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A Taste of the Past : The Fourth Generation of Wente Bros. Carries On


It was in May of 1939, but I remember it as well as if it had been yesterday--my first meeting with the Marquis de Lur Saluces, owner of the renowned Chateau d'Yquem of Sauternes, at Wente Bros. winery in Livermore. Wine maker Herman Wente had invited a relatively small group of friends for a luncheon honoring the famous wine maker from Bordeaux, and after an inspection tour of the vineyards, he led the group into the winery laboratory where he had set up a tasting that included his favorite wine, Sauvignon Blanc. All of us watched in silence as the marquis picked up glass after glass of the golden wine. He refrained from comment, tasting the separate vintages from the youngest to the oldest wine. His face held no reflection of his reactions. It had been, after all, a bold idea to offer him--a distinguished vintner of Sauternes blended traditionally of the three white-wine grapes--a California wine made of but one. How would he like it? What would he think of its quality? The berries had come from vines of his own vineyard, but how had they adapted to the rocky soil of the Livermore Valley?

Perhaps anxious to break the tension, Wente brought forth another wine, a Semillon, the basic grape of French Sauternes. Immediately, the marquis' face lit up as though he were meeting an old friend.

"These are beautiful wines," he said. "I am delighted to find such splendid work going on here. It makes me happy to see my 'children' doing so well in California. We could never do this in Bordeaux. The consistency of quality, in each vintage, is amazing."

Forty-six years later, in the Wente Bros. ultramodern wine lab--with the fourth-generation Wentes (Eric, the winery president, and his sister, Carolyn, vice president and public relations director) and head wine maker William Joslin--we conducted a similar vertical tasting of four vintages of Sauvignon Blanc and four vintages of the very popular Dry Semillon. Again, the wines were all "beautiful" but did reflect some weather variations, and, even more significantly, with the Sauvignon Blanc, some additions of Semillon to round out, in French style, this justly popular new California varietal. The tasting featured wines from 1978 to 1983, the latter of current release and splendid.

The occasion for the visit to Livermore was to see the new Wente Sparkling Wine facility, a brilliant and costly renovation of the old Wetmore Cresta Blanca winery, acquired from Schenley by the Wente family in 1981. With its restored caves re-established into the sandstone cliffs, and 600 feet of winding vaults, it will also have a conference center and restaurant, which is scheduled to open in December and will be headed by Robert Baird, a young Cordon Bleu graduate.

We lunched on the terrace overlooking the new Sparkling Wine Cellars, after a vertical tasting of the initial vintages of Wente Bros. Brut, Arroyo Seco Sparkling Wine (a blending of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Wente vineyards in Monterey County), a methode champenoise , bottle-fermented vintage bubbly, of 1980, 1981 and 1982 withdrawn from the tirage . Two years on the yeasts, it's a splendid sparkler--clean, crisp and dry. As with all Wente wines, the price is right--about $8.95 in most markets.

At lunch I was intrigued with the 1984 Gewurztraminer ($6.25). The bouquet is nothing short of arresting. Exotic, fruity, fermented almost fully dry, the wine is just plain delicious to drink. There's a snobbish tendency today to match certain wines with certain foods, but I liked this Gewurztraminer with everything served at the buffet, from lobster mousse to sliced ham. There was Chardonnay, too, which I enjoyed, but I kept returning to that Gewurztraminer. Don't miss it.

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