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Tasting Panel Magazine cover photo by Jenn Farrington Studios


Why Karl Wente Rocks
Written by Danny Ronen
Photos by Jenn Farrington



Karl Wente Jenn Farrington Photo written by Danny Ronen. When 125 years of farming and experience goes into a bottle of wine, no one wants even one drop to go to waste; though he’s surrounded by wine all the time, winemaker Karl Wente feels the same way about this precious resource.
When 125 years of farming and experience goes into a bottle of wine, no one wants even one drop to go to waste; though he’s surrounded by wine all the time, winemaker Karl Wente feels the same way about this precious resource.

The fifth-generation California winemaker discusses his lifelong passions

It’s not every day that you get to sit down and have a relaxing afternoon of discussion and wine tasting with a fifth-generation winemaker . . . and then dump a bucket of his own product on him. But then, this is not your average winemaker. Karl Wente has blended his love of “good food, good wine, good people, good music” to continue his family’s 125-year legacy through to the next generation, all the while creating the best product possible—and having fun doing it.

As someone who is 5’8” on a warm day, I was feeling particularly tall on this 98-degree August day—that is, until Karl Wente showed up for his interview. He towered above me at 6’7”, and although he carries himself at that height, he could not be more down-to-earth, discussing art, music and Christopher Guest movies. In between various sessions of being doused with wine for the photo shoot, Karl was very forthright about his early inspirations.

Good Food

“My grandmother [Jean Robinson Wente] and Aunt Carolyn were amazing chefs,” Karl says, “always writing cookbooks and articles for Sunset magazine.” He finds that the women in his life were terrific influences on his running with his passions and achieving goals through enthusiasm and hard work.

San Francisco Jenn Farrington Photo. Written by Danny Ronen. In the Wente tasting room, Karl sits behind the counter, surrounded by photos and a history of the land, the winery and "A Family Commitment" to farming the land.
In the Wente tasting room, Karl sits behind the counter, surrounded by photos and a history of the land, the winery and "A Family Commitment" to farming the land.

While growing up, Karl always worked in the vineyards and during harvest preparation; but since the harvest itself overlapped with the beginning of the school year, Karl’s parents were very clear that school came first. Wisely, Karl didn’t argue and chose to feed his passion by attending the U.C. Davis Food Science Group, focusing on enology. Very shortly into his studies, Karl started taking plant physiology class, where he discovered he took great pleasure in “growing flavors and tannins.” He found that learning all about the plant helps make the best decisions “about deciphering the precise time to tip, top, prune, etc., to pull the best of what that plant has to offer.”

Good Wine

In 2001, Karl started working for Peter Michael as a cellar intern, learning everything he could. In 2002 he worked at Brown Brothers wines in Milawa, Victoria, Australia, where “five people literally ran the whole show, doing vineyard coupling, barrel stirring, lab work and the rest of it.”

“You can see the story coming together,” states Karl. As soon as Karl returned home, Wente created the Small Lot Wines, within which resided the even higher echelon Nth Degree label, named after their endeavor “to do everything to the nth degree,” including farming effectively and pulling the highest-quality product from the land. The Cabernet Sauvignon was rated a 90 by a major wine publication in its first vintage in 2002 and has just received another 90-point rating in the current 2005 vintage.

Jenn Farrington Photo San Francisco. Written by Danny Ronen. Between the Nth Degree, Small Lots Wineries, the Wente Estate wines and his many other projects, Karl Wente has a lot on his plate, but always finds time to sit down on his front porch and play and write music. The close proximity of the kegerator doesn’t hurt.
Between the Nth Degree, Small Lots Wineries, the Wente Estate wines and his many other projects, Karl Wente has a lot on his plate, but always finds time to sit down on his front porch and play and write music. The close proximity of the kegerator doesn’t hurt.

Karl helped create the small-lot winery, where the Wente clan could experiment and play to see how the vines, soil and varietals would work together to make the best wine possible.

Wente is also well-known for its historic viticultural mark on the wine world: the famed Wente clone that was, as Karl relates, “brought over from France and has now parented approximately 75% of all California Chardonnay.” Wente Vineyards was also the first American winery, at least commercially, to label wines by varietal, putting the name of the grape right on the bottle.

Livermore Valley gets a bad rep for some reason, and even experienced wine writers are guilty of the stereotypical Livermore-is-way-too-hot-for-some-of-the-wines-made-there mentality; but it turns out that between the soil make-up, solar radiation and the fog that rolls through, Livermore might just be right around the same climate as Rutherford in Napa.

“For the real naysayers, I just point at the windmills,” Karl states confidently. “The Livermore Valley is the path of least resistance from the Pacific to the Central Valley,” which not only keeps the temperature moderate, but also brings in moisture and fog cover from the water, something vastly important to grape-growing.

Most people are unaware that before Prohibition, Livermore Valley was the premiere wine-growing region in California; post-Prohibition, the name recognition moved to Napa and Sonoma. Imagine spending every introduction to your wine explaining that your wines actually pre-date many of the critically-acclaimed Napa and Sonoma wines. The Wentes must know how Leif Erikson feels.

Wente Vineyards. San Francisco Jenn Farrington Photo. Wente Vineyards was the first American winery to label wines by varietal, putting the name of the grape right on the bottle.
"Wente Vineyards was the first American winery to label wines by varietal, putting the name of the grape right on the bottle."

Good People

This year marks the 125th anniversary of Wente Family Estates, and Karl feels they have a lot more to celebrate then merely a nice, round number.

“This [anniversary] also signifies 125 years of sustainable growing in the same place and people’s appreciation for wine from estate-grown grapes, plus the fact that we’re family-run versus corporate,” Karl says.

But Karl doesn’t stop there . . . .

Good Music

Twenty-two years ago, the family started The Concerts at Wente Vineyards, a series that continue to pull in some amazing headliners. Continually surrounded by amazing musicians and being a guitar player who liked to experiment with all kinds of instruments, Karl always wanted to be involved.

Jenn Farrington Photo San Francisco. Written by Danny Ronen. Between the Nth Degree, Small Lots Wineries, the Wente Estate wines and his many other projects, Karl Wente has a lot on his plate, but always finds time to sit down on his front porch and play and write music. The close proximity of the kegerator doesn’t hurt.
• Between the Nth Degree, Small Lots Wineries, the Wente Estate wines and his many other projects, Karl Wente has a lot on his plate, but always finds time to sit down on his front porch and play and write music. The close proximity of the kegerator doesn’t hurt.
• Since the outer-lying regions of the San Francisco Bay Area have been growing so quickly, Wente Vineyard works hard to keep a Livermore greenbelt in a Land Trust, limiting the amount of local development and maintaining both agriculture and natural beauty.

After the Musexpo conference in 2007, Karl figured out a way to connect the wine world and the music world, and “Discover the Wine, Discover the Music” was born. The concept is to pair wine with music, the goal being to find small artists and bring their music out into the open. Wente puts tags on certain bottles that list the program’s six featured musicians or music groups, give suggestions about which wine goes best with the music and allow customers to download a free song from the artist via the Wente website. This not only helps promote the artists, but encourages the public to learn more about the musicians and support them.

In May 2008, Karl was invited to sit on a panel at the SanFranMusicTech Summit called “Marketing & Branding in the New Music Economy.” Since one of the people on the panel was Vince Wilburn, Jr., who represents Miles Davis Properties LLC (and is also Miles’ nephew), someone in the audience asked Karl, “What wine would you pair with Miles Davis’ music?”

This ignited a conversation afterwards between Karl Vince, further assuring Karl that “Discover the Wine, Discover the Music” was truly hitting home with music fans.

In today’s world of disappearing greenbelts and advanced technology, celebrating 125 years of an agricultural-based family business is reason enough to celebrate, but there’s no reason to limit the focus. This year, Wente Vineyards held a 125th anniversary concert, participated in charity events such as Macy’s Passport and held 125-mile employee walks, raising money for organizations including the American Cancer Society, America’s Harvest and The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

“The 125 years of farming in the Livermore Valley has certainly taught us what goes together well,” Karl says. It’s not all about deciding on new clones, root stocks, planting time, site inspections and row direction in order to produce the best wine, however; it’s also about how to match individuals, common values and entertainment to bring pleasure to others through good food, good wine, good people and good music.

Tasting Panel Magazine February 2008 Jenn Farrington Photo Danny Ronen writerThe BIT (Beverage Industry Trends) - The Tasting Panel Magazine - October 2008

Don't forget to visit the Jenn Farrington Studios image library for all Why Karl Wente Rocks photos. You can also learn more about Wente Family Vineyard by visiting their website:

Wente Family Vineyards

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