ARROY SECO TERROIR & OPULENT PINOT NOIRS
Thank you for your wine, California… thank you for your sweet and bitter fruits – Mick Jagger/Keith Richards
By Karl Wente, 5th generation grower/winemaker
My grandfather, the first Karl Wente, was only 49 years old when he suddenly passed away in 1977. Even so, it was not before he could leave my father, aunt and uncle – Eric, Carolyn and Philip Wente – a truly great gift and legacy: an extremely productive 550- acre Monterey vineyard, in the ultra-premium quality sub-region now known as the Arroyo Seco AVA, which he first began planting in 1962.
Today that property has grown to 800 acres, and I’m simply amazed, whenever I walk through it, when I think about what incredible prescience of mind grandfather must have had when he selected this particular site in the Salinas Valley. A vineyard steeped in extremely rocky, well-drained soil – something all the best wine grapes traditionally love – yet rich enough in silty loam for vines to thrive with naturally abundant quality, many of them to this day.
Ours wasn’t the first family to come to Monterey. There were vines in the Pinnacles‘ Chalone AVA on the opposite side of the valley, planted as long ago as 1919. In the early 1960s, Paul Masson and Mirassou also invested heavily in Monterey plantings. Like the other pioneers, grandfather picked a spot that he discovered was “cooler than we expected,” but with the huge advantage of growing season temperatures that were “never as hot or as cold” as it was in our original vineyards in Livermore Valley, according to an interview in Robert Benson’s Great Winemakers of California (published in 1977).
Right away, we can still read in Benson’s book, grandfather recognized that Chardonnays grown in Arroyo Seco were “much sharper, higher in acid, fruitier, closer to traditional Chablis” – Chablis being the coldest part of France’s Burgundy region, where Chardonnay based white wines come out the most refined, and delicate and delineated.
Of course, Arroyo Seco is not Chablis or Burgundy; and since the sixties, usage of both our heritage “Old Wente” clones of Chardonnay (see my previous post on The Birthplace of California Chardonnay), mixed with more recent Dijon clones, has produced Wente Chardonnays that are both delicate and lavishly fruited, crisp yet silky smooth: a case of grape selection, soil and climate coming together to establish with a strong sense of terroir, or “place.” That is to say, a style of Chardonnay that is not “Chablis,” not “Hunter Valley” or “Santa Maria Valley,” but rather, something uniquely “Arroyo Seco.”
Other grapes that thrive in cooler climates and rich yet porous soils have done well for us in Arroyo Seco. Riesling, for instance, has been a natural, and so have Viognier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. But the one grape grandfather Karl may not have predicted would really shine in Monterey is Pinot Noir. Don’t get me wrong: Pinot Noir, along with Chardonnay and Riesling, was among the first grapes he planted in the sixties. But forty, fifty years ago, who in California could have predicted Sideways, or the specialized knowledge of Pinot Noir California growers and winemakers would attain during the years following my grandfather’s passing?
In that same book by Benson published in the seventies, one of California’s greatest wine pioneers, André Tchelistcheff, was also interviewed. He is quoted to say that he anticipated “looking to new regions… (like) Paso Robles, and partially a sub-region of Dry Creek of Sonoma,” to someday produce California’s finest Pinot Noirs. Today we know that neither Paso Robles nor Dry Creek Valley are good places to grow Pinot Noir. If Mr. Tchelistcheff, who was famously more obsessed with this Burgundian grape than my grandfather ever was, could not make the right predictions, who could?
As it turns out, Arroyo Seco – which has far cooler growing seasons than Paso Robles and Dry Creek Valley, plus the soil types that naturally limit canopy growth while concentrating plant energy on ripening of flavors in fickle, heat sensitive grapes like Pinot Noir – has emerged as an ideal spot for Pinot Noir. Intensely fragrant, silky, crisp edged Pinot Noirs with a real and abiding sense of delicacy – something that is even more of a counterpart to Chablis, in terms of delicacy, than the Chardonnays we grow in Arroyo Seco (our heritage Wente clones in particular produce a fleshier, and far more exotic, style of Chardonnay than what could ever be produced in Chablis).
It is also interesting to note that the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, lined up along generally higher elevation benchlands and hillsides just north of our Arroyo Seco AVA, has also recently emerged as a source of California’s most acclaimed Pinot Noirs. For the sake of delineation, I would say that Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noirs tend to be more rugged – “masculine,” if you will – than the Pinot Noirs we produce in Arroyo Seco. Like ours, of course, Santa Lucia pinots are opulently perfumed – tons of the spicy black cherry, raspberry and strawberry fruit qualities that turn Pinot Noir lovers on – although on the palate, ours remain a little more demure in size, and softer in texture. Like the difference between a full figured Sophia Loren and a lean yet no less seductive Audrey Hepburn. But don’t we all love differences and similarities?
Here’s the thing: tasting is believing. Yes, our 2007 Wente Vineyards Reliz Creek Arroyo Seco Pinot Noir ($22) recently won a Double Gold Medal at the 2011 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition; and our 2008 Wente Vineyards Nth Degree Arroyo Seco Pinot Noir garnered a Gold Medal in the same judging, in the category for Pinot Noirs priced $50 and up. More important is what you find in the glass, and I don’t want you to take my word for it (see my upcoming companion post, Popping Pinots with Karl).
Nevertheless, present day Wente Vineyards is producing gorgeous Pinot Noirs, I can promise you that, thanks to the unbelievable prescience of the first Karl Wente. I tip my hat to you, grandfather, where ever you may be – thanks for bestowing us with such incredible land to fashion these beautiful red wines!