AS THE FOURTH generation of the Wente family of the Livermore Valley settles into control of this California winery, some remarkable changes are obvious. Forty years ago, the main building, like a square red barn with neat white trim, rested in the bare rolling hills like an austere portrait of an American farm by Iowa's Grant Wood.
Today, there is still that air of neat tranquillity, though the winery buildings are now quadruple the size and painted white, with much stainless steel in evidence. The production of varietal wines in California was initiated here 50 years ago, in a bold, revolutionary marketing decision. America's first California wine authority, writer and wine distributor Frank Schoonmaker, immediately recognized that this separation of wines by the breed of grape, accenting the noble Vitis vinifera origins--Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Cabernet Sauvignon--instead of European place names such as Burgundy, Sauternes and Moselle, would provide an avenue of distinction for our native wines. Schoonmaker encouraged other leading wineries to produce varietal wines for his nationwide distribution. But it all began at Wente Bros.
Young Carl H. Wente arrived in California from Hanover, Germany, in the 1870s. He was aware of California as a wine region and determined to make wine his life's work. After an apprenticeship period with Charles Krug in the Napa Valley, Wente bought land in the rolling hills of the Livermore Valley, poetically described as the Valle de Oro, or vale of gold; he planted a vineyard and built a home in 1883. Cuttings for those first 50 acres of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, and for one they called "Grey Riesling" (actually a French grape called Chauche Gris, not truly a member of the Riesling family), had come from neighbor Louis Mel, who was--like the vines-- a native of France.
Three sons were born at the Wente farm on Tesla Road: Carl Jr., Herman and Ernest. As they grew into their lifetime roles, Carl became a banker, ultimately the president of the Bank of America; Herman became the wine maker, and Ernest the vineyardist. No wines were bottled at the winery until after Prohibition's repeal, when the Wente Bros. Valle de Oro was born. In the rocky reservoir of that Livermore soil, the first commercial acreage of Chardonnay vines was planted in California. Until 1962, there were fewer than 150 acres of this varietal, then known as "Pinot Chardonnay," in all of California. That year, the representative of the Guide Michelin, after touring the United States, reported in Life magazine that the Wente Bros. Livermore Pinot Chardonnay was the finest white wine produced in America, and the rush to plant this varietal began.
Ernest's only son, Karl Wente, became the president of the winery in the late '50s but died in 1977. His children--Eric, Philip and Carolyn--the fourth generation, carry on the Wente tradition.
A salient lesson in the choice of a wine at buying time, taught to me by Herman Wente 50 years ago: "The most important thing on a label is the vintner's name; second, the district; and third, the variety." That still stands. And today, with Marketing Director Carolyn Wente's very active administrative role in the winery's operation, there's a Wente sister to acknowledge. Carolyn has helped bring the Livermore Valley into competition with the more celebrated Napa and Sonoma valleys.
Much of this dramatic change was triggered by Wente's purchase a few years ago of the historic Cresta Blanca vineyard real estate. The complete rebuilding of this handsome site, only minutes away from the main Wente winery, was timed to coincide with the launching of the first Wente Bros. Brut Vintage Sparkling Wine ( Methode Champenoise ), drawing much of the cuvee from their mature bearing vineyards at Arroyo Seco in Monterey County. It is a world-class bubbly, perhaps the best bargain in California champagne available on the market ($9). This stunningly beautiful sparkling-wine facility has not only the cliff-side cellars for the aging tirage , or "resting" room, but also a conference center for visiting groups' seminars and an award-winning restaurant that is more than worth a special journey, if you're anywhere in the Bay Area.