October 2009

UpFront: A History of Innovation at Wente

By: Zack Dickson
Photos by: Stacey Taxin

How’s this for a stake in the ground: Wente Vineyards is the oldest continuously-operated family owned winery in the United States. Since 1883, five generations of the Wente family have planted, grown and harvested grapes and crafted wine from their estate vineyards. Being family-owned, vertically integrated and 100% estate grown has enabled the Wentes to be pioneers in winemaking as well as leaders in wine industry sustainability.

 


From the beginning, the Wente family has had a history of innovation. Recognizing the potential that the Livermore Valley had for winegrape growing, Carl H. Wente became a pioneer in that area when he purchased 48 acres of vineyard land in 1883. Carl recognized that the unusual east-west orientation of the valley (the majority of California AVAs are positioned north-south), its soil structure and its proximity to San Francisco Bay provided optimal growing conditions.


Wente Vineyards and golfing great Greg Norman joined forces to create The Course at Wente Vineyards, a challenging championship course. The view of vineyards against greens is spectacular.


Today, 5th generation winemaker Karl Wente sees the Livermore Valley as “a great place to grow.” His creative forces are closely tied to the land he grew up on and now works. “The Livermore Valley has an incredible diversity of soils and micro-climates,” notes the winemaker, “which allow us to grow fruit of different flavor complexities.”

 

Having worked the land for more than 126 years, the Wente family understands the importance of sustainability in farming and business practices.

Karl Wente feels a particular responsibility since the Wente wines are 100% estate-grown: “‘Estate-grown’ has great meaning—so much so because you have a huge responsibility to sustain the land and your future, and at the same time you gain tremendous oversight and control over your farming methods.”

 

Commitment to Environment and Community


Wente Vineyards utilizes sustainable farming methods throughout its vineyards, and Karl Wente is quick to point out that that is only one small part of Wente family’s commitment to sustainability. Codified by Karl’s father Eric, uncle Phil and aunt Carolyn in the early 1990s, the winery’s “Farming for the Future” program took a strong triple bottom line approach to sustainability more than a decade before sustainability became an industry buzz word.

Amy Hoopes, Wente’s VP of Marketing, explains: “Sustainability is first and foremost about the environment—what you put in and what you get out—and your interaction with the land. The second piece is about the community. With more than 3,000 acres, we are surrounded by our local community and neighbors; we need to make sure we are engaged with and are enhancing the Livermore Valley and Arroyo Seco as great places to work and live. The third tenet is about our own financial responsibility; you can’t be around to protect the environment and enhance the community if you don’t first make sound financial decisions for yourself.”

 

Through implementing their innovative “Farming for the Future” program across the estate and into the local community, the Wente family has established themselves as leaders in wine industry sustainability initiatives.

 
UPFRONT with Karl Wente

 

Fifth-generation winemaker Karl Wente has never been the type to rest on his laurels. After gaining his undergraduate degree from Stanford in chemical engineering, Karl earned two master degrees in enology and viticulture from the University of California Davis. Karl’s education has allowed him to carry on his family tradition of working as both a winegrower and winemaker. With ten vintages already under his belt, at the age of 32, Karl has achieved more than many people twice his age.

 

 

Karl is proud to build on the success of his family and recognizes the importance of surrounding himself with a strong team. “Some of the employees at Wente have been here for more than 40 years, and many have been here for many more than 30. This has allowed me to pull from the knowledge of people who worked with my grandfather and past generations.”

As Karl Wente explains, “Winemaking has to be a collaborative effort, because you can’t make great
wines without a mutual understanding of your objectives. We all recognize that our first priority is growing grapes that have the potential to become excellent wines. We then tailor our techniques in the winery to preserve the delicate flavors of the fruit and to elevate the expression of the vineyard terroir."


The Nth Degree

A passion of Karl's is blending his artistic and scientific talents to hand-craft small lot wines while simultaneously focusing on experimentation. He describes Wente Vineyards Nth Degree portfolio as having "distinctive flavor profiles that call upon the terroir of a specific vineyard. These are wines that tell a story of where they came from."

 

Karl is excited about the future of his small-lot wine production, "Having a great team, being vertically integrated, family-owned and estate grown provides me with the flexibility and resources to experiment with different winegrowing and winemaking techniques."

 


   

Murrieta's Well

 

Murrieta's Well is named after the infamous vaquero Joaquin Murrieta, who roamed California during the Gold Rush. Legend has it that while traveling between California and Mexico, Murrieta and his men stopped at the artesian well in the Livermore Valley to rest and water their horses.

 

Recognizing the great potential for the land, Ernest Wente acquired the property in 1930 from pioneering businessman and well-known winemaker Louis Mel. In 1990 fourth-generation winemaker Philip Wente, together with consulting winemaker and co-founder Sergio Traverso, revived the historic 1880 winery to create Murrieta's Well.

 

All of the Murrieta's Well wines are produced from grapes sustainably farmed on the 92-acre estate vineyard and adjacent Raboli Vineyard.


Zarzuela is the Spanish word for "operetta," and like many of Wente Family Estate wines, gain inspiration from music. "Similar to the way voices and instruments come together to form the musical Zarzuela, this wine blends both Spanish and Portuguese grape varieties to form a harmonious result."

A medley of Touriga Nacional, Tempranillo, Souzão and Touriga Francesca, the wine allows each variety to exhibit its unique flavor by being barrel-aged separately for 12 months; the lots are then blended and returned to barrels for further aging. Zarzuela is crafted with inspiration from the famous blends of Spain's Ribera del Duero and Rioja regions and those of Portugal. The wine delivers up-front aromas of roses with hints of leather and spice, while the flavors of black cherry, cedar, pepper and vanilla blend harmoniously on the palate. Similar to an opera reaching its climatic moment, Zarzuela ends with a bold and spicy finish.


Tamás Estates

In the past, the Wente family's Tamás Estates label has been based on California-Italian brand positioning. With the launch of its Double Decker Red-a Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Barbera blend-Tamás Estates is now offering an even wider view of global varieties.

 

Wente's Chief Marketing Officer, Amy Hoopes, recognizes that while consumers are interested in exploring new wines, that "In the past, consumers may have tried wines from another world region and not found the flavor profiles they were looking for. With the re-positioning of Tamás Estates and the launch of Double Decker Red, we are delivering a world of wines rooted in California."

 

The brand's engaging packaging urges consumers to "hop on the bus for the quintessential wine tour." The screwcap closure, contemporary packaging and excellent price-to-quality ratio make the brand approachable while attracting "wine-curious" consumers. By leveraging two of the hottest trends in the industry-red blends and the $8-$11 price category-Tamás Estates is re-positioning itself for rapid growth.

 

 
Neckers on Wente Vineyards wine bottles offer free downloads of up-and-coming musicians.
Discover the Wine, Discover the Music
 

Music is an important aspect of Karl Wente’s creativity and an integral part of his winemaking process. Through Wente’s “Discover the Wine, Discover the Music,” Karl is able to blend his passion for wine and music and share it with consumers. For the program, Karl personally selects emerging artists to pair with his wines.

 

“Music is such an important part of what we do at Wente Vineyards. With our summer music series, The Concerts at Wente Vineyards, we view music as integral part of the wine-country experience. Through our ‘Discover the Wine, Discover the Music’ we are able to offer this experience to our consumers who may not be able to visit the winery,” said 5th generation winegrower Christine Wente.


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