If you have tasted Chardonnay made in California, chances are Wente family ancestors had a hand in developing the Chardonnay clone that produced that glass of wine. As much as 80% of Chardonnay grown in California is made with or derived from the Wente clone. That’s a pretty amazing statistic and a very good reason for Wente Vineyards to be celebrating National Chardonnay Day with pride. We are happy to be included in their celebration of Chardonnay Day this year and to be able to share their story and three Wente Vineyards Chardonnays with you.
Carl H. Wente and the Wente Clone
Not long after Carl H. Wente immigrated to the U.S. he began studying winemaking with Charles Krug in Napa Valley. It didn’t take long for him to decide to pursue winemaking on his own and he moved to the Livermore Valley where, in 1883, he purchased 48 acres. Over time Carl purchased more land and his sons Ernest and Herman joined the family operation.
It was Ernest who, by 1912, convinced his father to import Chardonnay cuttings from the University of Montpellier in France. With those cuttings and Chardonnay budwood from the Theodore Gier Vineyard in Pleasanton, which was planted using budwood obtained from Charles Wetmore who brought the budwood from Meursault in Burgundy about 1882, Ernest began the 30 to 40 year process of selecting only vines with favorable traits and replanting them. Over time this Chardonnay became known as the Wente clone (actually several clones) and was planted in many vineyards in California and beyond.
Recovering from Prohibition and Growing Beyond Livermore Valley
With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 Ernest and Herman together assumed responsibility for the family business. Ernest continued to improve the quality of rootstock, farming practices and winemaking techniques. Herman concentrated on the business end of winemaking as well as the promotion of wine and wine education. The brothers put their name – Wente Bros. – on the label of their wines and with the 1936 vintage released a varietally labeled Chardonnay. They understood that in order to succeed they needed to focus on quality in the vineyard and in the bottle.
The third generation of the Wente family, Karl L. Wente, joined his father Ernest and uncle Herman in the family business eventually taking over management of Wente Bros. from them. Farming operations extended to Arroyo Seco, now a sub-appellation of the Monterey AVA, with the purchase of 300 acres which would be replanted from apricots to vineyards. These vineyards are now the source of Wente’s Riva Ranch Single Vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Modernization in the winery and in the vineyards continued under Karl L.’s guidance until the late 1970s.
Continued Growth and Diversification in Livermore Valley
The fourth generation of the Wente family, siblings Eric, Phillip and Carolyn are responsible for the management and operation of Wente Vineyards today. Having grown up in and around the Wente vineyards all began learning the business from an early age. Vineyard acreage has grown from those original 47 acres to about 3,000 today. Wente Vineyards in Livermore now includes multiple tasting rooms, a concert venue, a golf course & restaurant and multiple event centers.
Christine Wente became the first member of the fifth generation of the Wente family to join the winery operation in 2000. She was followed by Karl Wente in 2002 who is now responsible for winemaking at Wente Vineyards.
- In 2010 the vineyards, winery and company earned its sustainable certification from Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing.
- In 2011 Wente Vineyards received the American Winery of the Year award from Wine Enthusiast magazine.
It is a very long arc from 1883 to 2017 and a testament to family and hard work that the vision established by Carl H. Wente continued uninterrupted, through his family members for 134 years making Wente Vineyards America’s oldest continuously owned and operated winery. Given the family’s contribution to Chardonnay it is not an overestimation to consider them “California’s First Family of Chardonnay™”.
Let’s Taste Some Wente Vineyards Chardonnay!
2016 Wente Vineyards Eric’s Chardonnay Small Lot — pale yellow in the glass with salmon undertones. Generous fruit aromas include melon, pear and ripe peaches. Flavors of stone fruit, citrus and hints of ripe pear and dusty minerality follow with bright acidity, a medium body and a finish that is at least moderate in length. 13.5% abv.SRP $25. Tasting sample.
This bright, flavorful Chardonnay was hand harvested from select blocks of estate vineyards in the Livermore Valley. Fermentation in stainless steel was followed by aging on the lees for 4 months in stainless steel.
This lovely Chardonnay is a pleasure to sip on its own and will make a delicious pairing with appetizers, pasta, chicken or salads.
2016 Wente Vineyards Morning Fog Chardonnay — medium yellow in the glass with green undertones. Hints of caramel and toasty spice aromas combine with ripe citrus aromas. Toasty, caramel flavors follow with the addition of peach, nectarine and lemony citrus flavors. This wine exhibits a bit of weight in the mouth and has a long finish with spice. 13.5% abv. $15 Tasting sample.
The flavors of this Chardonnay are influenced by the fermentation vessels: 50% stainless steel and 50% neutral American oak. The barrel fermented portion of the wine was aged on the lees for 5 months with stirring monthly. 50% of the stainless steel fermented wine was also aged on the lees with the remaining half racked off to preserve the fruit flavors of the variety.
This wine splits the difference between an unoaked Chardonnay like Eric’s and a more heavily oaked Chardonnay like the Riva Ranch. The oak influence and influence of lees aging are apparent, but do not trample the fruit flavor of the Chardonnay. This is a lovely food wine. It makes me crave Halibut in meunière sauce.
2015 Wente Vineyards Riva Ranch Single Vineyard Chardonnay — light golden color in the glass with a toasty, caramel aromas and scents of dried hay. Toasty, spicy flavors follow along with underlying grapefruit flavors. This wine has a richness and roundness in the mouth and a long finish. SRP 14.5% abv.$22 Tasting sample.
A variety of Chardonnay clones planted in Riva Ranch in Arroyo Seco is the source of the Chardonnay for this wine. 90% of the wine is barrel fermented in a combination of 60% new and 40% second-use French and American oak. 10% is fermented in stainless steel. This wine goes through malolactic fermentation and is barrel aged on the lees for 8 months with stirring every two weeks.
This wine is very different than the prior two wines because of the wood aging and malolactic fermentation. It is a rich, generous Chardonnay that cries out for food. In fact, bacon macaroni and cheese would be a killer pairing with this wine. It needs a rich partner.
This trio of Chardonnays from Wente Vineyards provides a really interesting comparison of Chardonnay styles. Unoaked, lightly oaked, and oaked. There is something for every Chardonnay lover to like in these three wines.
I hope your Chardonnay Day celebration will include at least one delicious Chardonnay from Wente Vineyards. We thank Wente Vineyards for including us in their Chardonnay Day celebration and congratulate them on their rich family history and quality winemaking.