By Karl Wente, 5th generation grower/winemaker
God said to Abraham, kill me a son (Bob Dylan)…
And a 19th century grapeseeding pioneer named Charles Wetmore told my great great grandfather, C.H. Wente, to take this budwood obtained from Meursault in France’s Burgundy region, and go forth and multiply said grape: now known to wine lovers all over the world as Chardonnay. This is pretty much how it happened, around the time Wente Vineyards was first established in Livermore Valley, 127 years ago.
Our family is understandably proud of the fact that at any given moment, somewhere in this world, somebody is asking a sommelier or specialty wine retailer for a recommendation for a good Chardonnay; and if the answer happens to be a California grown Chardonnay, chances are it’s coming from a vineyard planted to a “Wente clone” of Chardonnay. Today, over 80% of California’s Chardonnays originated from clones cultivated by my family.
Not even Prohibition kept the sons of C.H. Wente, Ernest and Herman Wente, from persisting in their meticulous selection of the original Wetmore budwood, along with a second cultivar obtained from France’s University of Montpelier in 1912. We know that the latter probably originated from a flowery, spice scented musqué variety still grown in the Burgundian region of Mâconnais.
Mâcon is by no means known for the world’s greatest white wines; but as often the case with fine wine grapes, or Vitis vinifera, a clone that produces more ordinaire wines in one part of the world often produces absolute magic elsewhere, where the grape prove more suitable. It’s that Chardonnay musqué clone that produces many of the finest California Chardonnays today.
Once Prohibition was repealed, beginning in the mid-1930s and going all the way to the late 1950s, Wente Vineyards was virtually the only winery in America even producing a varietal labeled Chardonnay. Sometimes it takes a while for others to catch up.
Then came the Paris Tasting of 1976, when a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay “bested” some great white Burgundies of France in a blind tasting; involving French judges, no less. Soon after that, interest in the grape exploded; and at that time, even the Wentes were unprepared. Since vineyards can’t be changed overnight, it took us a good ten years before we could make the transition from grapes like Chenin Blanc and “Grey Riesling” ( which comprised over 50% of our sales at the time of the Paris Tasting) to keep up with the growing demand for our own Chardonnay.
Recognizing the grape’s adaptability and potential for high quality white wine in the coastal regions of California, in the 1960s the University of California at Davis began to select, heat-treat and isolate the finest virus-free Chardonnay budwood they could find; drawing most of their material, of course, from Wente plantings in Livermore or from the nursery established in Arroyo Seco (Monterey) by my grandfather, Karl Wente.
The changes wrought by what Robert Mondavi famously called the “Golden Age of California Wine” came hard and fast: Chardonnay plantings went from about 9,000 acres in the early 1980s to over 100,000 acres by 2000; dominated either by Wente clones developed by UC Davis, or else clones going by names like “Old Wente,” “Rued” or “Robert Young,” transplanted directly from original Wente plantings. Many of the winemakers other winemakers (like me) admire most, like Helen Turley and Dutton-Goldfield’s Dan Goldfield, absolutely swear by Old Wente; simply because their most opulent – and yes, their highest rated – Chardonnays come from vineyards planted to those clones.
So the next time you are bowled over by a great tasting California Chardonnay, think about what Alexandre Dumas once wrote about the proper way to enjoy France’s greatest Chardonnay based wine, known as Montrachet: it is a wine meant to be “drunk kneeling, with one’s head bared.”
Then think about the prescience of Carl Wente at the turn of the last century, and then about the persistence of the original “Wente Brothers,” Ernest and Herman. We’ll always be grateful for the visionary innovations of my grandfather, Karl Wente; and I especially appreciate the success of our fourth generation: my father Eric, the vineyards preserved or expanded by my uncle Philip, and the steady hand and inspiration of my aunt Carolyn.
Some sensory remarks on three of our current releases:
2007 Wente, Small Lot Livermore Valley Chardonnay – Dedicated to my dad, who crafted Chardonnay in the bright, pure fruit style (usually vinified without oak) preferred by the previous generations of Wentes: a wine that pushes the creamy textured, honeyed apple/pear qualities of the grape (think of freshly baked tarte tatin), as transparent as silk, and caressing the palate like waves upon pillowy, tropical sands. Surf’s up!
2008 Wente, Morning Fog Livermore Valley Chardonnay – Primarily barrel fermented in a very contemporary style, from grapes picked at varying degrees of ripeness to achieve multiple textures and multi-faceted aromas of sweet apples mixed with stones, butter, apricot, peach, and a smidgen of toasty oak; the fragrances filled in by smooth, round sensations, sharpened by a crisp edge, pushing the lightly smoked fruitiness clear across the finish with a bright, energetic feel.
2008 Wente, The Nth Degree Livermore Valley Chardonnay – A predominance of Old Wente clones and full, Burgundian style barrel fermentation combine to give us a Chardonnay that penetrates the nose and charges full blast onto the palate; yet amazingly, maintaining a sleek, silky, almost lean, elegant feel in its medium-full body; smoothed over by vanillin/creamy layers, embedding honeyed apple and pineapple varietal fruit qualities.