Most of us know Contra Costa as the county where a handful of ancient vines produces coveted zinfandel and mourvedre grapes. So it may come as a surprise that the area stretching from Walnut Creek to Pleasanton -- the San Ramon Valley, as some call it -- is home to another 20 vineyards.
Most are home vineyards, however, and the grapes grown on these private properties go into wines that you and I will never taste -- unless you happen to snag a bottle of Glenn and Linda Novotny's wines.
They are the proprietors of Glennhawk Vineyards, the only commercial wine operation in Danville. The name pays homage to the black hawks that regularly soar above their estate. The ornate landscaping and multicolored brick edifice give the feeling of a Tuscan villa.
The Novotnys purchased their home on Piedmont Lane in 2003. They hired consultants from Robert Mondavi Winery to test the soil in the backyard, a former apple orchard, and determine what grapes would grow best.
The following year, they planted an acre of merlot, zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon on the hill below their home. They farm holistically, without the use of pesticides or herbicides, and pay their grandkids $5 an hour to pull weeds between the 17,000 vines.
In 2007, the Novotnys harvested their first vintage and hired Kevin Vecchiarelli of Napa Valley's Grgich Hills to make the wines. "We met Kevin through a friend," says Glenn Novotny, who retired as CEO of Walnut Creek's Central Garden and Pet that same year. "When he tasted the wine, he told us it was good enough to sell."
Vecchiarelli brought along Grgich Hills vineyard manager Dave Bos. But Novotny's expertise comes in handy, too. For instance, it was his idea to lay landscape fabric under the vineyard to protect the soil and prevent erosion. "It's also easier to walk on," he says.
In 2009, Novotny took the commercial plunge, producing 350 cases of zinfandel and a red blend called Diablo Royale. The 2009 Diablo Royale ($30) is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and a splash of petit verdot from a neighbor's vineyard. It has dark, blackberry characteristics with notes of vanilla.
The 2009 Glennhawk Zinfandel ($28) is surprising. Unlike most California zinfandels, it is not overly extracted; it's more subdued, with tart raspberry flavors and a hint of spice. The wines are available via the website, www.glennhawk.com, as well as at many Danville restaurants, including the Vine at Bridges, Forbes Mill Steakhouse and Basil Leaf Cafe.
Novotny has high hopes for the 2012 vintage, which he predicts will be more fruitful than 2011.
"We experienced a shorter rainy season and have had significantly more warm days this summer," he says. If all goes according to plan, he will harvest his grapes next weekend with help from an experienced Napa crew. And his grandkids, of course.
where to taste
Glennhawk Vineyards wines are available at the following Danville restaurants: Forbes Mill Steakhouse, Basil Leaf Cafe, the Vine at Bridges, and Wild Vine Hideaway. www.glennhawk.com