A number of years ago, during a conversation with Jean Wente, matriarch of the Livermore Valley wine clan, I made the mistake of referring to Napa Valley as “California’s wine country,” unintentionally inferring that Livermore Valley was something else. Wente, a diminutive woman with a commanding presence, looked me straight in the eyes smiled and said, “Mr. Boyd, Livermore also is wine country.” There was a pause while I groped for something to salvage my sinking esteem, finally blurting out an anemic, “Yes, Ma’am. I meant …” and as I lamely fumbled for the right words, she looked across the table at me, sweetly smiling.
Livermore’s struggle for recognition continues, with wine writers and wine consumers alike turning their attention to the northwest of this verdant valley located southeast of San Francisco and the twin 900-pound gorillas, popularly known as Napa and Sonoma. One wine writer for a national wine magazine recently wrote that the Livermore is a failing appellation and the weak link in the greater San Francisco Bay wine region. Playing a secondary or tertiary role is not easy in today’s highly competitive wine market.
Hmmm! My experience is that the counter position to the stigma of negativity rests with the efforts of a small group of Livermore-based wineries, claiming (though not too loudly), “We’re making good wine, just give it a try.” One member of this group is Murrieta’s Well, an innovative winery started by Philip R. Wente, fourth generation of the Livermore Wente family and Sergio Traverso, Chilean born and trained winemaker. Murrieta’s Well traces its genesis to California’s Gold Rush era in the mid 19th century, when Joaquin Murrieta, a legendary Mexican vaquero and bandito, who was also into rounding up cattle and horses to sell in Mexico. Murrieta and his men set up a base camp to water their horses at an artesian well in the Livermore Valley, today the site of Murrieta’s Well winery.
Murrieta likely didn’t realize at the time that the Livermore land he camped on had well-drained gravelly soil and an ideal climate for grape growing with warm days and cool nights tempered by breezes and fog from the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. Although Livermore is usually thought of as a hot inland region, the valley is just over a low range of hills from the bay and a few miles further west is the ocean.
A few decades after Murrieta left his impact on the Livermore Valley Frenchman Louis Mel visited the valley and purchased a 92-acre estate that had already become known as “Murrieta’s Well.” Mel’s survey of the land and the gravelly soil reminded him of Bordeaux, so he built a winery into the hillside and imported cuttings from Chateau d’Yquem and Chateau Margaux. Mel ran his winery for 50 years and then sold it to his friend and neighbor Ernest Wente who kept the winery operating during Prohibition by producing sacramental wines.
Fast forward to 1990 when Philip Wente proposed the idea of bringing Murrieta’s Well back to life to Sergio Traverso, focusing on white and red blended wines. “I had just sold my share in Concannon and the idea appealed to me,” recalls Traverso. By 1991 the two men had restored Mel’s 19th century stone winery and released the first three wines under the Murrieta’s Well brand: A 1990 White Meritage, a 1990 Red Meritage and a Zinfandel from the 1989 vintage.
A decade later Traverso sold his interest in Murrieta’s Well to the Wente Family but stayed on as a member of the winemaking team, consulting during blending. Murrieta’s Well moved along slowly, though sometimes in neutral until 2002 when Karl Wente, fifth generation of the Wente dynasty, was named Winemaker for Wente Family Estates, including Murrieta’s Well. It didn’t take long before a symbiotic partnership was formed between Sergio Traverso and Karl Wente; the seasoned veteran and the young winemaker. Together, they focused on the art of blending wine. Blending, especially for aroma and flavor, is the key to Traverso’s winemaking philosophy, something that developed from a degree in bio-chemistry he earned in his native Chile. “I graduated during the Allende regime and there was no money available then for research so I came to California.”
In the 1970s Traverso became an international winemaker and consultant, first in Mexico then to various winemaking posts in the Napa Valley and Sonoma County. In 1981, Augustin Huneeus, himself a transplanted Chilean, then the president of Concannon Vineyards, invited Traverso to become chief winemaker at Concannon. By 1990 Traverso was ready to move on and was enticed with the idea of forming a partnership with Philip Wente in restoring the old Livermore winery established by Louis Mel. Traverso made the wines for the first ten years, but then stepped back to a consulting role, when Karl Wente came on board as the new winemaker.
“I’m working with Karl to emphasize aromas and flavors, basing the whole effort on building structure and elegance in the wines,” says Traverso. “The pleasure and esthetic value of wine is based on the structure, length on the palate and fullness of the wine. The evolution of aroma and flavors are more ephemeral and subject to change. Structure in the mouth is what makes you go back for another taste.” He points to Zarzuela as an exercise in blending.
“In the early 1990s I went to Vinexpo in Bordeaux and tasted some impressive Spanish and Portuguese wines, so Philip and I began planting Spanish and Portuguese varieties in the Livermore estate vineyards. Zarzuela is a light Spanish operetta that combines dancing, singing and conversation, while Murrieta’s Well Zarzuela is a blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Souza and Tempranillo “The Tourigas are full of aroma and the Tempranillo is very versatile, so it takes time to get just the right balance in the blend. All of the components are reflected in the Zarzuela, a lively, happy wine,” says Traverso. Separately, the Portuguese varietals and Tempranillo are grouped under Los Tesoros de Joaquin (The Treasures of Joaquin) along with a host of international varietals.
New to the Murrieta’s Well lineup are The Whip and The Spur, two wines that have nothing to do with bondage, but rather a homage to Joaquin Murretta. “The Whip and The Spur fit into the concept of Zarzuela,” says Traverso. Both wines are made by Karl Wente; The Whip is an eclectic blend of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Muscat Canelli, Gewurztraminer and Orange Muscat, while The Spur brings together Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and a little Petite Sirah, a Livermore icon red.
“The first blend of The Spur included Zinfandel, then it became a Meritage red (only Bordeaux red grapes) and now with the 2008 vintage, we added some Petite Sirah,” explains Traverso. “Karl and I tasted Barbera and Sangiovese, but the Petite Sirah blended nicely. It was denser in tannin, had good structure and was round and pleasant and fresher.” All of the components in The Spur are aged separately for about 16 months in a combination of French, American, Hungarian and Slovonian oaks, before blending.
Blending can be a passion, if not an obsession, for the winemaker. And while it may be intellectually satisfying, the desire to make more blends can also produce a wine-heavy line. In Murrieta’s Well Livermore Valley tasting room, there are 16 different wines under the Los Tesoros de Joaquin line, plus six more wines, including The Whip and The Spur, simply listed as Current Releases. Los Tesoros selections include the standards like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, but also Portuguese varietals such as Souzao, Touriga Francesca and Touriga Nacional and of course, Tempranilo.
The aim of blending is to make the sum of the parts better than any individual part, and that’s something that Murrieta’s Well does with style and a sense of adventure.