The Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association barrel tasting weekend took place March 23 and 24. Saturday’s barrel tasting crowds were far larger than Sunday’s.

The first tasting this year began at Rodrigue Molyneaux, where the welcoming garden seating was conducive to hanging out and enjoying some 2018 Pinot Blanc or perhaps some Cabernet Franc. This was the most educational on the Painted Barrel Trail. Three samples of vintage 2018 Merlot from Thatcher Bay Vineyard were served from new Medium+ toast French barrels, new Medium+ Hungarian barrels and neutral American oak. The different flavors imparted by the oak were vividly apparent, with the French being the most toasty and round, the Hungarian being the most spicy and inTrusive and the American oak barrel, being neutral, let the fruit be itself. For such a young wine, it certainly has wonderful Merlot character.

There should be more good Merlot in Livermore. There’s no reason winemakers across the board can’t make better Merlot: the climate is actually quite right for it here. There’s a reason it’s the dominant grape on the Right Bank of Bordeaux, and why so many Bordeaux vineyards contain a significant proportion of Merlot, even if Cabernet is the dominant part of their blend, as in Chateau Lafite. St. Emilion and Pomeral are typically 100% Merlot. Did you know that Merlot is the most widely planted grape throughout France, with double the acreage of Cabernet Sauvignon? In fact, while we’re on topic, what’s the second most widely planted red in France? You’d be right if you said Grenache.

Merlot is much less a fan of heat than Cabernet Sauvignon. That means it doesn’t need as much heat to mature and can generally get riper sooner during less than ideal conditions. Because its tannins are softer and it tends to exhibit a more attractive and accessible fruit profile, Bordeaux style blends really benefit from ample doses of Merlot, especially in cooler vintages when Cabernet struggles to get out of its dark, green monster tannic funk. There’s a reason Wente planted a lot of Merlot here in Livermore. And yet, Cabernet Sauvignon seems to be the preferred darling here, even if it’s perhaps not the best suited to many of the sites that are trying to grow it.

Much can be said about Ghielmetti Vineyard, but one thing is certain: it can produce some stunning Cabernet in Livermore. At Steven Kent Winery, barrel samples of the 2017 Ghielmetti Cabernet was completely swoonworthy, even after falling in love with the already bottled and available 2018 Albarino and Grenache Rosé from RagBag WineWorks, Steven and Aidan Mirassou’s new playground for grapes. They also offer a rocking Sangiovese under screwcap that’s fresh and accessible. Not sure why they call it “Amphora,” when it’s done in a mix of new and used oak barrels, but the label sure is gorgeous.

Back to the SKW Cabs, though. So impressed were we all with that 2017 SKW Ghielmetti Cabernet, with its alluring scents of cedar, dark cherry and cassis, along with its silky, otherworldly texture, that it became the benchmark against which all others were subconsciously or otherwise, measured. The 2018 barrel sample of Ghielmetti Cabernet showed the cool, slow hand of that forever lasting vintage, offering more savory and red notes than the much riper 2017. They were also pouring the newly released 2016 Ghielmetti Cabernet: again, a cooler year with, plenty of depth that’s just not ready to reveal itself quite yet. The 2014 Smith Ranch Cabernet, though, was showing beautifully. The 2011 Lineage, another relatively cool and challenging vintage, is just now beginning to really mellow out.

At the 3 Steves, the crowd was energetic, with lots of families picnicking, enjoying the food truck and the unspoiled verdant views. We sampled a fantastic Cabernet Franc from barrel, as well as a 2017 estate Cabernet Sauvignon, that was more on the lean, red fruited side, most likely owing to the site. Steve Burman shared some amazing Grenache Blanc from a club member’s vineyard in Danville, with a beautiful label and equally beautiful back story. The club member’s vineyard also has some Pinot Gris, which the birds helped themselves to last year, but Steve thinks it’s some of the best PG fruit he’s ever tasted. Perhaps that story will have a new and improved chapter later this year.

We stopped at several other wineries, where we tasted wines that have spent too long a time in barrel.

We shopped and spent money at Charles R, where the vendors were fun and engaging, and Dick and Bonnie always have a story you won’t hear anywhere else. We talked with some of their friends about the sudden and surprising closure of the Wente restaurant on Arroyo, which is apparently being reimagined as a tapas place. Perhaps something more along the lines of the Murietta’s Well model.

Along the way, we experienced the extreme generosity of folks who would not allow us to taste their wines from the GoVino plastic sippy cups that have become standard issue at wine events.

Upcoming: Terra Mia Wine Dinner at 3 Steves, April 11

If you’ve not yet seen the most recent transformation of the 3 Steves former barrel room, come out for Chef Antonio Inguscio’s wine dinner on April 11. There are still seats available for a gourmet five-course food and wine party, to be served by the friendly staff of Terra Mia restaurant at 3 Steves Winery. Priced at $95 per person, $85 for wine club members. Seating is very limited, so make arrangements now if you want in. The most recent Terra Mia wine dinner featuring wines from Cuda Ridge, was amazing. Mangia, mangia!

Make a reservation at squareup.com/store/3-steves-winery, call 925-364-4889, or email 3Steves: info@3StevesWinery.com.