Food & Drink

May 20, 2012

Interview with Karl Wente of Wente Vineyards

Karl Wente is a Fifth Generation Winegrower and Winemaker, he is responsible for all the winemaking at Wente Vineyards. 2012 will be Karl’s 13th vintage and the 11th at Wente Vineyards, working with the family’s estate-grown vineyards. Karl graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Chemical Engineering, then went to graduate school at the University of California at Davis, where he earned two Masters degrees: one in horticulture (viticulture) and one in food science (enology). Studying winemaking and viticulture at U. C. Davis is a family tradition. Karl’s father and uncle studied there, as did his great-grandfather in 1909, a year after the school was founded. Karl grew up working at Wente Vineyards and he chose to gain experience at other wineries, starting with The Peter Michael Winery in Sonoma. That was followed by spending time at Brown Brothers winery in northern Victoria, Australia; this is where Karl gained southern hemisphere experience before returning to Wente Vineyards.

Being highly educated and experienced in both winegrowing and winemaking, Karl maintains the traditional hands-on approach of previous generations of Wente family winemakers. In the vineyards he nurtures no less than 33 grape varieties while in the winery he takes great pride in making balanced and thoughtful wines out of each of them. Great wines truly do begin in the vineyard. ” Karl says.

Since joining Wente Vineyards in the summer of 2002, Karl has overseen the production of the winery’s Estate Grown and small lot wines. His passion for artisanal, handcrafted wines has led to the addition of limited release wines, The Nth Degree series, as well as the development of a small lot winemaking facility within the main winery.

It’s not all about the wine as Karl is an avid skier, telemarker and mountain climber. Karl has a passion for music; discover wine, discover music; when he’s not making wine he’s playing the guitar, composing and performing with his band ‘The Front Porch’. I present this week’s Vintner in the Spotlight, Karl Wente.

Karl Wente

South Florida Food and Wine: Tell us about Wente Vineyards; it’s not just about wine but a lifestyle/entertainment venue as well. How did all this evolve from that original Chardonnay back in 1912?
Karl Wente: It began with my great grandfather’s, Ernest Wente, interest in Chardonnay while attending UC Davis. In 1912, with the help of UC Davis employee Leon Bonnet, he persuaded my great-great-grandfather, his father and winery founder Carl Wente, to import cuttings from the vine nursery at the University of Montpellier. Around the same time, Ernest also sourced budwood from the Gier Vineyard in Pleasanton. He planted the two sources in our family’s Livermore Valley vineyard and over the next 30-40 years, selected vines that showed favorable traits, and re-planted them to establish the Wente Clone of Chardonnay. Eventually, our 50-acre estate grew to approximately 3,000 acres, where over a dozen grape varietals currently grow. Today, our core businesses are growing grapes and making wine. Our lifestyle businesses – The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards, The Course at Wente Vineyards, The Concerts at Wente Vineyards, our conference facilities and catering – incorporate wine into everyday life. Our family tradition of quality and our inherent pursuit for excellence in all that we do are what drive us in all aspects of our business

South Florida Food and Wine: At this time your portfolio is made up of four different production selections, Heritage Block, Vineyard Selection, Small Lot Wines and Nth Degree Wines. Can you tell us difference between the four selections?
Karl Wente: Heritage Block wines are grown in specific vineyard blocks named for the pioneers who relate to the history of Wente Vineyards’ winemaking tradition and premier Estate vineyards. Heritage Block wines include Riva Ranch Chardonnay, Reliz Creek Pinot Noir, Crane Ridge Merlot and Charles Wetmore Cabernet Sauvignon.

Vineyard Selection wines are Estate grown and named after the unique growing conditions of the Livermore Valley, San Francisco Bay and Arroyo Seco, Monterey vineyards in which they are sourced. Vineyard Selection wines include Louis Mel Sauvignon Blanc, Morning Fog Chardonnay, Beyer Ranch Zinfandel, Southern Hills Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sandstone Merlot.

Small Lot wines use 30 one-ton fermenters, which enable me to vinify small quantities of grapes, with a focus both on quality and experimentation.  The grapes are gently pressed and placed in small-batch fermenters.  We use traditional methods, such as wild yeast fermentation, and weekly batonnage (the stirring of the lees), as hallmarks of the program.

Nth Degree wines are handcrafted, limited production wines. I chose Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Pinot to epitomize the heritage of these varietals in the Livermore Valley and Arroyo Seco appellations. The focus of this small lot program is to create wines that reflect the distinctive terroir of my family’s Estate vineyards, as well as to highlight the craftsmanship involved in hands-on winemaking. Each wine must show style and finesse of stellar degree to be bottled with the Nth Degree label.

South Florida Food and Wine: How many wines do you currently make?
Karl Wente: We have eight nationally distributed wines (2 Chardonnays, 2 Cabernets, 1 Merlot, 1 Sauvignon Blanc, 1 Riesling, 1 Zinfandel, 1 Pinot Noir) and 25 Small Lot wines, exclusively sold in our tasting rooms or from our online shop

South Florida Food and Wine: Are all of your wines available for purchase via  wentevineyards.com
Karl Wente: A majority of our wines are available for purchase at wentevineyards.com, however several small lot skus are only available to Wente Vineyards and Nth Degree Wine Club members.

South Florida Food and Wine: Tell us about The Club at Wente Vineyards?
Karl Wente: We have 4 different Club Wente memberships: The Nth Degree Wine Club (which is currently sold out), Club Wente Wine Club, Club Wente Entertainment, and Club Wente Golf. The Wine Club is a great value and gives people exclusive access to special release wines, savings in our Tasting Rooms and online, quarterly shipments of new and special release wines, invitations to exclusive wine events, quarterly newsletters and seasonal offers. The difference between the two wine clubs is that select Nth Degree wines are only available through the Nth Degree Wine Club.

South Florida Food and Wine: What is the most challenging thing about being a vintner?
Karl Wente: The biggest obstacle has been the change in weather patterns. Our winters and summers have been coming later, pushing back harvest. We have to constantly be ready for the unexpected.

South Florida Food and Wine: Who is the one person you would love to share a bottle of your wine with and why?
Karl Wente: My grandfather Karl L Wente.  In his (relatively short) life, he contributed so much to California wine.  Everyone who met him said he enjoyed life.

South Florida Food and Wine: It’s your last day on earth, what would your final quaff and meal be?
Karl Wente: Cured meats and great cheeses with fresh baked olive bread.  With this, I would drink the 2009 Nth Degree Pinot Noir…more importantly, I would be making music with my friends.

South Florida Food and Wine: What was the last restaurant you ate at and did you order your wine?
Karl Wente: My last meal was at the Grand Café in SF…no Wente on the list…yet.

South Florida Food and Wine: Other than your own wine, what is your quaff of choice?
Karl Wente: Beer, wine, whiskey, tequila, and an occasional gin martini…dirty.

South Florida Food and Wine: What’s next for Wente Vineyards?
Karl Wente: I hope to continue to work with the land/vineyards that we own and make great wines!

2012 Spotlight Interviews
2011 Spotlight Interviews
2010 Spotlight Interviews

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