even by BART.
"We're very accessible," says Chris Chandler, executive director of the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association. "Some people even take limos from the BART station."
That would be the Dublin-Pleasanton stop, less than 10 miles away.
Avoiding clogged roads, belching tour buses and navigation disputes is easy in this region, where the wineries are so close together, Chandler says. First-time visitors expecting suburban sprawl instead find open space and gentle hills carpeted with vineyards.
Over the years, this topography has inspired a handful of would-be entrepreneurs, whose short-lived businesses have offered wine tours by horse-drawn carriage, Jeep or electric scooter -- and even plans for a zip-line vineyard tour.
The most enduring approach is run by 4-year-old Livermore Valley Wine & Cycle Tours, which takes advantage of Livermore's mellow byways and plentiful bike paths -- and takes climate into consideration.
"If it's over 93 degrees, I reschedule. I don't want anybody to have a heat stroke on my watch," owner Barbara McCall says.
Her tours are laid-back rather than hard-core, with cycling routes of less than 10 miles, but tentative cyclists and weary sippers can always hop into the accompanying van. "We affectionately call it the poop-out mobile," she says.
Another option is a self-catered tasting hike, which covers short distances while packing in a large number of wineries. On bucolic Greenville Road in southeast Livermore, six wineries are within less than a mile, so even winemakers use foot power to visit neighbors, says John Marion, owner of Big White House Winery.
The walking is easy, and the views can be as intoxicating as the wine. "The French guests say, 'This looks just like Provence,' " says Pat Heineman, co-owner of Bent Creek Winery. "People from Italy say, 'This looks just like Tuscany.' "
Another good walking route is along a veritable wine avenue: Tesla Road, a country lane teeming with wineries such as Wente, Tamás Estates, Steven Kent, La Rochelle, Stony Ridge and Concannon.
But the least-strenuous way to taste Livermore Valley wines is on the Niles Canyon Railway, whose vintage rolling stock runs on tracks that were part of the first transcontinental railroad. The train chugs between Sunol and Fremont through wooded scenery inhabited by deer and wild turkeys, delivering a two-hour ride while guests taste five Livermore wines and paired nibbles.
"We don't go zipping by there at 50 miles an hour; we go very slow," says Steve Ferree, who runs the wine tastings. "On the old trains and old tracks, slow is much better."
Last year's wine-tasting trains sold out, and plans are brewing for additional wine-related events such as dinner trains, assisted by Ferree's thoughtful wine curation: "The smaller boutique wines that people might not have heard of, I want to spread that word."
For those in the horse set, another way to go wine tasting is on a guided equine ride during Livermore's Spring Stampede, sponsored by the state horsemen's association. Trotting along vineyard trails has a few restrictions, says stampede coordinator Carolyn Hendrickson: "No kids, no stallions." Other than that, "It's whatever your style of saddle, so long as you can stay in it."
Whatever the mode of transportation, wine tasting in the Livermore Valley is invariably a sweet surprise for first-timers.
"We could run a whole campaign called the 'I had no idea' campaign," Chandler says. "When people come out here for the first time, they always say, 'I had no idea.' "