Why Karl Wente Rocks
Written by Danny Ronen
Photos by Jenn Farrington
The fifth-generation California winemaker discusses his lifelong passions
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.”
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.
“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.
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?”
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.
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:
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