Uncorking Livermore’s best

California’s Livermore Valley, for the uninitiated, is an AVA about an hour east of San Francisco. Places like the Napa Valley have eclipsed it, fame-wise, but Livermore is one of the state’s oldest wine regions. The first commercial vines were planted in the 1840s.

The wine scene is dominated by the historic Wente Vineyards – which was founded in 1883, making it the country’s oldest continuously operating family-owned winery. But the region has more than 50 wineries, many of them relative newcomers. And the quality of the wines keeps getting better.

It can be hard to keep up, which is one reason I accepted the opportunity to be a judge at the Livermore Valley Uncorked competition, organized by the Tri-Valley Conservancy, a land trust dedicated to preserving open space in the area. All the wines were made from Livermore Valley grapes.

Just a few highlights from the competition:

For sheer deliciousness, it would be hard to beat the 2016 Occasio Rosé ($25), made from grenache. The wine, which went on to be named the best wine of the competition, is lively and fresh, with plenty of red berry flavors and a persistent finish. And its pretty pink color is immensely appealing.

The top white was the 2016 Steven Kent Lola ($24), a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon that’s nicely balanced, with bright citrus, a fig note and some fleshiness. The top red was the 2014 Cuda Ridge Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon ($38), which is quite structured, with red fruit, hints of chocolate and pencil shavings and drying tannins. It will benefit from a few years in the bottle. I also really liked the top syrah, the 2012 Fenestra Syrah ($28), which is slightly meaty, with ample sweet berry fruit.

There were several other wines that were favorites of mine, even if they didn’t win their categories. For example, there was the 2012 Fenestra Conjugation ($35), a Bordeaux-style red blend that’s currently available only to the winery’s club members; it displays ripe red cherry and currant, a note of tobacco leaf and fine tannins. Another red blend I liked was the 2015 Pat Paulsen Grand Panjandrum ($26), a blend of mostly zinfandel, with some cabernet and syrah; it’s peppery and bright, with ripe berry and a hint of tobacco. (The wine is available in the tasting room and to the wine club.)

Two others worth noting are the 2014 Concannon Livermore Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($36), which offers lively, juicy red fruit and medium tannins, and the 2012 Eagle Ridge Petite Sirah ($35), which is dark, juicy and spicy, with firm but approachable tannins and some admirable restraint.