As is so often the case in life, the farther off you look the more romantic the view: Sitting out on the terrace of Garré Winery’s Cafe — the patio of a ranch house on the edge of Livermore — diners gaze across a landscape of glass-and-metal tables with canvas umbrellas onto a just-mowed lawn barely big enough to support a croquet game. Just over the white lattice fence on its south side, though, is a wall of grapevines, and as you trace their rhythmic cords back and up toward the horizon, they are overtaken by tawny hills, and then the yearning blue of the California sky.
According to the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association, some half-million visitors a year now visit the region’s thirty-plus wineries. That’s a far cry from Napa Valley’s fourteen million tourists, but on weekends even Livermore quaffers jostle for enough space at the tasting room bars to prop themselves up.
This valley doesn’t have Napa’s rustic glamour. The hallmarks of suburbia are too evident. But it doesn’t have the traffic gridlock and tour buses, either. Livermore’s wine country still has enough low-key charm to make a day trip seem like a relaxing afternoon out. Three of its wineries — Garré, Stony Ridge, and Wente — earn a spot on the itinerary for their restaurants, which serve locals and tourists alike.
The most casual of the three is Trio at the Stony Ridge Vineyard. The menu sticks to Mediterranean-tinged salads and sandwiches, with a few appetizers to accompany a glass of wine, such as a compulsively snackable terrine of goat cheese, roasted peppers, and herbs wrapped in provolone slices. Even on hundred-degree days most of the diners, some still attached to their paper trails, sit on the graveled patio out back beneath a canvas-covered trellis that blocks most of the sun. Inside, the tiny dining room — air-conditioned, naturally — immerses diners in a Main Street USA confection of murals.
The food quality is what you’d expect of a local lunch spot. Billie’s Caesar Salad — Billie Calfo being the owner and chef — arrives on a plate bigger than most Manhattan garden plots. She scatters fruit heavily across the top, and depending on how each type complements the garlicky dressing and the freshly grilled chicken determines how much the combination succeeds. A delicate thing is the spring salad, with the light, sweet flavors of pears, poppy-seed dressing, and unroasted walnuts offset by crumbled Gorgonzola cheese. A leg-of-lamb sandwich on whole-grain bread is stuffed with fantastically tender meat, shaved fine, but it needs more than a smear of mustard and a few roasted garlic cloves to offset its meatiness. If you’re not too intimidated to nap at work later, finish with a slice of Billie’s “Secret Cake,” a blondie that has wallowed in Dutch crumb topping. Alternately gooey and crumbly, the cake tastes like one of those combine-two-boxed-mixes recipes, and is impossible to stop eating.
According to its Web site, Stony Ridge Winery produces seven different wines, a far cry from the dozens of reds and whites offered by Wente Vineyards. Wente is the valley’s big player and a central part of its cultural life. Wente’s concert series draws big names and big crowds of music lovers. Golf carts swarm its links, and scurry up and down its trails like giant beetles. The Wente Vineyards Restaurant, now helmed by chef Elisabeth Schwarz, is the dining destination for the Tri-Valley area.
The Spanish-mission exterior of the building gives way to dining rooms filled with thick-hewn woodwork, enormous sprays of flowers, and views of the surrounding vineyards. Very quietly, the servers segregate diners according to casual or formal dress, yet both groups merit attractive rooms and the same menu. The restaurant is open for both lunch and dinner — both are special-occasion meals with special-occasion prices. Schwarz focuses on seasonal California cuisine, but doesn’t defer to her ingredients, stamping them with a playful sensibility.
The food is also quite pretty: Pink and gold baby beets in one salad appear not just roasted and peeled but polished, their winsome earthiness playing off rounds of fresh goat cheese rolled in walnuts and watercress sprigs tossed in a flashy vinaigrette made with sweet Banyuls, a French dessert wine. Toasts laden with sautéed mushrooms and shaved curls of sharp pecorino were showered with wispy, peppery microgreens barely big enough to form leaves.
Schwarz’ imagination often runs to the baroque. Dishes such as a fillet of halibut spread with an avocado-melon salsa undergirded with a whispery citrus-coconut broth and propped up by purple Peruvian potatoes and braised cabbage take as much time to describe as they do to eat. In fact, she sometimes gets so enthusiastic for all the ingredients at her command that she adds too many — the pea shoots scattered around a King salmon fillet on big-pearl Sardinian “couscous” got lost, and the competition between basil vinaigrette and Meyer lemon beurre blanc sauces muddied both. Other times, her sense of drama results in a Santa Rosa plum chutney spreading across the top of a smoked pork chop as thick as a Bible, red-purple streams of sauce pooling around the edges and in the pockets of a luxurious butter-yellow polenta. The chutney was meant to shock, and did so, deliciously.
Wente isn’t the only restaurant to host concerts. On Friday nights, the only time Trio and Cafe Garré are open for dinner, both restaurants offer live music and dinner. Garré recently began hosting “Bocce Ball and Italian Dinner Nights” on alternate Wednesdays. As far as a casual lunch goes, Garré, helmed by Ty Turner, prevails, offering straight-up, boldly seasoned salads, sandwiches, and pastas worthy of a bottle of wine or two. A tri-tip sandwich with melted Cheddar and horseradish cream merits at least a glass of Nonna’s Family Reserve, a rustic, jammy Barbera-Merlot-Cab Franc blend. Honey mustard gives a kick to the Sierra Club sandwich — avocado, sprout, cucumber, and Cheddar salad — saving it from its own healthfulness. Marinated dried figs, candied pecans, and Gorgonzola enrich the mixed greens in the Wine Country salad. And a chunk of braised pork, one of a few more-substantial entrées on the menu, falls apart at the touch, its meaty juices infusing the rice pilaf underneath.
The service lacked the same polish. Our waiter was an affable guy who got the technical details of service right, but kept disappearing into the back for long periods and returning with excuses. “We don’t have a buser today,” was his first, as he caught us looking around at the dirty plates on every table, where they stayed for another hour. But the Livermore sun called forth the casual in us, too, and after a flight or two of wine we had no reason to rush.