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Concannon Vineyards Review – One Hundred and Twenty Eight Consecutive Harvests

By Barbara Keer

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Until recently, my husband and I had not visited the Conconnan Tasting Room - during the day that is.  We have been to several of the Livermore Shakespeare Festival production’s there at night when visiting from Chicago, but seeing it during the day in full swing is another experience.  At the end of our tour, we  wine tasted and found each of the wines we tasted was delicious.  Jim Ryan, estate manager, shared the workings of Concannon Winery and its distinguished history with us.  We were amazed at all the firsts that began here as well as the myriad of medals, prizes and various citations.


For example, Concannon will be celebrating 50 years as America’s first Petite Sirah winery August 13th and 14th, 2011 and it's 128th consecutive harvest will soon take place.  James Concannon, was born on St. Patrick's Day in 1847 in the Aran Islands, off the coast of Ireland, and must have had the luck of the Irish.  But it was his strong character, perseverance and adventurous spirit that brought James to the New World, where he became the first Irish vintner to take advantage of California’s unparalleled winegrowing potential.

Jim Ryan, C.S. C.W.E. Estate Manager, shows photos and awards


Leaving Ireland for New York, James found his way West and was eager to pursue new ventures in California. It was here that he discovered the Livermore Valley, with its unusual east-west orientation and rocky soil, which was strikingly similar to the famous winemaking areas of southern France. In 1883, he planted his first forty acres with premium Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapevine cuttings from France’s legendary Chateau d'Yquem. He later imported the first cuttings from the hybrid Petite Sirah vine developed by French viticulturist François Durif. 

Aged for three years


Envisioning the creation of world-class wines that would come from his new home estate in the Livermore Valley, which James Concannon chose for its rocky soils similar to those of Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley, he was rewarded a few years after Concannon’s first harvest.  Happily, his wine from Livermore Valley put California on the world’s wine map when America's first international gold medal was won at the 1889 Paris Exposition.

James Concannon became the first Irish immigrant to establish a successful winery in America. His son, “Captain” Joe kept the winery running through the Prohibition era by making sacramental altar wines, one of five wineries granted this permission. James grandson Jim Concannan introduced America’s First Petite Sirah with varietal designation and helped develop Concannon clones that were widely planted throughout Napa Valley. Today, John Concannon is the fourth generation vintner committed to creating wines that would make his grandfather proud.

1958 Historic Landmark


Jim Ryan, currently the Estate Manager for Concannon Vineyard, shared some wonderful Concannon stories with us.  With well over twenty years experience in the wine business with over 12 years spent in sales and marketing of large and boutique wineries from California, Oregon, Washington, France, Germany, Italy, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. His six years as a General Manger in the wholesale arena knowing the intricacies of the three tier system, 11 years of direct to consumer sales and marketing as well, seven years of winery operations experience to enable him to see the whole picture of the production and supply chain.  Educated at UC Davis with a major in Fermentation Sciences, he has been a registered member of the Royal Guild of Master Sommeliers in London for over ten years, and has served on the board for four different wine growers associations in different growing regions in California and is currently a regional director with the Wine Institute.

Jim Ryan in the Tasting Room


When Prohibition came into effect in the 1920s, Concannon Vineyard was among a few wineries legally permitted to continue operation during Prohibition under special dispensation from San Francisco's Archbishop Alemany for making sacramental wines. In the decades that followed, Concannon embodied its founder’s pioneering spirit.  Always looking for winemaking talent, America’s first professional female winemaker was hired in 1950, and she was a Hungarian ballerina named Katherine Vajda. It was fascinating to see her picture. The early focus on Petite Sirah led Concannon to produce America's first varietally labeled Petite Sirah, a 1961 vintage released in 1964. The early passion for Bordeaux varieties led to the development of the Concannon Cabernet Sauvignon clones 7, 8 and 11, also known as the Concannon clones, widely adopted in Napa Valley vineyards and responsible for some of their most prestigious Cabernets. This history of firsts has secured Concannon Vineyard's prominent place in the annals of California viticulture.  Another talented Hungarian, winemaker, Julian Halasz, can currently be found making a contribution to Concannon wines.

The 104 year old reconditioned press


We were very surprised to learn that it was “manpower” that kept the winery functioning in the days before WWII because there was no electricity before that time. In 2010 in the spirit of "preserving the past and embracing the future", Concannon Vineyard completed a ten--year, $30 million revitalization program to further enhance quality in the vineyards, wines and operations. Today, Concannon Vineyard produces world-class wines from its destination winery and hospitality center in historic Livermore wine country. Its ambitious sustainability program is assuring its futureoof "firsts" since Concannon Vineyard was the first Livermore Valley winery to put its estate vineyards into a conservancy trust that strictly prohibits any future urban development.



The historic redwood tasting room has been restored reusing materials and employing green design wherever possible.  Employing sustainable vineyard practices and re-rooted historic clones in the estate vineyards,  state-of-the-art technology is used in the winery to ensure quality.  Renewable energy results from the installation of solar panels on 80% of the winery’s roof.  All of these efforts were designed with one goal in mind, to create extraordinary wines that would make James Concannon proud.



Concannon Vineyard is certified sustainable by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) and is on track for organic certification in 2011. In 2008, a new 45,000 square foot barrel cask and bottling complex with an integrated small-lot winery for its Heritage and Reserve programs was completed. The new winery reflects its commitment to preserving the best of its winemaking heritage while incorporating state-of the-art technology to preserve wine quality. Concannon still uses traditional upright casks to age its Reserve Petite Sirah as part of its effort to integrate Old World techniques.


Recently, my friend from Livermore spoke with pride of the 50 Livermore wineries currently functioning.  Little did we know, until Jim Ryan told us that in 1890, there were 50 wineries in Livermore, which were the most advanced in California.

Home of Livermore's Shakespeare Festival, house dates to 1895


The idyllic setting of Concannon Vineyard is currently home to Livermore Shakespeare Festival. Patrons arrive early to picnic on the vineyard grounds, then bring their wine into the seating area to experience Shakespeare and other great plays in front of the magnificent Queen-Anne style Victorian home that was moved to the center of the winery in 2008.  Dating to 1895 this impressive turn-of-the-century relic offers aspects akin to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan stage with two graceful porches, one above the other, that echo the multilevel playing areas of London’s 16th century Globe and Rose theaters. It isn’t just a backdrop to the show, but also serves as part of the stage itself. The Victorian house is the equivalent of Shakespeare’s tiring house. Just as in Shakespeare’s day, the actors ‘attire’ themselves (dress) in the house.

Food and Concannon wine are welcome on the property. (Due to state laws, no outside alcohol is permitted.) Patrons may also purchase grab-and-go gourmet dinners from The Underdog or eat at the restaurant (reservations recommended), or purchase snacks in the Concannon Tasting Room.

For more information about Concannon Vineyard visit: www.concannonvineyard.com (a great video can be seen here) or call (800) 258-9866).

Location: 4590 Tesla Road, Livermore, CA 94550


Photos:Leon Keer

Published on Apr 11, 2011

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