Appetite: Drinking in the Wente Vineyards Concert Series

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There may be other Bay Area concert winery venues (Mountain Winery, for example), but none like family-run Wente Vineyards in Livermore. Run by the same family for five generations and set on a 3000-acre expanse of golden rolling hills and vineyards, Wente is managed by delightfully down-to-earth members of the family who keep the business alive, yes, with wine-making, but also with a scenic golf course, a restaurant, and the aforementioned concert venue.

It's magic sitting out under the warm Livermore night sky, cradled by palms, vineyards and foliage, in a venue big enough to feel like an event, small enough to offer visibility. On August 19, I trekked out for a Chris Isaak show. I was a fan in high school, pleased to say he's utterly charming in person, maintaining old-fashioned showmanship and witty banter in a sparkly, classic country/Elvis-style wardrobe. The setting could not have enhanced the enchantment of his music more. The range (and randomness) of Wente shows is wide -- with appearances from my longtime hero, Harry Connick, Jr., or the likes of Liza Minnelli, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Fray, even ZZ Top (!)

The rest of this year's line-up includes Willie Nelson with Ryan Bingham on Monday, September 13, the one-and-only Harry Connick (sadly, his show is sold out) on September 21st, and a just-added Don Henley show on September 20th. Tickets are pricey, running just shy of $90 to nearly $150 for seats, or anywhere from $150 to just below $300 with dinner, whether it be outdoor picnics or a multi-course meal, wine included, in their restaurant. Of course, you can eat at the restaurant on non-concert days without concert prices.

But the combo of the two certainly makes for a memorable special occasion or date, and what surprises most is the quality of the food in a full, three-course dinner. My dinner was paired nicely with bottles of 2006 Murrieta's Well, a melon, vanilla-tinged white Meritage ($11 glass; $40 bottle), and a 2006 Annika Syrah, rich with plum and wild blackberry ($24 glass; $96 bottle).

Executive chef Eric Berg uses produce and herbs from their own organic garden (there's even a master gardener, Diane Dovholuk, on staff) and unusual offerings, like bison tenderloin tartare with yellow beets, green onion, creme fraiche, sorrel puree and beet greens. It was a treat to eat bison raw, tender and fresh with garden accents. Simple and pure shines in the case of Frog Hollow Peaches with red onion, toasted hazelnuts, mizuna greens and pancetta vinaigrette. A perfect Summer dish.

Liberty Farms duck breast "scaloppini" with leg confit, horseradish gnocchi, charred lemon zest and smoked eggplant puree was appropriately prepared medium-rare with the confit leg adding succulence. Wagyu flatiron steak & Maine lobster is a pleasing "surf and turf" combo, prepared with stewed heirloom chiles, fingerling potato fondant, in a lobster-veal sauce.

Though I especially liked the sound of frozen horchata with hibiscus soup, local strawberries and mint, it was more like a bright palate cleanser than spiced with horchata flavor, while a local nectarine tartlette with sweet corn ice cream and salted caramel lingered longer and pleasurably.

Needless to say, it's a hefty splurge, but the whole package, both dinner and concert, is a uniquely California experience: vineyards, palm trees, garden-fresh cuisine, even an Old West feeling of remoteness out among dry, rolling hills, create a bewitching evening.

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