Before GPS and sophisticated navigation devices, you would ask a total stranger for directions on how to get to a particular destination. And generally the directions were clear cut and very precise. “Well you head down this here road for about 4 miles, and then where the old gas station used to be, you hang a right. Just mosey on down that road a ways, and you can’t miss it.”
Gratefully those are pretty much bygone days, but recently I heard a variation on this by friends returning from the wine country in northern California. They were looking forward to visiting a winery I had recommended in the shop, and asked the Hertz counterman at the airport for the local version of directions to this area. And his response was a classic response. “Oh that winery. It’s a great one to visit and very easy to get to. Just head into the city from the airport location here, and when you’re in San Francisco, instead of heading north to the Golden Gate, just hang a right.” Well, maybe just a bit too simplified. They were heading to the Wente vineyards, located on the other side of the bay across the Oakland Bay Bridge, in the beautiful Livermore Valley, just 45 minutes east of San Francisco.
The history of the wine country goes back to George Yount, who started growing grapes in 1839. Others followed, including Charles Krug, who founded his winery in 1861. He employed a number of apprentices, among them a pair of brothers named Beringer, and a young man by the name of Carl Wente. The Beringer brothers went on to found their namesake winery in 1876, while Carl looked for an alternative to the Sonoma/Napa planting regions.
South east of San Francisco, he discovered the Livermore Valley, named for Robert Livermore who first planted grapes in 1840. Carl bought 47 acres and established Wente vineyards in 1883. About the same time, there was a natural artesian spring in a remote area of the valley that was popular with the local cowboys, including a vaquero by the name of Joaquin Murrieta, but we’ll come back to him later. The rest of their story is literally history, as Carl founded the oldest, continuously operating, family owned winery in the state of California, now spanning 5 generations. Most multi-generational family operations run into a variety of problems, and winery families are generally no exception. But this family continues to innovate and re-invent themselves. After over 130 years, they have some pretty interesting stories to share…so many stories, so little space. Where do we begin? Do we start with Zorro, clones, Arroyo Seco, Karl D. Wente, the Greg Norman designed golf course, or the myriad of other stories? Here are just a few of their highlights.
A perfect example is the Chardonnay grape. Today, Chardonnay is arguably the most popular white varietal grown in California. But in 1948, there were less than 200 acres under cultivation, compared to 100,000+ acres currently. The main white grapes grown then were Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion. But Ernest, studying at UC Davis in 1912, had started to do research on the Chardonnay varietal, and persuaded his father Carl to import cuttings from France. With help from UC Davis, they worked on developing a better mousetrap utilizing native budwood. After experimenting with the best examples over 40 years, they created the Wente clone. Shortly before WWII, they had successfully harvested the first varietally labeled Chardonnay in 1936, utilizing the Wente clone they had developed. Post-war interest by a few pioneers included the McCrea’s (Stony Hill), Louis Martini Jr, and James Zellerbach of Hanzell winery, who planted in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. Interest continued to grow, literally and figuratively, with more acreage planted with an increasing variety of clones.
The modern highlight was the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, which used the Wente clones and was the white varietal winner in the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976, beating the best of the French selections. Today, almost every major Chardonnay producer utilizes the Wente clone. Maybe Charlie Barra, a California grower for 66 years, sums it up best. He still works the weathered and wizened block of vines he planted back in the late 1950s. “When I wanted to plant new vineyards back in the 1950s, the Wentes, Bob Mondavi, Louis Martini, and the Christian Brothers all paid me more money per ton to work with the high quality Wente clone. As a farmer, one of the smartest things I ever did was to follow their lead!”
Livermore Valley has a way of repeating itself. We talked about Robert Livermore planting grapes, but skipped over Charles Wetmore, California’s first agricultural commissioner, and the founder of Cresta Blanca vineyards in 1882. Guess where the first wine was produced that won the 1889 Paris Exposition….the Livermore Valley. By the early 1960s, Livermore Valley had as much area planted to vine as Napa, but we know how that story ended. But Livermore continued to re-invent itself, utilizing cuttings from Chateau Margaux and d’Yquem.
Louis Mel is the French immigrant who felt he could utilize these cuttings to produce great wines, and in the 1880s, purchased a 92 acre property he christened Murrieta’s well. He planted Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion, and constructed one of the early gravity flow wineries. And did we mention the vaquero that the well was named for? Joaquin was the legendary figure that roamed the surrounding hills as a bandito or Robin Hood, depending which side of the fence you were on. He was the literal inspiration for the Zorro series of TV shows, books, and movies we enjoy today. The Wente family purchased the property from Louis Mel in the 1930s, but it wasn’t till the ‘90s that they had the inspiration to produce a red and a white blend, and name them appropriately the “Spur” and the “Whip”.
The “Spur “is a powerful blend of Petite Sirah, Petite Verdot, Cab, Malbec and Cab Franc, while the “Whip” is a blend of Semillion, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Orange Muscat, Viognier, Gewürztraminer and Riesling. As our regular customers know, we have a real weakness in the shop for blends that are well executed, and these two have consistently over delivered. Now if I can just get Coach Popovich into the shop, we’d have the “official wine” of the Spurs all set to go.
Finally, the wine industry is all about relationships. And you folks know the special place that family run wineries have in my heart. So, it was a special treat when I received a copy of the Wente family’s favorite recipes, complete with wine pairings, and done in collaboration with the folks at America’s Test Kitchen. Here is a listing of the items:
Baked Eggs Florentine, served with Wente Morning Fog Chardonnay
Broiled Pork Tenderloins, served with Wente Southern Hills Cabernet Sauvignon
Oven-Steamed Mussels, served with Wente Louis Mel Sauvignon Blanc
Burgundy Pot Roast, served with Wente Sandstone Merlot
Red Wine Risotto, served with Wente Charles Wetmore Cabernet Sauvignon
Twice-Baked Sweet Potatoes, served with Wente Reliz Creek Pinot Noir
Best Almond Cake, served with Wente Riverbank Riesling
Kathy was psyched about several of the recipes, and has already scanned them into her recipe file. If anyone is interested in these, please drop me a quick e-mail and I’ll be happy to send it out. As to the wines, we’ve carried several of the wines in the shop, and would be happy to special order any of their wines for you.
Update, and hot off the presses…as I was finishing up this article, the December/January issue of Beverage Dynamics, a trade publication, hit the news stand. They listed the top wines reviewed by the magazine in 2014 that were rated 94 points or better. Out of the 54 wines, 2 of the Wente wines were listed…The “N” Degree Cabernet, and the Charles Wetmore Cabernet. Congratulations!
Lastly, the end of the holiday season gives us all that opportunity to reflect on the year past, and set our goals for the next year. The trinity of holiday meals offers us that perfect venue to celebrate great friends and families, with great food and great wine. And so to all that I know…may your paths be straight, may smiles surround your table, may the wines be chilled, may you be poor in misfortune, rich in blessings, slow to make enemies and quick to make friends. And may you know nothing but happiness from this day forward.