This is another installment of a series called "Livermore Stories," which takes a look at the most exciting wineries in this wine growing region located east of San Francisco. More than 50 wineries now call Livermore Valley home. The wines have never been better, and the wineries have great stories to tell.
The tag line says it all: "3 friends striving to make the perfect wine." Arriving at the 3 Steves Winery in Livermore Valley, and this is what you'll hear. "Hi, I'm Steve." "Hello, I'm Steve." "I'm Steve too." No kidding, these three guys are all named Steve.
Their business card gives you a clue. Steve Burman is "vertically challenged." Steve Melander "really does exist." And Steve Ziganti is "gray beard." If you sense the Steves don't take themselves too seriously, you're right. But they make seriously good wine.
They are an unlikely trio, who met as partners of a winery investment gone wrong. They realized they were the only three of the group who had any experience making wine. Deciding it might be a good idea to work together, they only then discovered their common name. "It was absolutely random," Steve Burman says. Now all three Steves are good friends.
The 3 Steves started making wine at a local winery in 2010, paying for use of the equipment. From the get go their wines were a hit. Swirl on the Square, a wine bar in downtown Livermore, asked the Steves to pour at a birthday party. That led to an offer to take over the second half of the tasting room, giving the guys their first tasting room. "It fell into our laps," says Burman.
Demand for their wines kept rising and they needed more space to meet that demand. In 2012 a winery on Greenville Road went on the market, and the 3 Steves found a new home, with a Cabernet vineyard to boot.
The Livermore wine community, which is a tight knit, congenial group, helped them start out. "During crush last year our truck took a fall for the worse and Tom at Bent Creek threw us his keys and said here you go," Burman remembers. "When our forklift wasn't feeling so well, John Evans from down the street let us borrow his."
That's just the way this town works, people in the wine community say over and over. "Everybody has Livermore at the forefront, they all want to help our wineries do better," Burman says.
They like to to tell the story of how they got the news that the 3 Steves 2011 Cienega Valley Zinfandel won the Red Sweepstakes award at the 2014 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Nottingham Cellars winemaker Collin Cranor "walks in to the tasting room like he owns the place," recalls Burrman. "He puts a bottle of sparkling wine down and says we're gonna drink this now. Then he tells us the news. We had him show us on the computer because we didn't believe him." Collin was there to share in the good fortune for all of Livermore Valley. "This great winemaker doesn't even mention that he himself won four awards himself," Burman adds.
Call it kismet that these three Steves even ended up together. Steve Burman comes from the high tech industry in Silicon Valley. I may be biased, but I love the reason he got into wine. When I met him, Burman said "I got into wine because of In Wine Country," the TV show I produced for NBC (now in syndication). He was serious. He watched it every week with a glass of wine, dreaming of becoming a winemaker. An invitation to play hooky from work to help make wine at a winery in Napa Valley sealed the deal. And here he is, living the dream.
Steve Ziganti (gray beard) is retired from the medical device business. He started making wine with friends in the 90s. Steve Melander is the only one of the three that still has a day job, as a consultant in the construction industry. The "really does exist" on the business card is a reference to the fact that he's not here as much as the other two Steves, because he's at a "real" job. "We're working," says Burman, "we're just not getting paid."
Ziganti corrects him. "We paid each other at the end of last year for the very first time," he says. "But I did the math and it's a little under four bucks and hour, but it's all the wine you can drink."
No matter, it's a formula that's working. 3 Steves buys grapes from Livermore Valley and beyond. The award winning Zinfandel comes from 110 year old vines in Cienega Valley. They make a sparkling wine (not here but at a custom crush facility in Hopland) sourcing the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Medocino County. There's a beautiful Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and a luscious Cabernet Sauvignon, all from Livermore.
One aspect of the winemaking here that sets 3 Steves apart is that they typically use two types of yeast when fermenting all of their wines. Burman says that's because he loves complexity in his wines. For example in the Sauvignon Blanc, "we used two different yeasts, one yeast for mouth feel and one yeast for fruit content," he explains. "But that complexity matters so when we bring them back together we get a unique blend."
It's all three hands (or should I say six hands) on deck when it comes to winemaking. When they first bought the winery, Ziganti, who lives in Boulder Creek, spent the entire 2013 harvest at the winery, staying in a little house on the property. Quite the sacrifice, but when you're starting up, you do what it takes. It's a team effort, an equal partnership.
I'm in love with the 2011 Cabernet Franc, which is already sold out. The wine club bought it all before it ever went on sale to the public. It's a deep ruby color with an aromatic floral and earthy nose. The fruit comes from Hollister. Burman says, "this is hands down my favorite wine we've made to date." A shame there isn't more.
The 2011 Zinfandel, yes, the now famous wine, makes me do the happy dance. It smells like a classic California Zin, fruity and spicy, but not an overblown fruit bomb. There's a nice roundness and balance to it, even at 16.2% alcohol (I actually thought it was lower). This wine reminds you what Zinfandel should be. But alas, it too is now sold out. You and I will have to wait for the 2012.
Perhaps the most popular wine at 3 Steves is 3 Reds. "When we do a blend we always stay in the theme of threes," says Burman. It's a blend of three Cabernets: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and a rare variety called Cabernet Pfeffer. According to Ziganti, the grape traces its roots to the 1860s in Los Altos in Silicon Valley, a cross of Trousseau and Cabernet Sauvignon. It adds spicy, black pepper notes to the wine. They can't keep it in stock, and demand was such that it will become a staple in the lineup.
A white blend, 3 Blondes, is made of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. This wine, at the time of my tasting it in March, was not yet released. I can't wait for it to be though, with gorgeous white flowers and stone fruit aromas leaping from the glass.
The back labels on most bottles of wine are either boring, or full or marketing speak with flowery words about the wines. Not so at 3 Steves. Burman says he wanted the back label to be something you'd want to read, kind of like how you might read the back of a box of cereal. "The first paragraph is about how we met," he explains. "The second paragraph is unique to the wine. I like to sip the wine on its own, then try it with chicken, beef, and pizza before I write the back label. Sometimes I write about the flavors, sometimes I write about some fun images in my mind that I recalled when making a particular wine."
His favorite though, is a bit more serious. For the 2008 Livermore Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, they bottled half the wine they made. It sold out in a flash. They had planned to use the other half of the Cab for a blend. But demand for more of the single varietal Cab grew. The back of the label tells the story. "One special request was from a friend of the winery that has survived throat cancer. She as expressed that this is a unique wine with lots of fruit and soft tannins, that tastes and feels great to her sensitive palate."
You might think with all this attention and awards, the pressure is on to out do themselves every year. "The pressure we feel is the same pressure we've always put on ourselves," Burman says. "That's making sure we produce wines we are proud of, that our customers enjoy, and never release something that is anything below our standards. We literally put our name on every bottle. Its got to be the best we can offer every vintage, every varietal." By the way, Burman tells me he thinks the 2012 Zin is going to be even better.