Something weird happened recently to my hometown of Livermore, California. While I was away sticking my nose up at it with youthful disdain, it went and got cool without me. And now I’m seeing the hokey, sometimes embarrassing Northern California cowboy town of my closeted queer youth with new eyes.
This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.
What I left in my dust when I moved away in 1988 was one crumbling movie theater and two dowdy wineries established in 1883, back when Livermore Valley was California’s leading wine region. Homecoming queen court royalty of the Livermore High School Cowboys, I saw little of my budding gay self represented in the snoozy town I couldn’t wait to escape.
In my decades-long absence, the worn-out Vine Cinema where I watched Top Gun with my Vans sticking to the gunky floor got a shiny new marquee and added an “Alehouse.” Instead of blockbusters, it’s now transformed itself into the sort of bona fide art house I used to have to go to Berkeley or San Francisco to enjoy. And Livermore’s grape-growing business, which SFGate once described as “an appellation from which wineries tried to hide,” proudly added over 50 well-respected vintners, like Steven Kent Winery, McGrail Vineyards, and Nottingham Cellars.
“It appears that the Napa Valley got all the best marketers in California,” the Australian blog the Boutique Adventurer quipped upon visiting Livermore a few years ago. “Livermore is about the same distance south-east of San Francisco that Napa is north-east but seems to get very little press. Which is quite shocking considering how extremely good their wines are.”
Livermore’s marketers are kicking into gear, at least to judge by a San Francisco Chronicle story about the area’s wines from last week. Not to mention Food & Wine’s 2020 story about Phil Long, president of the Association of African American Vintners and head of Longevity Wines.
The Livermore food scene back in the day was a moot point—there wasn’t any to talk about. Unless you counted the dumpy Lyon’s, part of the chain of diner-style restaurants then headquartered in Sacramento, now defunct. The other option was Burger King, where the food wasn’t great but the parking lot attracted bored teens with nowhere to go and nothing to do but hang out in jacked-up trucks.
After 20 years in San Francisco, I have to admit, I’ve become a clichéd foodie snob. So I was not prepared to find myself falling in love with the Livermore Farmers Market on the same Livermore street where I once danced in a red tutu in the Livermore Rodeo Parade. Both sides of Second Street were dotted with treasures—pasture-raised eggs, organic microgreens, gleaming produce, pickles, jams, cheeses, Hawaiian BBQ, dumplings. I found myself ecstatically paralyzed with indecision, a culinary experience I’d never had in that particular zip code. Sidling up to the raw bar at Cali Crab Feeds, I knocked back dozens of the best Kumamotos of my life with a jalapeño-spiked mignonette rivaling any I’ve had in SF. Seeing president Diane Van Iderstine has become the weekly highlight of market day for me and my partner. Van Iderstine’s warm and welcome “Here come the girls!” always makes us feel like family. She confirmed what I was starting to suspect: “Livermore is the foodiest crowd of all the markets we attend,” she told me. “They want to try everything.”
Wait. What? Where did all this come from? It certainly wasn’t part of Livermore before. Had it been, I might not have gone so far away from home. I spent years in Europe, Mexico, Japan, and eventually San Francisco looking for everything in those places that wasn’t in this one.
Another new thing I’ve found in Livermore is acceptance. Last year marked its third LGBTQ pride celebration, with rainbow flags fluttering all over town. A reinvigorated downtown now has sunny picnic tables for all to gather while enjoying the shops, cafés, wine bars, and restaurants along First Street. The Bankhead Theater and Bothwell Arts Center and redesigned public library have seriously upped the culture game in this cowboy town.
For some people, Livermore has always been cool. But I knew her before. And so did Van Iderstine, who lived in Livermore in the 1980s. “It was a one-horse town,” she said. “Everything has changed since then.”
The Livermore foodie scene started four years ago with the return of another Livermore native, Lauren Heanes-Longwell, who’d spent the better part of her 20s soaking up the vibes in Brooklyn. Heanes-Longwell opened Range Life in a historic brick carriage house from the 1800s with her mixologist husband, Waine Longwell (he of the celebrated Greenpoint gem Alameda), and their friends Sarah and Bill Niles of Outerlands and Tartine Manufactory, respectively. In 2021, the restaurant was recognized with a Michelin Bib Gourmand and has become a hub for the culinary scene.
Collaboration and a sense of camaraderie connect many of the restaurants. Wingen Bakery’s everything bagel is sprinkled with the proprietary seasoning of Jeremy Troupe-Masi, known around town as Livermore’s local spice guy. An impassioned mover-shaker, Troupe-Masi cohosts the Through the Grapevine podcast. His spices can also be found at the Longwells’ newest venture, Bar Quiote, where his ancho and black salt surround the rims of their mezcal and hibiscus-perfumed Zicatela Suns.
Sipping that very beverage one afternoon in the dappled sunlight of Bar Quiote’s covered patio as Garth Brooks’s “Friends in Low Places” plays on the jukebox (some things never change in a cowboy town), I find myself thinking about how many summers I spent fleeing to Sonoma and other points north when I could’ve just been going home to Livermore.
I left Livermore to find my community. But talking over wine in the sun with Troupe-Masi, I feel both wistful and hopeful.
“We call it the last frontier,” Troupe-Masi says. He gestures at the green hills around us and the drinks in front of us. “It’s rare where you can have it all. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.” Suddenly, I can’t either.•