California’s wine industry is not nearly as old as those in European wine countries, but a few current California wineries that were founded more than 100 years ago do exist, and Wente Vineyards is one of those pioneers. The unique difference with Wente Vineyards is that its home is not in Napa Valley, but in the Livermore Valley, 40 miles east of San Francisco.
Livermore Valley is even closer to San Francisco than Napa Valley is; you can even reach Livermore Valley by BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) or car services from San Francisco, and there is also a Livermore Wine Trolley available.
Besides Wente Vineyards and the equally well-known Concannon Vineyard, there are now more than 50 wineries in Livermore Valley. Wente Vineyards led the way; it was founded in 1883, and is the U.S.’s oldest continuously operated family-owned winery.
Members of the Wente family are involved with all aspects of running the winery. Carolyn Wente, a 4th generation Wente, whom I met in New York recently for a tasting of Wente wines, is the current CEO. Karl Wente, a 5th generation family member, is the winemaker. All wines are made from estate-grown grapes.
Although Wente makes many different varietal wines, Chardonnay is the name of the game at Wente Vineyards. In fact, Wente developed the most famous Chardonnay clone in the U.S., the Wente Clone. It was originally planted by Wente in 1912, and is now the clone used for about 80 percent of all California Chardonnays.
Wente is a pioneer in another way--it was the first winery in the U.S to release a varietal Sauvignon Blanc (1935) and the first in the country to make a varietal Chardonnay (1936).
Because so many wineries in the U.S use the now-famous Wente Clone for their Chardonnays, Wente Vineyards is regarded as the Chardonnay winery. I tasted with Carolyn Wente the four Chardonnay wines now being made at Wente Vineyards:
Eric’s Chardonnay 2015: Aged in stainless steel only, this Chardonnay is very clean, light, and fresh; not your typical California Chardonnay (about $22 retail).
Morning Fog Chardonnay 2013: The largest produced and least expensive Wente Chardonnay; aged in 50% neutral oak and 50% stainless steel, the Morning Fog was clearly my favorite Wente Chardonnay. It was rich and flavorful, a real delight ($14 retail).
Riva Ranch Single-Vineyard Chardonnay 2014: Grapes grown at a Wente property in Arroyo Seco (Monterey). Flavorful, but more restrained than the Morning Fog (about $20 retail).
Nth Degree Chardonnay 2014: Small production (only 300 cases), it is 100% fermented in new French oak. Very concentrated, but I prefer a less oaky style of Chardonnay ($60 retail).
Isn’t it nice when your favorite wine in the group is also the least expensive? In fact, Wente’s Morning Fog Chardonnay has been very critically acclaimed as an inexpensive, widely available Chardonnay.
Wente Vineyards produces just about every major varietal wine, white and red, plus blended wines. Two of its red wines are arguably its most important wines after its Chardonnays. Wente’s single-vineyard “Charles Wetmore” Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, named after the man who planted vine cuttings from some top Bordeaux châteaux in the Livermore Valley during the 1800s, is an impressive Cabernet Sauvignon at a very reasonable price ($25 to $28 retail). The wine, made from direct descendants of the Bordeaux vine cuttings, is grown from grapes on a well drained, gravelly loam hillside vineyard with a long growing season. It is well balanced, with depth and intensity, a medium-weight Cabernet that is fruity but actually dry.
Wente’s single-vineyard Riva Ranch Pinot Noir 2014 is made from grapes grown at the family vineyard in Arroyo Seco, Monterey. The location is ideal for growing Pinot Noir because of its long, cool growing season, with morning fog, preventing the vineyard from getting too warm, and with cool nights. Wente’s Riva Ranch Pinot Noir is made from a blend of eight clones, including the renowned Pommard and Martini Pinot Noir clones. It’s a rather extraordinary Pinot Noir--with true Pinot Noir aromas and flavors--especially considering its retail price ($23 to $25). There are very few California Pinot Noirs being made that can match its quality in this price range.
The 2014 was an excellent vintage in Livermore Valley and Arroyo Seco. Look especially for these wines from that vintage.
Livermore Valley is definitely worth a stop on your next pilgrimage to California wine country. A logical place to start would be at Wente Vineyards, the most prestigious winery in this region. And by the way, there is an excellent restaurant at Wente Estate, and a nearby golf course.
I recommend that you try these great-value Wente Vineyards wines. And start with Wente’s “Morning Fog” Chardonnay, but be sure to also try Wente’s Riva Ranch Pinot Noir.