WHEN I WAS invited last month to take part in a celebration at the Wente Brothers winery in the Livermore Valley to mark the debut of the vineyard's Blanc de Noir sparkling wine, I blocked the time on my calendar at once.
Eric, Philip and Carolyn, the fourth generation of the Wente family, decided in 1981 to buy the long-abandoned winery, with its hillside caves, as the site for their sparkling-wine production and began to restore it immediately. Today, the Wente Bros. Sparkling Wine Cellars is one of the most handsome wineries in the state, with a conference center and an award-winning restaurant. Vineyards are bounded by the family's 2,500-acre cattle ranch, a part of the Wente heritage since the turn of the century.
Guests at the two-day event included owners and chefs from the River Cafe of New York, the Palace Arms of Denver, Charley's 517 of Houston and Le Francais, the famed French restaurant in the Wheeling suburbs of Chicago. Also attending were a quartet of "cowboys" from Santacafe of Santa Fe, Lew Mitchell from his Orient Express in Los Angeles and Rex Chandler from Newport Beach.
With all the Wentes and their wine master, Willy Joslin, we followed the first crush of grapes, from juice to bottle and carton, then adjourned to the conference rooms to try our skills at blending. With graduated cylinders in hand, we could see how closely we could match the Wente Bros. 1983 Arroyo Seco Brut with Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir samples, each with 3 1/2 years yeast time. (The Wente Brut is 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir, 5% Pinot Blanc.) Clumsy handling gave me 10% Pinot Blanc--and I liked it. Remy Krug of the famed Reims Champagne family told me that "1% can tilt a cuvee ," and my 5% bumble seemed to prove it.
We also tasted different samples of sugar-dosage: .0, 0.5, 1.0 and 1.5% sweetness. The Wente 1983 Blanc de Noir is finished with 0.5% dosage, which we all agreed was splendid, but some leaned toward the softer 1.0%.
The wrap-up that night, at a black-tie dinner, brought full marks to the Wente Bros. 1983 Blanc de Noires ($15). It opened a marathon dinner of 14 dishes, beginning with Prawns in Black Bean Sauce with Java Beef from Mitchell's restaurant and ended with Champagne and Fresh Plum Sorbet from Loew's Anatole Hotel of Dallas, stopping for a vertical tasting of Wente Bros. 1984, '85, and '86 ($12) Reserve Chardonnays. (Don't miss the '86 Reserve Chardonnay, in current release. It's round, smooth, rich, balanced, long and wonderful.)
Champagne bucket and fluted glass from Pottery Barn, Westwood; architectural molding courtesy of Designer Resource.