The Livermore Valley has welcomed us with unexpected pastoral charm. Not too long ago we were on a busy highway, now we are surrounded by acres of grapes that look almost ready to be plucked from their vines. Beyond the fields are the golden hills of California summertime, gently rolling in the distance. There’s a wide path for bicyclists, pedestrians, and equestrians alongside the road where a group rides by, exploring wine country on two wheels.
Livermore, a suburban city on the on far eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay Area, is probably not the first place that comes to mind when you think of California wine regions. But it’s actually home to a sizable wine country which includes one of the United States’ oldest wineries, Wente Vineyards. For 130 years, five generations of family vintners have been producing wine at Wente. The current winemaker, Karl Wente, happens to be a huge music fan as well, and for the last seven years, he has spearheaded an annual Labor Day weekend event called the Front Porch Festival.
After our little wine country drive, we enter the festival where the lawns are covered with people kicking back on blankets and lawn chairs while they listen to music and sip wine from clear plastic cups. Some forgo the cups and sip directly from the bottle.
While a larger Wente location hosts a summer concert series with big name acts, the Front Porch Festival mainly highlights local artists and up-and-coming bands. The festival has a decidedly small town atmosphere which is a refreshing change of scenery from city events. The crowd is a mix of genres; there are suburban families intermixed with heavily tattooed people. There are a few ladies decked out in cliche festival gear and others looking to be seen, but generally it lacks pretense and the main goal is to have fun.
It’s a hot day in Livermore so it’s a nice surprise when we discover a cooler performance space. An “Acoustic Lounge” has been set up in a dark wine cellar and the barrels are illuminated with colorful lights. It’s an even better surprise when the headlining band, The Kin, borrow a guitar from a high school musician and give a spirited impromptu show in the wine cellar.
We eat, wine taste, mingle and wander around. It’s all really casual and relaxed, and I see that the sound guy is getting in on the casualness as well. A woman pours him some wine and they clink cups and sip wine before he gets back to attending to the soundboard.
We decide to make a spot for ourselves on the lawn for the rest of the evening as The Stone Foxes come on stage. It’s a pleasure to hear the San Francisco-based band live for the first time. They rock out in a bluesy style that’s modern but reminiscent of 1970s rock, and various members of the band take on the lead vocals with ease. A little kid dances wildly at the front of the audience from the beginning of their set, and a few songs into it, many more people have left their comfortable positions on the lawn and join him in the front to dance.
After the sun sets, The Kin close out the festival on the main stage. The Australian born and New York raised brothers who performed earlier are joined by the third member of their band, an extremely resourceful percussionist who plays the drums with his bare hands and at one point turns keys and clip board into a percussion instrument.
As the festival winds down, The Kin perform a song entitled “America” that has all the right wistful chords to get you reflecting on the dwindling days of summertime. And it seems like an appropriate song for what has been an all-American, California-tinged way to end summer. From the local bands to the internationally touring bands, it feels like we’ve spent the day not at a festival, but at a friend’s backyard Labor Day bash in wine country with an all day jam session and a steady flow of wine.
Note: I was provided with complimentary tickets and refreshments, but all thoughts and opinions expressed in this review are my own.