ZEN & THE ART OF WENTE VINEYARDS WINES
By Karl Wente (5th generation grower/winemaker)
You know that I’m really not a doctor
But I bet you didn’t know I’m not a doctor’s son…
I intend to do my father’s work until the day I’m gone…
- “Doctor” Professor Longhair
In 1883, when my great great grandfather Carl Wente planted our first vineyard here in Livermore, the valley wasn’t much more than a stagecoach stop between San Francisco and the Foothills. But the actual climate and soil – moderated by a daily ocean fog, with porous soils that wine grapes love, underlain by a generous source of water (the Livermore Basin, still supplying the Bay Area today) – was as ideal 127 years ago as it is now.
Which is precisely the reason why there are still over 5,000 acres of vineyards here in Livermore (2,000 of it ours). It’s always been just as easy to throw away the good things in life that you have, and Livermore would have been plowed under by urban sprawl long ago if not for the efforts started by my grandfather, the first Karl (with a K) Wente, and completed by Eric (my father), Philip, and Carolyn Wente my uncle and aunt respectively. It was the fourth generation of Wentes who helped to finally establish the South Livermore Valley Area Plan in 1992: an initiative that commits the community to the preservation of agricultural land.
Livermore is a great place to live – as long there’s also room for grapes, crops and orchards, and things like the world class prime beef, olives and pistachios we can now be proud of.
And so, yes, I totally appreciate being born and raised by a family with some foresight. Many call that integrity. My dad calls it just “something that we do.” Thanks to them I can do what I’ve prepared myself to do all my life – from driving tractors and topping barrels as a teenager, to the Chemical Engineering degree from Stanford, and masters in horticulture and enology from UC Davis. Thanks to them I can do my part, guiding the vineyard and winemaking directions, and then come home every day to my old house in the middle of the vineyards, sit on the front porch and play guitar, or jam with my group (called The Front Porch) in the basement.
We make wines for the way we live, and for me that includes enjoying not just the wines of Wente but also great wines from all over the world (which is why our restaurant wine list is so extensive). I relish anything and everything that’s good – including food and music of all sorts, quality time with my friends, a spin on my bike or a cruise on my motorcycle, mountain hikes and walks with the dogs, and more… just doing things that feel GOOD.
We make a good variety of wines, but the family legacy has been Chardonnay. In 1977 when my grandfather Karl died – unfortunately, at the young age of 49, at a time when people like him, Robert Mondavi and André Tchelistcheff were transforming the wine industry with their visionary leadership – Wente was growing and producing about 10% of the Chardonnay made in California.
The first Karl Wente believed in pure, unadulterated Chardonnay – something expressing the grape without the influence of oak. When he passed away my dad Eric took over the winemaking at the young but experienced age of 25, and he carried on that tradition. At the age of 24 my uncle Phil took over the vineyards – and that period of transition when grapes like Chenin Blanc and “Grey Riesling” disappeared in favor of Chardonnay – and my aunt Carolyn was just finishing her degree in finance in the late 1970s. I’m amazed by what they’ve accomplished since then, and by the fact that they’ve allowed my sister Christine and myself to make our own choices in terms of how we’d like to participate.
If anything, the things that I strive for in the vineyards and winery are very much in the Wente tradition, in very specific ways:
- Deep, luscious, seductive and full fledged expressions of Chardonnay
- Merlots that can be described as fleshy and sumptuous, because that’s what the grape epitomizes as a red wine
- Cabernet Sauvignons that are rich yet round – pounding the ceiling with intensity without pounding the palate with hard tannins
- Pinot Noirs that are soft and sexy wity spiced perfumes, and Syrahs that are the same except a little fuller, a little more generous and curvaceous
If those aren’t the notes that we’re hitting in these wines, then please: you better let me know. I’m a musician, so I know what endless practice is all about – a never-ending process of just getting to where you want to be. I live for that.
Want to know what really makes me tick? Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Yeah, I dig it because it’s about motorcycles, and it’s also about an appreciation of quality, and diversity, in life, entailing nature as much as technology. It gives you an attitude for living and learning, thinking through the things we do with thoroughness without over-thinking it, and never thinking that you’ve got it all down.
Wente Vineyards started off in a very good place, and it seems like things have fallen into place because there were always Wentes who thought about doing good things, for sensible reasons. Today, it is why we conscientiously apply good, sustainable practices in the vineyards; borrowing principles that are organic, conventional or even biodynamic — all so long as they are good principles. Like things you could always find in the Farmers’ Almanac, which has always guided people living close to the earth.
Here’s how I think that Zen effects the quality of our wines: what is good for the vines is also good for the environment, good for the people who work with us at Wente, and good for the community that has entrusted us with what we do in Livermore Valley (as well as in Monterey’s Arroyo Seco, where we farm another 700 acres). Ultimately, healthy vines lead to healthy grapes which leads to the style of healthy, fruit forward wines associated with Wente. I’m proud of the fact that the fourth generation has put that responsibility in my hands; and as the good “Doctor” Professor Longhair once said, I intend to do my father’s work until the day I’m gone…
Our wines can’t be judged by one sip, which is why scoring and wine competitions often causes me a little consternation. Frankly, I’m more concerned about achieving a deeper transparency of fruit, expression of a vineyard, and components like naturally good acidity and smooth tannins – things that make our wines better balanced, more friendly and, in that sense, more food-friendly.
When it finally comes down to what you put on the table, and matching wines with foods, I’ve found that there are no right answers and no wrong answers – just enjoying. In the same way, I think can find peace wherever I am or in whatever I do. But after all is said and done, my favorite place in the world is always in Livermore, in our own vineyards, sitting on my own front porch, with my own girlfriend or my own family, in the company of good friends and especially those who appreciate wines the way we do.
See how “good things” can happen? Thanks for letting me share that with you!