The Importance of Family
As a doe-eyed newbie I felt like the new kid on the first day of kindergarten when I got into the wine business. In October, 2003 the country was entering into a recession, there was a heat wave killing people in Europe, Chicken n’ Beer by Ludacris was the #1 album in the country, and I had just left my job at NIKE after eight years of branding and marketing.
When you reboot your life and career, there’s usually a catalyst for the change. In this case, it was my family. My Mom's body was breaking down and her Multiple Sclerosis was starting to take its toll. It was a proverbial fork in the road decision—stay at my dream job working for the company I always wanted to work for, or go take care of family. After about two seconds, the road leading to family was an obvious choice. But what to do about a job? At that moment in time with nothing to lose I decided to follow the advice of ‘do what you love’. I collected wine so why not try a career in the wine business? After moving to Denver, I took the first step hand selling wine in a local wine shop. The very first bottle I sold was a bottle of 2002 Wente Riva Ranch Chardonnay.
Let’s look at that word, ‘family’. We’re all were born with one. Even if we haven’t met everyone in our family or don’t particularly want to be around our family, we are genetically linked to other human beings. In the world of wine, ‘family’ is used far less domestically than in other parts of the world where multi-generational families have made wine for centuries. In the U.S. we have winemaking families like the Wagners (Caymus, Mer Soleil, Belle Glos), the Trefethens, the Hirsch’s, Sokol Blossers, Figgins (Leonetti) among others.
But no winemaking family has the historical depth and breadth quite like the Wente family of Livermore, California. They mention being the longest continuously running family winery in the U.S. (135 years) almost matter-of-factly when talking about the history of their little corner of the world. At one point in the 1800’s, Livermore was one of America’s premiere wine producing regions.
Ask any vineyard manager growing Bordeaux grapes (especially Sauvignon Blanc) in California if they have a “Wente clone” in the vineyard and chances are they do or did. In 1882 Charles Wetmore famously brought Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon vine cuttings from Chateau Yquem as well as cuttings from Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux to Livermore. Wetmore travelled back to France in 1889 with his wine and won Grand Prize at the Paris Expo giving America its first win internationally. His Cresta Blanca wines along with Chateau Wente were some of the first wines made with the clones.
Wetmore’s early success and Livermore’s location thirty miles south of the bay area could’ve led to the region becoming “the Napa Valley” of California, yet over a century later and Livermore valley is yet to realize its potential. Carolyn Wente and the family’s tireless work in the valley suggests the best days are still ahead. To this day, Wente honors Charles Wetmore with their Wetmore Cabernet Sauvignon.
Home is where the History Is
Upon arrival at one of Wente’s two Livermore locations, there’s a sense of visiting the family in their living room. On two separate visits, a Wente family member stopped by to greet my wife and I. Chief winemaker, Karl Wente recently joined us on the tasting room patio mere days before harvest to discuss vintage 2014 and the responsibility of upholding the Wente name.
“Do you feel a lot of pressure keeping the family name in good standing?” I ask sniffing and sipping a surprisingly accurate Cabernet Franc. “I grew up around these vines and got to know the fruit as a kid,” he tells us. “We have consistent vineyards that produce consistently quality grapes year in and year out. I just try to get out of the way of that”.
Charles Wetmore may have been onto something. Livermore’s unique combination of sandy gravel soils peppered with random Limestone deposits along with its warm days and cool foggy nights near the ocean put the region more on par with Bordeaux’s Maritime right bank climate. Conversely, Napa and Sonoma feature a Mediterranean climate with more volcanic mother soils and alluvial deposits.
Out of the entire lineup of wines, the Sandstone Merlot was a hair-blow-back ringer. Wente may be known for its Chardonnays, however, this $20 bottle is on the money for what Merlot can or should be. No wonder, as it’s grown in shallow well-drained gravelly soils not much different than its right bank brethren.
As sommelier’s, we look for typicte, or the accuracy of what the grape should taste like from the place it’s grown. Wente Sandstone Merlot is the benchmark of not only what Merlot should be from Livermore, but from the entire state of California.
Other standouts from the Wente lineup include the Cabernet Franc and winery-only GSM blend. Although higher in alcohol and oak than I’d like, it did represent what we love about Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. Roasted meats, smoke, iodine, black and dark red fruits all working in concert with one another.
For visitors and wine lovers alike, it’s not hard to find a Wente made wine to put on the dinner table. But just in case, Wente’s new Winemaker Studio offers visitors the opportunity to make their own wine. Part rustic cafe, part laboratory, Wente’s Winemaker studio lets you play mad scientist with your favorite blends.
On this day we did the sniffer seminar. 20 glasses of clear liquid were all lined up in a row with each one smelling like one specific wine smell ranging from “cat pee” to “cassis” and “tobacco”. Half the fun is trying to guess what each smell is, the other half is the social element challenging fellow sniffers sitting around the table.
I smell wine for a living, so I thought I’d crush everyone, yet I did the worst only getting 3 smells right.
Visitors have a myriad of ways to enjoy their time when visiting Wente in Livermore. Once the itch to taste wines at the tasting room gets scratched, and class is dismissed in the Winemaker Studio, one might play a round of golf at the golf course, or better yet, roll into town for a little BBQ then take in a concert at the winery (which is what we did). Tony Bennett was playing on my birthday, so we spent the summer night under the August sky taking in the sounds of a living legend while sipping on Wente Pinot Noir.
In a strange twist of fate, Colorado's legendary wine guy, John Verdeal (the guy who first hired me into the wine industry in 2003) was sitting at the next table over. It was a reminder of the importance of family, friends and why we enjoy wine in the first place. As for Wente, the family winery is in good hands for the near future and years to come.