The afternoon sun combed across the hills of Sunol, shifting the shadows across Gerry Beemiller’s rows of young grapevines. Beemiller descended the hill on a long staircase that jutted through the vines, overlooking a manicured pond complete with a surging waterfall and new bocci ball courts.
“We’re the newbie in the Livermore [American Viticulture Area],” said Beemiller, scanning the expanse of his land which included a 30 foot sculpture of a wine barrel, emblazoned with the winery’s name - Nella Terra. “This year we’ll make about 400 cases.”
Beemiller’s production of Pinot Noir and something he calls Redded Bliss, is modest in comparison with Livermore Valley’s big wineries, some which turn-out a million cases a year. Still Beemiller’s brand new winery marks a significant milestone in the Livermore Valley’s long wine-making history.
“We’re now about back at the point when Livermore was in its peak,” said Beemiller, whose winery is believed to be the 50th for the region.
The heyday of Livermore Valley winemaking history is generally regarded as before the 1920s, at least as far as volume, when the valley was booming with winemaking operations straining to supply rapidly expanding cities like San Francisco.
“There was quite a bit more vineyard acreage than there is now,” said Philip Wente, operations manager of Wente Vineyards. “There was probably in the neighborhood of twelve to fifteen thousand acres of vineyard where we’re more like 3,000 to 3,500 acres today.”
Back in those days, there were an estimated 60 to 70 wineries in the valley turning out a variety of wines including prized Chardonnay. But then came the death knell of Prohibition.
“Ninety-nine percent of the wineries closed down,” said Jim Concannon, whose grandfather opened Concannon Winery in 1883. The federal ban on the majority of alcohol manufacturing and sales swept slowly across the valley — winery owners helplessly watched its iron rule coming like a thick, merciless fog storming over the hills.
“We went into the dairy business, we planted lots of hay and grain,” said Philip Wente, whose great-grandfather founded Wente Vineyards, also in 1883. “It provided a fairly steady business for Wente, not as big as we had known prior to prohibition.”
As wineries across the valley closed up, Wente and Concannon managed to soldier on by making and selling sacramental wines to churches, one of the few exemptions allowed under the Volstead Act. When Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933, they were the only two Livermore Valley wineries still standing. Even in the decades after Prohibition’s repeal, only a trickle of wineries came back.
“Ten or 15 reopened after prohibition,” said Wente, tapping on a large 130 year old barrel. “It really took until the '60s or '70s to gain a lot of momentum. The early eighties, there was a full on wine boom going again, so it was almost a 50 year clawback.”
Enter Beemiller and his Nella Terra winery (which also hosts weddings). With the official opening of his winery, he took out the paperwork last year, 2015 will mark the first time since Prohibition the Livermore Valley is once again home to at least 50 wineries.
It is a long, long rebound stretched out over 95 years - coming at a time when Prohibition is far-off memory in a boozy world soaked in mixology and and an endless tap of wine and liquor. Even so, Beemiller brims with pride as he considers his place among the rich history of the valley’s long wine-making tradition, which still includes stalwarts Wente and Concannon.
“I’ll try to earn my way into that,” Beemiller said, showing off his former garage which now serves as Nella Terra’s tasting room. “I think as we mature and as we make more and better wines we’ll earn our position as one of the good, really fine Livermore wine growers.”