LIVERMORE, Calif. — Wente Vineyards, nestled in the rolling hills of the Livermore Valley, is an American success story and the oldest continuously operated family-owned winery in the nation.
C.H. Wente, an immigrant from Germany, came to the valley and recognized it was an ideal spot for growing grapes. He purchased 48 acres in 1883 and today the fourth and fifth generations are continuing that legacy.
Wente is recognized as the pioneer of California Chardonnay. He released the nation’s first bottling from the 1936 vintage with the varietal name Chardonnay on the label.
“My grandfather bought nearby Murrieta’s Well Winery from neighbor Louie Mel in 1936. It was a gravity-flow operation built into the hillside,” said fourth generation winemaker Philip Wente. “In 1990, I formed a partnership with well-know winemaker Sergio Traverso and we resurrected Murrieta’s Well as a working winery.
Philip Wente learned his winemaking at the University of California-Davis.
Murrieta’s Well has a rich history, according to stories and possible folk tales passed down. In the 1850s, Joaquin Murrieta, the “Mexican Robin Hood” (or bandit) of the Gold Rush, came upon an underground spring and brought his purloined cattle to drink and camp in the Livermore Valley. The well remains on the property.
“Our red blend named ‘The Spur’ is specific to this location,” Wente said. “It is a combination of Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec.”
“The Whip” is the white blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Viognier, Semillon, Orange Muscat, Pinot Blanc and Muscat Canelli.
Murrieta’s Well Winery produces only estate-grown blended wines for the marketplace on 90 acres while Wente Vineyards focuses on growing varietal wines. They have two distinct vineyards, so there is no competition.
Chris Chandler, executive director of the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association acknowledged Wente and his family’s contributions.
“Livermore Valley is fortunate to have among its 50 wineries the country’s oldest continuously operated family-owned winery, Wente Vineyards,” she said. “As urbanization spread toward Livermore Valley in the ’80s, Phil Wente and his family were instrumental in creating a land-use plan that allowed for some homes while preserving land for vineyards and other agricultural uses. Thirty years later, the valley is definitely grateful for his vision and leadership.”
Wente said there are numerous challenges facing California winemakers.
“I think one of my main concerns is the supply of grapes for the marketplace,” he said. “That issue involves finding capital investment and growing locations. Other challenges involve water, land cost, pressure from international markets and whether capital is available. All these are very complicated issues.”
He has some advice for those thinking of planting roots in the wine industry.
“My advice would be the same for those getting into any business,” he said. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What kind of profit and return do I need to be a success and then work backwards. Before you spend any money you have to make sure you can achieve that goal.
“Winemaking is a romantic but at the end of the day it needs to be a viable business.”
Wineries: Murrieta’s Well, Wente Vineyards
Owner: Wente Family
Location: Livermore Valley and Arroyo Seco, Calif.
Number 0f acres: 90 acres and 2,000 acres
How long in business: 130 years
Varieties of grapes grown: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Petite Sirah, Petite Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel