Vini, Vidi, Vente. That’s Latin, baby.
Wente Vineyards makes this claim without braggadocio: They are the oldest, continually-operating family-owned winery in California. As, their scrapbook must look like the walls of Harvard School of Law’s graduating class—generation after generation of star-studded pros.
The family tree spread branches and roots into many firsts, including pioneering mechanical harvesting after dark and, in 1935, introducing California’s first varietally-labeled wine. The fact that it was Sauvignon blanc, in which the state has hardly excelled, is fodder for a different philippic. For today, the strata of savvy that the family has built since establishing Wente Vineyards in 1883 (virtually putting Livermore on the California wine map) has funneled itself into two outstanding selections, a Chardonnay from Arroyo Seco—of which Wente farms 700 acres—the second, Pinot noir from the Riva Ranch in the same appellation.
Dab in the center of the incredibly productive Salinas Valley (Of Mice And Men country), Arroyo Seco contains, in various vineyards, the ideal climate for Burgundian varietals—warm, sun-soaked days moderated by afternoon winds from the Monterey Bay; meanwhile, a surface scattering of Greenfield pebbles hold the heat throughout the night’s chill while the grapes’ vital acids are preserved overhead. Further west in the AVA, Rhône varietals flourish, but in the east, where Riva Ranch is located, the climate accounts for some of the most balanced Chardonnays in California. And, from the original cuttings brought from University of Montpellier viticultural nursery in France, that’s been Wente’s stock-in-trade.
Under the winemaking prowess of fifth-generation vintner Karl D. Wente, the intention today is to stay the course—an excellent game-plan for a family that came to Livermore 130 years ago, saw the potential and conquered.
Wente Vineyards ‘Riva Ranch’ Chardonnay, Arroyo Seco, 2013, around $22:
The year after Wente released the first varietal labeled wine in the United States, they let fly the second: Chardonnay. The trajectory was onward and upward, and the Wente’s are rightfully referred to as ‘California’s First Family of Chardonnay’. The Old Wente Clone was a standard in much of the area from the outset; it produces wine with considerable character and complexity.
But, that’s a truth we hold to be self-evident:
The bouquet shows lemon curd, bright flashes of frankincense (which may likewise be translated as a light minerally spritz) and banana cream offer a promise of richness—this is a high point of California Chardonnay as long as it is braced by acidity. And it is. The palate is silky and sweet with peach and honey, but shivers with tart citrus beneath offering a wine with superb equilibrium.
Wente Vineyards ‘Riva Ranch’ Pinot Nor, Arroyo Seco, 2012, around $30:
Soils in Riva Ranch vineyard are rich with shale and limestone, well-drained in wet weather and (due to calcium’s ability to retain moisture as well) resistent to drought. Burgundy is loaded with limestone—so is the Loire and southern Rhône. But in California, other than a crescent of land in the Central Coast, limestone soils are somewhat rare, and where they are coupled with long growing seasons and cool nights, Pinot noir has what it needs to thrive. Of the eight Pinot clones Wente relies upon, 2013 is heavily weighted with Pommard and Martini. The former can produce earthy wines with deep, dark fruit; the latter shows more brightness and elegance. Obviously, a wine that can encompass both dimensions is ideal.
The nose is dominated by darkness; black cherries dipped in chocolate with distinctly New World Coca-Cola undertones; like the Chardonnay, the wine is a full-bodied expression of fruit, powerful and with sparks of sweetness behind a slightly brooding middle palate. There’s subtle mocha, spice and earth interwoven with ripe plum and underscored with bright acid and respectable palate length.