Karl Wente, the Chief Operating Officer and Chief Winemaker for family-run Wente Vineyards, is shaking things up when it comes to his unique approach to winemaking. His views have helped him to reinvent the way his family has produced Chardonnay for centuries.
While working with the family’s estate-grown vineyards throughout the premium wine regions in California, Wente’s mission is to continue to make balanced, food-friendly wine. What’s really unique about Wente’s winemaking philosophy is that he combines the latest NASA technology to his process in the vineyards with such age-old pursuits like yoga and music.
Unbelievably, Wente didn’t necessarily fall into the family business immediately as some might assume, although he did find his way there eventually. He began with a degree in Chemical Engineering from Stanford University and then went on to receive two Master’s degrees: one in horticulture (viticulture) and one in food science (enology), from the University of California at Davis.
Wente works with his family today to farm nearly 3,000 acres of vineyards. As one might expect, the farming practices are sophisticated and rooted in a deep understanding of soil, science and sustainability. Swig Contributor Kristen Oliveri sits down with Wente to learn more about the family’s deep winemaking history and how he puts his current spin on an age old family tradition—plus, what he likes to drink when he’s off the clock.
Q: What is the history of the Wente family?
A: Our family winery was founded in 1883, more than 130 years ago by my great great grandfather Carl H. Wente who planted some of the first grapevines and built a winery in the Livermore Valley. He and my great grandfather, second generation winegrower Ernest Wente, convinced their father to import Chardonnay cuttings from France which helped establish the now-famous Wente clone.
We were the first to pioneer varietal labeling with our 1932 Sauvignon Blanc and then with our 1936 Chardonnay. In the early 1960s, we were leaders in the development of the Monterey region, where we still farm exceptional varietals such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling next door to neighbors who have discovered this region only in the past fifteen years.
Today, our family winery is being led by fourth and fifth generations of Wentes. We continue to maintain our commitment to sustainability. In fact, we are one of just 2% of California wineries who are certified sustainable in both winery and vineyards, and we continue our family vision of wine quality and integrity.
Q: Why did your family decide to focus on Chardonnay?
A: My great grandfather Ernest Wente saw an opportunity with Chardonnay when he was a student at the University of California at Davis. In 1912, with the help of UC Davis employee Leon Bonnet, he persuaded his father to import cuttings from the vine nursery at the University of Montpellier in France. Around the same time, Ernest Wente also sourced budwood from the Gier Vineyard in Pleasanton. He planted the two sources in his family’s Livermore Valley vineyard and over the next 30 to 40 years, selected vines that showed favorable traits, and re-planted them to establish the Wente Clone of Chardonnay.
It is this clone that has created some of the most famous white wines in the New World. Today, there are almost 100,000 acres of Chardonnay planted in California and it has become the number one selling wine varietal in the US. With much of that Chardonnay originating from the original Wente clone, we’ve been recognized as “California’s First Family of Chardonnay.”
Q: Tell me about the history of bottling the first Chardonnay.
A: Ernest and his brother Herman released the nation’s first varietally labeled Chardonnay, a 1936 vintage, and things began to take off quickly for the family winery. Starting in the 1940’s and throughout the 1950’s, the Wente clone began to spread across the state to other wineries, most notably Stony Hill, Louis Martini and Hanzell. And in 1960, the Wente Chardonnay achieved international acclaim when the 1959 vintage was reviewed by Robert Balzer of The Los Angeles Times and reprinted by the prestigious Michelin Guide, declaring Wente Chardonnay the finest white wine in America, equal to the great white wines of France.
Q: How do you infuse your own individuality into your winemaking?
A: I have learned an enormous amount from my dad and Uncle Phil, who happen to be walking encyclopedias of our vineyards. They’ve given me a solid foundation from which to start. For me, as a winemaker, I really like the creativity that comes from blending and making that perfect balance of acidity, tannins and structure. It’s very similar to music, another passion of mine, which is all about finding the right balance of bass, drums and guitar. And I love that when it all comes together, it’s the result of passion, teamwork and a genuine love for what we do.
Q: What is your winemaking philosophy?
A: I’m focused on making balanced, food-friendly wines that have a sense of place and my goal is to continually lead the industry in that direction. I’m proud that my family has been committed to the soil and climate of Livermore Valley for five generations and Arroyo Seco since the 1960s. Varietal typicity is also important, as each wine that you taste should be a true reflection of that grape variety. And lastly, we strive to deliver a certain elegance and balance with each wine.
Q: What is your favorite guilty pleasure drink when you aren’t sipping on Chardonnay?
A: I’m a big fan of our Riva Ranch Pinot Noir but if I’m not drinking either of those wines, I’ll drink whatever is being served. I’m easy to please.