If you’re visiting San Francisco and enjoy your wine as much as your golf, take time for a short break in the the Livermore Valley where golf and grapes make the perfect mix.
With the vines all but stripped by November - apart from a few cabernet to create those sweet dessert wines - it's still a grand time to be in Northern California, where 45 minutes east of San Francisco, you’ll find some of the oldest wineries in the United States and a handful of excellent golf courses, centred around the charming town of Pleasanton.
Approach Callippe Preserve on Clubhouse Drive and you’ll wonder if this can surely be a municipal course. Yes it's densely populated with fourballs and financed to the tune of $36million by a housing developer, but only 34 half-acre lots will be sold around its lush green acres unlike many American courses where modern homes flank the fairways.
Designed by San Francisco Bay architect Brian Costello of the JMP Golf Design Group and opened in November 2005, it's a course of two differing halves.
The front nine is flatter and though a worthy test is not nearly as memorable as the back nine with its string of terrific holes.
"We weren’t really concerned about the apparent imbalance between the two nines," says Costello. "We must have rejected 20 other routings for various reasons, and actually moved more earth than we would normal had the butterfly not been an issue. But we are very pleased with the result. The front may not be quite as picturesque, but there are certainly some strong par-4s - especially the second and eight holes."
The final hole at Wente Vineyards, a few miles south-east of Pleasanton, has a similarly action-packed finish. Split by a creek that flows into a small lake to the right of the green, it ensures your total attention.
Wente is California’s oldest, continuously family-operated winery, founded in 1883 by CH Wente and straddles the beautiful Cresta Blanca Hills which must have made routing the course something of a challenge.
‘Steve McLennan and Chuck Reeves from TCR golf were largely responsible for the initial routing,’ says winemaker Phil Wente. They weren’t available to design the course, however, so Wente finally settled on Greg Norman whose design star was rising steadily after a number of acclaimed layouts in Asia, Australia and Florida.
"Greg’s enthusiasm was apparent from the beginning. He would arrive with his boots on and his shirt sleeves rolled up and just go climbing all over the place. We tried to stop him so he wouldn’t do himself an injury, but you know what he’s like."
Norman insisted his own shaper, Ron Smith, be hired by the general contractor and regularly had images of the course FedEx-ed to his office. Norman made five visits to Wente but because he had undergone shoulder surgery at about the time it opened in July 1998, didn’t actually play the course until November 1999.
The Wente family welcomes all golfers but don’t want their Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel jeopardized by a bunch of hacks chopping the ball back into play among the vines.
The back nine starts with another compelling short par-4, where Norman went for the green and made two in 1999. But the target is way too small and well defended for normal mortals to aim at it with a driver.
After four more holes in the hills, the course returns to level ground at the 15th, a reachable par-5. You then face three stern par-4s, including the treacherous 18th to finish one of Norman’s best American originals.
The scorecard says ‘Scottish Heathland’. It's neither but fun, fairly typical of a Northern California foothills layout and invariably in good condition at $40-$70 in midweek.
Other venues in the Tri-Valley (Amador, San Ramon and Livermore) include The Bridges, ten miles north of Pleasanton, San Ramon GC, Sunol Valley GC and Robert Trent Jones Jr’s intriguing Dublin Ranch where the par of 63 includes 11 par-3s and five par-4s.
Unless you’re here for a solid week’s golf and vineyard visits, these courses might be surplus to requirements. A round or two at Wente followed by dinner at the estate’s superb restaurant, 18 holes at Callippe, a stroll down Main St Pleasanton, a Jeff’s Special at Gay Nineties Pizza and a whole lot of tasting at any of the Valley’s 39 wineries adds up to all the weekend break you can handle.
*Tony Dear is an English-born golf journalist and travel writer living at Bellingham, Washington, USA
Raise a glass to California golf