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The World According to Wente

California's oldest wine family has outlasted everything from prohibition to white Zinfandel. At a fall dinner, they explain their staying power

It's a scene that gives new meaning to the term family values. Two generations of Wente winemakers are clustered like Chardonnay grapes around adjacent banquet tables for the Fifth Annual California Wine Auction. This black-tie extravaganza is the charity gala of the season for Livermore Valley, a wine region just north of Silicon Valley, where IPO millionaires are turning into wine connoisseurs overnight. On the block is Lot Number 50--a collection of 18 bottles of Wente Cabernet Sauvignon, each hand etched and painted with a scene of the Wente Vineyards golf course. Carolyn Wente, great-granddaughter of the man who first glued labels on bottles of Wente wine, nervously fans herself with a paddle as the auctioneer rallies the crowd to put a value on the family name.

"What's it worth to you?" he asks, carnival-barker style. And with an opening offer of $1,500, bids explode like flashbulbs around the chandeliered hall: Three thousand! Five thousand! Ten thousand! Carolyn can only cup her hands over her mouth, as the lot goes to a cyberbaron for $13,000, making it the night's most expensive wine. "That could have been really embarrassing," Carolyn says afterward. "Talk about putting your pride on the line."

Not that she really has to worry. The Wentes have withstood much more to successfully run California's oldest continuously operated family-owned winery. Over the course of five generations, the family has endured Prohibition, drought, changing tastes and increased competition, not to mention assorted differences with one another. "Some people look at our business and say, 'I'd never work with my family,'" Carolyn reports. "They don't understand that growing up with my brothers, Philip and Eric, gave us the same values. Working together just seems normal."

Perhaps, but growing up in the Wente family wasn't exactly what most people would consider normal. When Carolyn was a teething toddler, her mother, Jean, gave her a cork soaked in Chardonnay to chew on. For Carolyn, Philip and Eric, going to their grandparents' house was even more intoxicating. "My grandfather [vintner Ernest Wente] had a rule," Philip recalls. "He didn't like children to drink milk. We could drink either water or wine diluted with water. He thought wine was more healthful for a kid."

There's always plenty of wine on the table whenever the Wentes gather for meals. In fact, even a holiday dinner featuring dishes like mussels with lemon-fennel butter and braised lamb shanks doesn't get under way until the family wine reserves have been properly raided. "We'll usually go down into my cellar or one of my brothers's cellars, look over the wines and say, 'Hey, what does that taste like?' or 'How'd you get that one?'" Carolyn reports.

These days, Wente gatherings don't happen as often as the family might like. "We've gotten so busy with so many projects around here," Eric says. Busy indeed. From the humble 48-acre parcel of vineyards planted in 1883 by German immigrant Carl H. Wente, the Wentes have turned their property into a 3,000-acre vinopolis. There are not only vineyards but also two tasting rooms, a sparkling wine cellar, the 18-hole golf course, an outdoor theater, two restaurants, a cattle ranch, an olive tree grove and one of California's most successful wine exporting operations. There are Wente partnerships with Concannon Vineyard, Murrieta's Well Vineyard and the Iván Tamás Winery; there are also Wente wine bars at airports in far-flung places like Ghana and Kenya. Carolyn Wente has co-written a cookbook, Sharing the Vineyard Table, with the winery's chef, Kimball Jones, (it will be published this month by Ten Speed Press) and is in the initial stages of designing a luxury hotel for the property. "If great-grandfather showed up," Philip says, "I think he might not recognize the place."

Yes and no. Although the Wente brand has gone global, the winery still feels very much like a small family business. Eric oversees production and exporting. Carolyn heads up marketing and sales. Philip watches over the vineyards. Meanwhile, the fifth generation is getting off to a good start. Young Karl Wente, Eric's son, is studying viticulture and enology at the University of California at Davis while Karl's sister Christine is learning the business from another wine family--she's in the international marketing division at Gallo. "I hope she'll rejoin the company," Carolyn says. "Perhaps she'll take my job one day. That's the old family story."

It's a story that is told just as well through old wine bottles. In a conference room near C. H. Wente's old German oak casks stands a cabinet full of bottles dating back to the early part of the century. There's the Wente Bros. 1937 Sauvignon Blanc, a vintage that won the Grand Prix at the Paris Exposition and helped to clear the way for Wente's worldwide export program (Wente wines are now available in more than 140 countries). There's the 1959 Pinot Chardonnay, now looking a little brown, but which the Michelin Guide of that year declared the finest white wine in America and equal to the great white Burgundies of France. There are also the splashy red, black and gold labels of the early Eighties, when times weren't so good. As Philip recalls, "My dad passed away in 1977, right as the wine industry exploded and California wines took off. The three of us were too inexperienced to realize that the wine world was changing around us and unfortunately, by the mid-Eighties, Wente was considered to be one of the old-style wineries, not one of the darlings."

For one thing, the wine boom was all about Napa and Sonoma. "Nobody really knew Livermore Valley," Philip says. "We actually considered moving." Instead, the family tapped into their deep roots. They cut out the low-end wines--Chablis and White Zin--and refocused on the varietals the winery was originally known for: Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. They also planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vines to meet consumer demand. Today's Wente Central Coast Chardonnay, a crisp wine with a subtle apple flavor and hints of jasmine in the nose, is a best-seller, while the Sauvignon Blanc is a well-balanced wine with hints of grapefruit and lemon.

Getting back to basics certainly seems to have made a favorable impression on the bidders at the California Wine Auction, who get giddy every time anything by Wente goes on the block. One hot item is a dinner for 10 at Carolyn Wente's sprawling house overlooking the golf course. Carolyn's tension is palpable as the bids race up to an impressive $6,500. This time, though, it's not the Wente family's reputation that's worrying her: "I'm wondering, what am I going to make those 10 people for dinner?"

Text by David Hochman, a senior staff writer at Entertainment Weekly.

Published November 1999
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