Do you remember the first case of wine that you purchased? Pat does. Buying a case of the Wente Vineyards Blanc de Blanc — an off-dry blend of chenin blanc, gew?raminer and riesling — for about $72 in the mid 1970s — was a step into adulthood. Just identifying a wine that he liked indicated that he was developing a palate. Having the ability to afford what he perceived as a discretionary luxury was a declaration that he was now a card-carrying, grown-up American consumer.

So it was with a bit of nostalgia that we recently met up with Carolyn Wente, a fourth-generation member of the Wente Vineyards. Her family has been growing grapes and making wine in the Livermore Valley since 1883 when German immigrant Carl Wente purchased 48 acres. Two of her brothers are involved in the business and already a fifth generation is involved. As far as we know, no other family can make the claim of five generations of winemaking.

The Wentes have made a significant impact on the California wine industry and continue to make reasonably priced wines. About 80 percent of the chardonnay planted in California is planted to the Wente clone developed by Carolyn’s grandfather, Ernest Wente, and first planted in 1916. In addition, Wente was the first winery to use varietal labels on its chardonnay, a 1936 act that presaged today’s dominance of varietal-labeled wines from California.

The Wentes currently farm about 3,000 acres of grapes from two appellations — Livermore Valley and Arroyo Seco in Monterey — and have partnerships with the Murrieta’s Well and Tamas Estates wineries. Wente also operates an open-air amphitheater for concerts, and a Greg Norman-designed championship 18-hole golf course near their Livermore winery.

The winery makes a lot of wine under a variety of labels that range in price from $10 to $60. However, the prolific winery is known for its inexpensive, easy-to-find wines.

Wente’s current production is about 50 percent chardonnay, but it is planning on increasing its production of red wine. A special line of wines, called Nth Degree, was launched in the early 2000s by fifth-generation wine grower Karl Wente. These are spectacular, albeit expensive, wines to seek out.

Following are our favorite wines from our tasting with Carolyn:

Wente Vineyards Chardonnay Arroyo Seco Riva Ranch 2008 ($20). About 2 percent of the blend is gewurztraminer. Add that to about 90 percent barrel fermentation and you have a pretty unctuous mouthfeel. Intense nose and flavors of ripe tropical fruit and toast.

Wente Vineyards Pinot Noir Arroyo Seco Reliz Creek 2006 ($25). This wine is very Burgundian in style. Not very dark, but offering nice cherry flavors, good acidity, in an elegant, understated style that is very appealing. Should be great with chicken or many fish dishes.

Tamas Estates Pinot Grigio Central Coast 2008 ($10). Apple, peach, floral nose. Great varietal fruity expression in the mouth in a nice off-dry style, but with good acidity. A perfect summer quaffer at a guilt-free price.

Tamas Estates Double Decker Red ($12). A good price for a simple, quaffable blend of cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah and barbera.

Murrieta’s Well White Meritage Livermore Valley 2007 ($20). Another Wente partnership formed in 1989, this wine is an unusual blend of 52 percent semillon and 48 percent sauvignon blanc that we really liked. Somewhat reminiscent of a White Bordeaux blend with its predominant component of semillon, this wine is different and a real pleaser. Lovely soft, fruity nose, with round, melon and subtle herb flavors, and a wonderful creamy finish. This wine went very well with raw oysters on the half shell.

Murrieta’s Well Livermore Valley Red Meritage 2005 ($40). A blend of all five noble grapes from Bordeaux, this forward-fruit wine is delicious. Copious plum and dark berry flavors with subtle hints of chocolate and herbs.

Nth Degree Syrah by Wente 2007 ($52). A deep inky blend of 89 percent syrah, 5 percent petite sirah, 5 percent mourvedre and 1 percent cabernet franc. Only 300 cases made of this wine that was babied in the vineyard to the Nth degree. Beautiful syrah varietal flavors and nose with berry notes. Good acidity and perfect balance. A real winner.

SMOKEY PINOTS – In last week’s column we wrote about how brush fires in California created smoke-tainted pinot noirs in Monterey County. Although there was limited smoke-taint in southern Monterey, the primary pinot noir areas, like Santa Lucia Highlands, were not impacted. Most of the smoke damage was caused to wines made in Mendocino County to the north.

 

Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr have visited vineyards all over the world and have been writing a newspaper wine column for more than 20 years. Contact them at: [email protected]