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James Foster and Alyssa Barber, Concannon’s winemaking team, display their State Fair award-winning wines.

The very fact that Concannon Vineyard wines still are made in a deliberate and intentional manner, with great respect to the land from which the grapes draw life, and in keeping with the longstanding tradition of this historical brand, is something of a miracle. They are effectively a small island fortress in the middle of the great Wine Group sea, holding up a torch of consistency and quality, continuing the quest of the Concannon family, even though Jim and John are effectively deep in the background now. Their legacy lives on in the efforts of James Foster and Alyssa Barber, the winemakers in charge of putting together the carefully sourced and thoughtfully crafted wines that bear the Concannon label.

Proof was in the pudding at the 2019 California State Fair, where the 2016 Stampmaker GSM took Best Red of Show. No small feat to stand out among thousands of entries and prevail in the final round of judging with over three dozen wines for judges to choose from in sweepstakes. Concannon was awarded four big Double Gold, BOC winners in this competition:

2016 Stampmaker GSM - Best of Class of Appellation, Best of Region, Best of California, Best of Show

2018 Rosé of Petite Sirah - Best of Class of Appellation

2016 Malbec - Best of Class of Appellation

2016 Petite Sirah - Best of Class of Appellation

I recently tasted through some of these award winners with winemaker Alyssa Barber, and learned a few things, not the least of which is that yeasts are her biggest allies in the quest to make great wines. “I might not get just the barrels I want, but I can’t compromise on my ‘fru fru’ yeasts!” she explains. “I use four to eight different yeasts for each different ferment to amplify complexity in aromas and flavors.”

Barber hails from Wyoming, where she graduated with a degree in Zoology and Physiology, but upon discovering the lure of wine, completed her winemaking certification at UC Davis. She’s been with Concannon since 2008, starting out in the Analytical Laboratory, then moved into winemaking, where she’s been ever since.

Head Winemaker, Foster, who started with The Wine Group in 1998, has been at Concannon since 2002.

Concannon currently has 189 acres of vineyards planted in Livermore, representing 13 varieties, of which 70 acres are Petite Sirah, with 16 new acres of Clone 7 Cabernet coming online. Of the total acreage, 60 are dedicated to the Concannon brand, with the remainder going to the national tier. All of the Cabernet grapes on the estate are hand picked: they were just about to bottle the 2017 vintage.

The 2016 Stampmaker, 50% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 20% Mourvedre, is one of those blends that offers something for everyone, with its fruit-forward friendliness from the Grenache, its savory energy from the Mourvedre and its peppery edge from the Syrah. It’s really built for food, and won’t overpower your palate. Stampmaker dates back to 2001, when John Concannon wanted to create a lighter style red for an easier style of drinking with summer foods.

Barber tells us that this one was made from estate Syrah and Mourvedre, with the Grenache coming from a half acre neighboring vineyard belonging to the Carters. Some of the estate vines are nearing 30 years old now, and are due for a replant. They’ll add more Grenache and Chardonnay, and according to Barber, “I’d also like to add some Pinot Noir, to see how it does. We added new Cabernet Franc and got about a half ton in 2018. It’s part of our new Cabernet program.” News on that further down the road.

A big fan of Mourvedre, she’d love to make a varietal bottling of this, but is generally overruled. She’s very particular about how the vines are pruned: she likes one shoot per spur and really wants to see 12 clusters per vine. Ideally, she’d like to get to 24—25 Brix on this notoriously late ripener, but admits they were lucky to reach 17 Brix in 2018. Still, she holds out hope, that one day, the stars will align.

While the Mourvedre might not have made it to the finish line in 2018 with flying colors, the Petite Sirah certainly did, expressing itself in the lovely rosé of Petite Sirah that scored Double Gold at the State Fair. Its aromas of lavender and roses are infinitely appealing, as are its fresh and lively flavors of strawberry, cranberry and cherry candy. And, the color is beautiful—a pale pink violet hue, with a touch of blue.

Another BOC winner at the State Fair, the 2016 Malbec, captures the red-fruited, cherry tobacco appeal of this varietal, whose more elegant attributes seem to speak out when grown in the Livermore Valley. Unlike Argentine examples, which seem to be heavier on the smoke, tobacco and chunky tannins, this Malbec plays ball by the rules, without the need for a dugout fight spilling onto the field.

The 2016 Petite Sirah, though, reminded me more of a typical ice hockey game, with intention-getting action in every aspect, from massive blackberry aromas, to its blueberry pie bordering on huckleberry flavors, with considerably chewy tannin, reminiscent of Joe Pavelski’s facial hair. You don’t necessarily drink this wine: you let it smash itself around in your mouth. If big-boned, hard swinging Petite Sirah is your thing, you’ll appreciate this.

Also on the tasting list when I visited was the 2016 Reserve Livermore Valley Chardonnay, from a vineyard in the Ruby Hill area. Quite tropical and rich, with lots of coconut, lemon pudding and butterscotch, it has just enough acidity to stand up to the vanillin imparted by the oak. If you like oak influence, this might be a home run for you.