Wente Vineyards has called Livermore home for 140 years. On the national front, Wente is the oldest, continuously operating family winery. It is rare for a family business to survive past three generations. The fifth generation of Wentes now lead the company.
Survival since 1883 is remarkable for any company, especially American wineries. Many shuttered during Prohibition and some faltered during the COVID-19 disruption. Wente survived the dry years by selling sacramental wine. During the pandemic years, the Wente family has reinvented their hospitality profile and recommitted to quality wine, sustainability and community focus.
The Wentes have long focused on bringing friends together at the table with good wine and food while encouraging people to enjoy the arts, especially music.
Before the pandemic, The Restaurant on Arroyo Road was known for white tablecloth dining with fine food and a lengthy wine list. The summer concerts drew big-name entertainers. Wine tastings were offered at both the tasting room by the production facility on Tesla Road and next to The Restaurant.
Aly Wente, vice president of marketing and customer experience and one of the four women comprising the Wente fifth generation, has helped reimagine the hospitality profile. "Guests used to visit the Wente venue mainly for the food. We now shine the light on our wine, and food is available to complement the wine," she said.
What's new at Wente
After closing the Tesla Road tasting room, Wente transformed the dining building and patio into The Tasting Lounge open from Thursday through Sunday with Mondays added in March. The three tasting experiences range from a wine flight with a la carte food (think: $5 popcorn or $30 charcuterie boards) to The Reserve Tasting with a dedicated ambassador pouring four wines and serving a three-course mini gourmet meal.
The Grill restaurant at The Course at Wente Vineyards golf center near the wine lounge serves casual food, wine and cocktails to the public during daytime hours Thursday through Sunday.
For those missing Wente full-on meals, the winery has started hosting culinary events at the Wente Event Center next to the wine lounge, with three winemaker dinners planned through May.
The first culinary event was a January crab feed. After the feast, Howard Hughes of Livermore said he previously enjoyed the gourmet dinners and concerts with Tony Bennett and Train, but added, "The all-you-can-eat food and wine today were good, and the live band was fun and not too loud."
Live Music Saturdays at The Tasting Lounge present local bands, wine by the bottle and snacks for purchase with no cover charge. The summer concert schedule includes five tribute bands. The casual events call for bringing low-backed lawn chairs and noshing at food trucks.
The wine portfolio
Morning Fog Chardonnay is the biggest selling Wente Vineyards wine. Riva Ranch Chardonnay is another Wente top seller. The winery also sells nth DEGREE Chardonnay, a project originated by fifth generation chief operating officer and chief winemaker Karl D. Wente 20 years ago, and Eric's Chardonnay made in the un-oaked style preferred by Eric Wente, third generation chairman emeritus of the board.
Wines with the Wente Vineyards label, aka the estate tier, are sold nationally at grocery and wine stores and listed on many restaurant beverage lists. The Southern Hills Cabernet Sauvignon, Wetmore Cabernet Sauvignon and Riva Ranch Pinot Noir are also top sellers. The additional wine tiers, Small Lot, Limited Release, nth DEGREE and Artist series, are only available at the winery, through the wine club or online.
Eric's Chardonnay is part of the Small Lot production. Several other family members have also helped create wines. Aly's Pinot Noir, a light and food-friendly wine, was recently launched. Aly's sister Niki, a rosé fan, helped develop Niki's Rosé Pinot Noir.
The Artist Series is of special note for two reasons. The labels are currently designed by a local Daly City artist. From the sale of the wines, 5% is donated to support arts in local schools and the community through the Wente Foundation for Arts Education (WFAE).
Impact on California, and the world
For a medium-sized U.S. winery, Wente has held an oversized influence on the national wine industry and the Tri-Valley region.
Eric's daughter Christine Wente was the first of the fifth generation Wentes to join the business. She helped establish the WFAE in 2012. Since then the WFEA has donated over $1.1 million to support the community.
During the shelter-in-place in 2020, WFAE donated $50,000 to the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District to purchase technology for distance learning. Christine chairs the Livermore Valley Wine Auction, a partnership of the WFAE and the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Foundation, which benefits East Bay children.
In the hospitality arena, the former Tesla Road tasting room was one of the first public wine tasting venues in California.
In the 1980s, fourth generation Eric, Phil and Carolyn Wente purchased the historic abandoned Cresta Blanca winery on Arroyo Road. With strategic vision, Carolyn, now chair of the board, developed the on-site lifestyle options: a Greg Norman-designed golf course and California's third winery restaurant with the concert venue in the natural amphitheater behind it.
A visionary in winegrowing, Ernest Wente of the second generation pursued acquisition of the best white wine vines. An earlier vintner had planted Chardonnay in the Gier vineyard in Pleasanton. Ernest transplanted cuttings from those vines to Livermore.
In 1912, Ernest traveled to a well-known nursery in France, purchased and hand-packed vine clippings into his suitcase. These two sets of vines evolved into what is known as the Wente clone, or selection, now planted in 75% of California Chardonnay vineyards.
In 1936, Ernest made a radical move when he labeled the wine "Chardonnay". Previously bottles said "White Burgundy" without reference to the grape. Marking labels with the grape name became a hallmark of the American wine industry's success in selling approachable wine.
While Ernest focused on the vineyard, his brother Herman made the wine. Herman Wente collaborated with other California vintners to establish The Wine Institute in San Francisco to promote the state's wines. The institute is now a strong voice in the national wine industry. Christine represents San Francisco Bay Area wineries on the Board of Directors.
The Wentes also helped establish what is now known as the Livermore Valley Wine Community; Karl D. Wente is currently vice president of the group which promotes Livermore Valley wines and sponsors events such as the Harvest Wine Celebration.
Karl L. Wente, Ernest's son, studied and traveled broadly to find new ways to improve grape farming and winemaking. Among his several innovations was the introduction of overhead irrigation to the California wine industry. This practice reduced water usage and mitigated the impact of occasional frost on the vines.
Following his uncle Herman's lead in promoting California wines, Karl L. was also one of the first vintners in the state to export wine to other countries in the post-World War II years. With Eric's continued focus, Wente exports wine to 75 countries.
Though eager to plant more Chardonnay in Livermore during the 1950s, Karl L. observed the area's urbanization and rising land prices. After scouting for property, the vintner purchased land in Arroyo Seco, Monterey County where he pioneered planting Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards.
The Wentes planted grapes in Livermore and Arroyo Seco long before the regions were designated as American appellations (American viticulture areas) based on unique soils and weather conditions. Fourth generation Phil Wente worked to establish these two AVAs in the 1980s and the San Francisco Bay AVA in 1999. As the source of food and beverage matters more to the public, the AVA on each bottle draws attention to the wine's origins.
Phil also revived an historic winery on Mines Road, renaming it Murrieta's Well to honor the legendary 19th century bandit who headquartered there. Phil's daughter, fifth generation Jordan Wente, is the brand manager of the estate where sunset hikes with wine and picnics in the surrounding vineyard hills and tastings in the wood-beamed tasting room are offered. Murrieta's Well wines are only sold at the winery, through the wine club or online.
In the 1990s the number of wineries in Livermore Valley remained stagnant as more open land turned to housing developments. Like his father Karl L., Phil recognized the need to preserve the agricultural heritage of Livermore Valley and proposed the South Livermore Plan. Authorized in 1993, the plan has controlled real estate development with 20-acre vineyard plots, resulting in increased grape production and winery openings.
The biggest wine producer in Livermore Valley, the Wentes have supported both new and old wineries.
Concannon Vineyard, also established in 1883, struggled with financial difficulties in the 1980s. Aware of Concannon's heritage wines, the Wente family bought and operated the winery for a decade until purchased by The Wine Group in 2002.
Steven Mirassou, sixth generation of the Mirassou winegrowing family in the South Bay, selected Livermore for the site of Steven Kent Winery, now The Lineage Collection in 1996. Mirassou recalled his winery was the 17th in the Livermore Valley.
"The Wente family has helped the Livermore Valley grow to 50 wineries with their practical expertise, equipment sharing, and leadership. The Wentes long history of innovation and support for the up-and-coming wineries such as ours, Nottingham and McGrail Vineyards, has served as a force behind the excitement around the region's wine," Mirassou said.
Niki Wente followed her father Phil around the Wente vineyards as a young girl. As the senior vineyard and viticulture manager, Niki oversees the family's 3,000 acres of land holdings.
Since Wente Vineyards is a certified California sustainable winery, Niki oversees viticulture practices long followed by the company plus the Climate Smart Winegrowing Plan emphasized by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. She is focused on optimizing soil health and managing pests while minimizing chemical additives, maintaining water reliability and planning for extreme weather events.
The green cover crops between the vineyard rows, for example, reduce carbon emissions from the soil. This method of keeping carbon in the soil -- or "carbon sequestration" -- is part of the regenerative, sustainable farming that Niki follows. In the winter when weeds grow high, Wente "hires" sheep to munch them down.
On the energy front, Wente is an early purchaser of the first driver-optional electric vehicle (EV) tractors. Produced by Monarch Tractor headquartered in Livermore, the EV equipment reduces the winery's use of fossil fuels.
As for people aspects of sustainability, Wente encourages employees to take time to volunteer with paid hours at community groups.
In the years since Carl H. Wente first purchased land in Livermore, how has Wente managed to thrive as a family firm? Aly Wente points to the family's 20-year practice of hiring outside CEOs to add new perspectives and inspiration.
Karl D. credits much of the success to strategy from the family business council: "We follow a guideline that after graduating from college, family members work apart from the company for five years, learning to manage people and finding what it takes to succeed. I worked at wineries in Australia and Napa; my cousin Aly worked for a land development company and then a large wine company."
"When we return, we are ready to work at Wente to make and sell delicious wine made with the intention of sustainable farming and leading strong teams. We want to continue to make Livermore Valley all it can be as a world-class winegrowing region and destination," he added.
Meanwhile, the youngest of the fifth generation Wentes is working for an out-of-state wine distributor. Many of the sixth generation are too young to appreciate wine, though they may join the big 140th Wente Anniversary celebration to be held outside at harvest time on Sept. 9.
Did you know? More wines from the Wente family
Wente Family Estates makes sense as the official name for the company comprising Wente Vineyards and Murrieta's Well. What is not so obvious are the other wine brands sold by Wente Family Estates. The Wente name is not on these wine labels, and the wines are not sold at the winery.
Angel's Ink is the fastest-growing brand in the portfolio. Launched in 2020, the name Angel's Ink refers to the use of wine as a writing agent for centuries. The Pinot Noir and rosé are made from vineyards across California's Central Coast and are sold at selected Target and Total Wine stores and supermarkets.
Ravel & Stitch is another brand introduced in 2019 with Cabernet Sauvignon currently available.
Since 1989, Wente has launched partnerships in Argentina and Spain to import wines. Bodega Cuarto Dominio Malbec is owned by a fourth-generation family in Argentina. Blanchard & Lurton Les Fous Sauvignon Blanc is also from Argentina. Blanchard Perez is an organic cava from Spain. These imported wines are sold at a small number of restaurants and wine stores across the country.
A memorable and important Wente trip to Australia
While visiting the Claire Valley wine region of South Australia in 2006, I told a gathering of local vintners and fellow journalists my hometown was the Livermore Valley wine region of California.
I was surprised when a vintner's wife sitting next to me asked if I knew the Wentes. I replied that Wente Vineyards was nearby. I quickly discovered that third generation Karl L. Wente and his wife Jean had visited her family's winery, Quelltaler Estate, which had since been sold.
A few months later, I asked to interview Jean Wente to share greetings from Australia and learn more about the trip. Jean vividly remembered visiting Quelltaler Estate during a three-week Australia trip.
"Karl was keenly interested in meeting as many Australia vintners as possible. He talked non-stop with them about winemaking. I remember Karl's excitement about seeing their use of stainless steel tanks to control the temperature for fermenting grapes and also picking grapes during cooler nights to preserve grape quality -- and he applied these ideas to our winery," Jean said.
Karl L. is credited with introducing these now standard winemaking practices to other American vintners.
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