By Karl Wente, 5th generation grower/winemaker
Let’s talk Cabernet Sauvignon. Everybody loves a good Cabernet Sauvignon. It is true that, here at Wente Vineyards, our identity through the years has been strongly associated with grapes like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc — and we’re talking about 128years of that association. But we also farm about 400 acres of estateowned Cabernet Sauvignon, and these vineyards are primarily planted with a selection of heritage clones originally brought over from France’s Bordeaux by Livermore Valley winegrowing pioneer Charles Wetmore in the 19th century.
So saying that Wente Vineyards is committed to Cabernet Sauvignon is something of an understatement. We are committed for this simple reason: we’ve always believed that our AVA has potential for producing first class Cabernet Sauvignon. For that reason, I have personally devoted as muchstudy, time, reflection and energy on the development of this grape, as much as or more than any other varietal in our program. Alongside select clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, we also farm all the classic blending grapes of Bordeaux — Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot.
What is the “Wente Vineyards” style of Cabernet Sauvignon? From my perspective, that question is one and the same as what is the “Livermore Valley” style of Cabernet Sauvignon? Think of it this way: like a lot of cabernet lovers, I have tremendous appreciation for the great Cabernet Sauvignon regions of the world, such as Bordeaux and Napa Valley. I taste wines like Margaux and Lynch-Bages from Bordeaux whenever I can to learn from them: because they are primarily made from the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, and also because they are extraordinary examples of what the French call terroir — that powerful “sense of place” that you can taste, and sense loud and clear, in those wines. That’s what makes Bordeaux grand crus so grand. At an estate like Lynch-Bages, the objective is not to make great “Cabernet Sauvignon,” but rather to make a great wine that tastes of Château Lynch-Bages. The grape, frankly, is only secondary when it comes to this inspiring tradition of producing wines with a sense of place.
At the same time, I am extremely proud to carry forward the tradition of the Wente family’s commitment to fruit forward, food friendly wines; because to me, fruit forward and food friendly styles of Cabernet Sauvignon are very much a reflection of our vineyards’ terroir, or sense of place.
I can’t stress enough our objectives here at Wente Vineyards: yes, our goal is to grow great wine from Cabernet Sauvignon; but our ultimate goal is to produce Livermore Valley Cabernet Sauvignons — wines that expresses our specific macroclimate, and the gravelly loam soils on the slopes of our vineyards, as opposed to wines that mimic Bordeaux’s Médoc region, Napa Valley’s Rutherford AVA, or any other place in the world. We already know Cabernet Sauvignon grows beautifully here, but we want to grow one that shows off the rich, fruit focused qualities we love in our wines.
Right now we are producing four levels of Livermore Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at Wente Vineyards; and although the four bottlings represent different price points, they all start from the same premise: growing the best possible grapes. Our farming programs also take into account the costs of fruit going into our four levels of Cabernet Sauvignon, but the farming is mostly about execution and timing: the right time to remove leaves to allow the sunlight to hit the newly-formed clusters, for instance, is extremely important. By the same token, the right time to green thin is directly effected by the right time to irrigate, which has a direct effect on canopy growth; and canopy growth has a direct impact on the development of flavors, tannins, and natural acidity in the grapes, and that equation determines the balance, intensity, and overall quality of the wines you end up with.
The amount of sunlight reaching each cluster is of paramount importance because the skin of the grapes, like the skin on our bodies, literally change when photons hit them, thus exerting changes in flavor, color and tannin. Our Cabernet Sauvignon comes from 33 different estate owned vineyards, each with individual farming programs geared towards optimizing quality. The vineyards are typically picked as much as four or five different times each because not every block, row and individual vine in each vineyard reaches optimal ripeness at the same time. Then the human element comes back into play: it is only after each harvest that we begin our formal process of evaluating the wines, and establishing how each vineyard has met expectations. Decisions on where each Cabernet Sauvignon goes are made by a team that includes myself, our Director of Winemaking Brad Buehler, Assistant Winemaker Claude Bobba, and my uncle Phil Wente.
At that point, our Cabernet Sauvignon goes into barrel. Not to complicate things further, but decisions pertaining to each wine’s barrel regime are also predicated upon vineyard performance and the style of each of the four levels of Wente Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. Qualities of terroir respective to each growth are factored in along with clonal expressions (Cabernet Sauvignon clones are identified by numbers; ours including 4,6,7,8, 15, 191 and 337), as well as our evaluations of performance related to rootstocks (1616, 3309, 101-14, 420A, 5BB, 5C, Freedom, SO4, and own-rooted).
Yes, you can compare Livermore Valley to, say, Napa Valley – a region justifiably acclaimed for the quality of its Cabernet Sauvignon. We share pretty much the same, steadying maritime influences coming off the Bay Area that Napa Valley does, and our temperature readings are similar to temperatures in mid-Napa Valley. Where we differ is that our loamy hillsides tend to be lower in nutrients than the floors and hillsides in Napa Valley, and our terroirs are more stressed due to the fact that we receive only about a third of the annual rain that Napa Valley sees.
Therefore, we continually focus on maintaining organic matter and nutrient balance in our soil. We do this through sustainable practices like cover cropping, composting (utilizing our winery and golf course waste and returning it to the vineyard), and nutrient delivery through drip systems (we favor fish-based and guano-based products).
Sustainablity is in the Wente blood, and is what has allowed five generations of my family to grow great grapes on our land. It is a foundation of sustaining the health of the soil by returning what you take away in grapes each year. We try to deliver this in a way that most enhances the health of the overall ecosystem, starting with healthy soils. Healthy soils contain healthy microbial populations, which enhances the health of the mycorrhizae (pre-cursors to mushrooms), and we do this by maintaining healthy levels of decomposition of leaves and mowed cover crops. The result is healthier plants, which in turn fosters healthy fauna – a vibrant animal life in and around farms is always the ultimate sign of successful ecosystems. This emphasis on sustaining healthy, balanced soils leads to grapes that produce wines of deeper color, richer phenolics, more intense extracts – all the things that make a Cabernet Sauvignon richer, rounder, and more finely balanced.
More and more these days you hear winemakers talking about getting grapes to ripen to optimal “physiological ripeness” prior to the point where sugar levels become too high. The reason: if grapes reach a “sugar ripeness” too soon — before attaining “flavor ripeness” — the result is wines that are unbalanced, overly high in alcohol, or dull due to high pH and low acidity (pardon the oeno-speak).
Our goal, during every vintage, has always been to get Cabernet Sauvignon to ripen at a point and time when the flavor intensity is there, but always well within balance. Simply put, we’re looking for distinguishing marks leading to our conception of quality. When wines are picked too overripe, at sugar levels of too high in potential alcohol, that is also when they begin to lose the qualities associated with terroir — that distinctive sense of place making them worthwhile in the first place. What’s the point of producing a Livermore Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that tastes of Napa Valley, Sonoma, Chile, or someplace else?
I feel we’ve been hitting that balance; or at the very least, gaining a better and better understanding of what to do in the vineyards with each passing vintage. Naturally, we’re also starting to pinpoint some real high points among our plantings. Recently, for instance, a good portion of our Nth Degree Cabernet Sauvignon — the “essence” of what we believe Livermore Valley’s terroir can produce from this classic grape each year — has been coming from our Smith and Golf blocks situated on Livermore Valley floors, near The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards.
Another one of our emerging “star” Cabernet Sauvignon growths has been a hillside block behind Murrieta’s Well on Mines Road. Although grapes from there are a little different — expressive of its own terroir — from those of Smith and Block, they yield similar familial attributes: wines that are generous and forthcoming in fruit qualities, with flavors resembling cassis and chocolatey blackberry, expressed through fleshy mouth-feels. Those qualities are filled out further by dense yet finely textured tannins, plus a bunch of little nuances of spice like juniper, minty peppers, tobacco smoke and cocoa powder. All adding up to wines saying pretty much the same thing, only in pleasing multi-part harmony: this is Livermore Valley style Cabernet Sauvignon!
Long ago I took to heart something Dick Gould, the Director of Tennis (and a living legend) at my alma mater Stanford, once told me: “spend more time making your second serve more like your first serve.” We’ll continue to be students of our discipline. which is working the vineyards and farming responsibly. Our reward is the consistent play of our grapes, which I’m happy to report that you can already taste in the results: Cabernet Sauvignons as good and rich as any; but more importantly, speaking well of Livermore Valley, and one family’s dedication to the region spanning over five generations… and counting.