When avid golfers consider a Northern California golf and wine country getaway, images of dramatic, iconic Pebble Beach and the Monterrey Peninsula instantly come to mind. Or, perhaps some of the fine fairways and the greens of the Napa and Sonoma valleys.
But not long ago we unearthed a seductive new option; hidden and unspoiled Livermore Valley just east of the San Francisco Bay Area. Not overtly excessive or stuffy like some of NorCal’s wine country brethren, several gorgeous award-winning golf courses sprawl amid thousands of acres of vineyards that make up the Livermore Valley American Viticultural Area, home to small-scale wineries and pioneers of the West Coast wine industry like Concannon and Wente.
Once you and your foursome pick up your sticks from baggage claim at any of the Bay Area’s convenient airports – San Jose and Oakland being the best options – head to Interstate-580 East where fine wine and golf await.
Seemingly endless rolling yellow grass hills with cattle and sheep dotting the landscape eventually give way to lush green Chardonnay, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards, signaling your arrival. And while golf may be relatively new to the Livermore Valley, wine has been here for generations as one of California’s oldest wine regions, with waves of immigrants introducing grape varietals from France, Germany, Italy and Spain that date back to the 1880s.
The ideal moderate climate for grapes also makes it perfect for golf, and there never is a bad time to cart your clubs here. But be aware of the region’s pre-dawn fog when making tee times as it is captured in the Valley’s oval bowl by the Pleasanton Foothills to the west. You will find the first few greens rolling slow due to morning moisture but it’s all too easy to get hoodwinked by a hot putt as the fog lifts, the clouds burn off and the warm, dry air sucks the greens dry.
There are several high-caliber, vineyard-wrapped courses to choose from but you won’t want to miss one of the Bay Area’s premier golf courses – The Course at Wente Vineyards. Course architect and golf icon Greg Norman ranked the Livermore layout one of his “all-time favorites” that he has designed behind Doonbeg in southwestern Ireland and Cathedral Lodge in Australia. That’s a pretty heady testimonial coming from the Great White Shark, who has been involved in hundreds of courses around the globe.
“It’s a golf course you never get tired of playing,” Norman explained. “I believe that’s probably because it’s pure golf on a pure landscape.”
With native wildlife, mature vineyards and the rolling grasslands that are the Valley’s staple, the 18 holes at The Course at Wente Vineyards may just be tugging at Norman’s viticultural heartstrings and those of both novice and professional players since its opening in 1998. The Course at Wente Vineyards also once hosted the Livermore Valley Wine Country Championship that was part of the PGA Tour’s Web.com Tour. And the golf is reasonable, with green fees ranging from $100 to $180 in season, less during the fall and winter.
A relatively dry course with only two water features (Nos. 15 and 18), there are well-placed bunkers throughout and knee high rough that will unforgivingly consume errant shots. Carts are required, and welcomed, on this winding and rolling course that showcases several par 3s and 4s, with tee boxes elevated from 100 feet to 300 feet above the greens. After warming up on several straightforward holes, the difficulty ratchets up a notch on the par-4 sixth hole, with the front portion of this green sloping severely from back to front, causing a ball to easily roll off into the native grass. The eighth hole is the longest par 5 on the course – 602 yards from the tips – and features a trademark Norman target bunker off the tee.
You also will feel the bite of the Shark as you make the turn and drive into the wind at the par-4, No. 9. The 16th showcases a slight dogleg right which requires a well-placed drive, with long hitters needing to check the distances to this split fairway, which is then followed by a green that seems to slope in every direction. Be sure to cap off your round with a stop at The Grill for the 1883 Burger and Sandstone Sour, and since The Course at Wente Vineyards is a member of Audubon International, don’t be surprised if your worm-burner scatters a rafter of wild turkeys or a flyer frustrates a peregrine falcon hunting hares.
Another course that is a “must play’ in the area is Poppy Ridge, which is situated deep within Livermore and features fairways and greens that pop from their golden surroundings, as well as vineyards that lie just beyond the property that provide a beautiful, endless backdrop. A round at Poppy Ridge provides plenty of variety each time you come back with three nines as distinct as the grape varietals they are named after – Merlot, Chardonnay and Zinfandel – that sweep through 3,000 acres of the toasted, savannah-covered hills.
“It was an opportunity to build something different,” architect Rees Jones said after the opening of Poppy Ridge in 1996. “Dad had the dunes at Spyglass Hill, (my brother) Bobby had the woods at Poppy Hills, and I had the open site at Poppy Ridge. So it gave the Northern California Golf Association an opportunity to have a different style golf course.”
“It was a rugged piece of property with fantastic views.”
The routing at Poppy Ridge is clever in that all three nines close with a lakeside green in front of the majestic hacienda-style clubhouse. While the nines finish similarly, each is unique, as there is over 300 feet of elevation change between them. Much of the Merlot nine is perched above the property, making it the most challenging with a handful more natural hazards and exposed to the oftentimes windy conditions. Zinfandel is flatter, has three lakes, and more trees come into play (nearly 400 were planted on the property when Poppy Ridge was built in 1996). Chardonnay is a combination of both topographies and provides both the novice and the pro a blend of fun and challenging golf.
The most intimidating par 3 at Poppy Ridge can be found just as you are warming up on Zinfandel. That would be No. 2, as it boasts a green that is fronted by a pond. For those who play the forward tees, the pond is considered a lateral water hazard with a drop zone and two bunkers behind the green that can reign balls that fly too far. Merlot’s fifth hole is one of the most stunning with the tee boxes placed at the second-highest point on the property and a tee shot that drops 50 feet to the end of the first fairway, leaving another 230 yards to the pin. And then there is Chardonnay, which brings the beach to you on the short par-4 fourth hole, a demanding tee shot with five bunkers and out-of-bounds down the right. For those feeling a little more cautious, laying up to 175 yards keeps you short and out of any trouble, but watch out for the shallow green that is guarded by three bunkers. All in all, it’s a great round of golf at green fees that range from $68 to $100 with cart.
After your clubs have been cleaned while you refresh at Poppy Ridge’s 19th hole, explore the shopping and culinary delights that await in the quaint downtowns of the Livermore Valley AVA sister towns – Pleasanton, Danville, San Ramon, Dublin, Sunol and parts of Castro Valley that each harken back to a little piece of Americana. And before relaxing and soaking in one of the many spas, raise a toast to the day with an evening stroll along the bustling Livermore Main Street overflowing with breweries, wine tasting rooms, antique boutiques and restaurants, such as Patxi’s or First Street Alehouse.
There is no shortage of superior hospitality in the area, but for that extra special wine country experience, book a stay at the Purple Orchid Resort and Spa. Renewed and renovated in 2011 by new owners Derrick & Rhiannon Eddy, there is no better way to transition from a morning in the golf zone to an afternoon exploring the Valley’s noveltie, such as a signature Handprints massage in their Sera Festino room. Or perhaps you still have some gas in the tank for a tour of Handprints’ lush, 21-acre olive orchard that produces the fruit for their hand-pressed oil. If you are looking for that extra special golf and wine pairing, schedule your visit during the area’s signature events – Barrel Tasting Weekend in March, July’s Taste Our Terroir, or the Harvest Wine Celebration in September.
Conveniently located from all Bay Area airports, Livermore Valley offers no shortage of playful pastimes, like fueling up for the fairways at The Riata Diner & Tavern, where a hearty breakfast and spicy Bloody Mary are the perfect way to start the day. Or perhaps you might like wandering through San Francisco’s Premium Outlets after a chilled gin and vermouth martini from the nearby Sidewinder Distillery. Better yet, open a bottle of Nottingham Petite Verdot on the court at Da Boccery. After all, this is California’s “other wine country,” where you can smoke your drives while enjoying a glass or two.
The Course at Wente Vineyards
The Purple Orchid Resort and Spa
Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association
Brandon and Andrea Willey are avid golfers and wine connoisseurs who live in the metro Phoenix area.