A winemaker from an oft-overlooked northern California estate meets GERRIE LIM
EAST OF SAN FRANCISCO BAY in Alameda County lies the Livermore Valley, a wine district bereft of the more sexy cachet of the Napa/Sonoma axis, but Eric Wente isn’t worried. Not when he’s the chairman and, since 1977, fourth-generation producer at what he calls “the oldest family-owned and continuously operated winery in California”. Originally founded by his great-grandfather CH Wente in 1883, the Wente Vineyards story really began in 1912, when CH and his son Ernest imported French Chardonnay cuttings from Montpellier, though it wasn’t until 1936 that the company released the historic, first-ever varietally labelled wines from California. Eric’s grandfather and great-uncle later planted Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon clones from Chateau d’Yquem in Bordeaux – and a legend, so to speak, took root.
The family business is now helmed by Eric, his brother Philip and their sister Carolyn, while Eric’s son Karl is the estate’s fifth-generation winemaker and his daughter Christine the company’s general manager. For all the acclaim their white wines have received, half the Wente portfolio is actually red, notably its estate-grown line that includes the Southern Hills Cabernet Sauvignon and Sandstone Merlot, though I personally prefer the Beyer Ranch and Smith Bench Zinfandels. More memorably, their famous Riva Ranch Chardonnay played a vital role in my own early wine-drinking years, as I disclosed to the man ultimately responsible on a hot, Chardonnay-perfect afternoon.
What’s your secret to producing wine every year without skipping a vintage – good terroir, perfect climate, or just dumb luck?
Probably the answer is yes in variable amounts and measures to each of those, each year. I’ve been making wine for 40 years and the only vintage in those 40 years that I didn’t like was the 1998. It just didn’t turn out like it should and it just didn’t taste or age well. The rest of the time, there’ve been ups and downs and there were differences, but nothing that I would say I absolutely needed to change.
What’s your production now?
About 700,000 cases a year. We’re a classic middle-size winery by California standards. The small wineries do around 7,000 cases and the big ones like E & J Gallo are a hundred times larger than us. In California, you’ve got larger-size land holdings relative to Europe, for the most part, so we’re farming about 1,200 hectares.
The critic Hugh Johnson likes your Sauvignon Blancs and Semillons, and also wrote that your newer Chardonnays are quite complex and compelling.
With most of our Chardonnays, we tend to be on the fruit-forward side and keep the acidity up, and we do barrel-fermentation with a high percentage of used barrels. One thing about Chardonnay is that it’s about style. We have a Chardonnay that’s called Eric’s Chardonnay, based on a competition among the winemakers at the winery, where each of us can make 500 cases of Chardonnay however we want it – whatever barrels you want, whatever you need, you name it and you do it. I wanted it fermented in stainless steel at 12 degrees Celcius and I wanted it racked two days later, racked off the lees and back into stainless steel, and then bottled in March and released in July. That means the classic Chablis style – the very clean, minerally style with no oak, no barrels – which is what I personally like.
I’m intrigued by how your two Chardonnays differ, the Morning Fog and the Riva Ranch. I was introduced to the latter by a sommelier friend, and we drank a lot of it.
Well, that’s a good friend to have! The Riva Ranch is a singlevineyard wine, while the Morning Fog is estate grown and not single vineyard, so it’s a little bit different in economic positioning. The Morning Fog is from our Livermore Valley, where the morning fog gets the San Francisco Bay impact on growing grapes, while Riva Ranch is from our vineyards down in Arroyo Seco in the Salinas Valley, where the grapes are directly impacted off the ocean. The Morning Fog is half fermented in stainless steel and half in used barrels. The Riva Ranch is all 100 percent barrel-fermented, mostly used but with a percentage of new barrels, and we keep it eight months on stirred lees to give it some complexity. The Morning Fog sells better worldwide, while in the United States it’s the Riva Ranch because it has a flavour profile that a lot of American Chardonnay drinkers like – the more tropical fruit with the more barrel-andlees influence. Europeans like the crisper, more apple character of the Morning Fog.
You’re known for your wine tourism, with your 18-hole golf course designed by Greg Norman and your popular summer concerts in July and August.
Yes, this year it’s Chris Isaak; Wynona Judd; Tony Bennett; Frankie Valli; Earth, Wind & Fire; and the Beach Boys. Two years ago, we had Diana Krall one week and the next week Elvis Costello. They had the tour bus and one of them’s babysitting while the other’s performing. The next week, the other was in the tour bus babysitting. Elvis was babysitting the first week, and Diana was babysitting the second!
How do you decide on whom to book for those shows?
It depends on who’s touring and who appeals to our demographic – which I’d say is 35 and older. The buffet-dinner seating is US$150 per person and the restaurant table service and theatre seating in front is US$200-plus per ticket, and you have to be above the age of 21 for alcoholic beverage consumption, so you’re not getting the 18-year-olds. The 21- to 25-year-old set, for the most part, can’t afford that pricing either. We also have to try to find shows that are dinner shows. Country music doesn’t really draw all that well unless it’s Willie Nelson, and we’ve had ZZ Top – as you might expect, they were loud!
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