Karl Wente is a big man: 6 feet 7 inches of passionate intensity in fact. This is a man who, at the age of 29, controls (and I use the word deliberately) the winemaking at the huge Wente Estate based in the Livermore Valley, 15 miles due east of the San Francisco Bay. He was here at The Oxford Wine Company in March to present a tasting of his wines to a selection of our private customers, and before the tasting he talked to me about Wente Vineyards and himself.
It all started in 1883, when C.H. Wente bought 40 acres of land in the Livermore Valley: "My great great grandfather was from just south of Hanover, Germany and had some older cousins who he thought were in Chicago. So he came across and went to Chicago looking for them and then worked as a teamster driving horses across the United States. He got to California and when he arrived his only criterion for a job was to work for a German, and the only job that he found was working for Charles Krug (who opened Napa's first winery in 1861). And so he became Charles Krug's cellar master and then his winemaker a few years later. So he stumbled into the wine industry and managed to scrape together some money to buy the land and set up this homestead and started farming grapes. It's a nice little story."
It is - but it became a much bigger story as time went on. Wente Vineyards is now California's oldest family-owned and continuously operated winery and is managed by the fourth and fifth generations of the Wente family-Karl being one of the fifth generation. The winery farms nearly 3,000 acres of estate vineyards in the Livermore Valley (San Francisco Bay), and the Arroyo Seco (Monterey) appellations. Karl is particularly proud that the company own all their own vineyards, and "hands-on" is a phrase that he uses a lot: "I know all the vineyards—I make a picking decision on each vineyard. For every wine that we'll taste later today, I can picture the grapes on the vines from which they were made. I know exactly which vineyards produced them—it's sort of mind-boggling at times."
I can imagine that it is rather mind boggling—but then this young man's journey to becoming winemaker at Wente Vineyards is itself somewhat mind-boggling. Having grown up surrounded by wine, Karl started his studies with a degree in chemical engineering at Stamford before going on to Davis, where he completed two masters degrees, one in horticulture and one in food science, specialising in viticulture, oenology and winemaking: this is a man hungry for knowledge. After graduating he worked a vintage at the Peter Michael Winery in Sonoma's Knights Valley - "Really hands-on, great team, learnt a lot."
In search of more practical experience abroad, Karl set off for Australia: "I spent seven weeks touring around with a tent, a guitar, a sleeping bag and a used car and went to all the wine-growing regions except for the far west coast, and said, 'I'm a winemaker from California,' and the doors just opened. I learnt a lot, tasted a lot and had a ball. I'd set up the tent and open a bottle of wine that I'd got during the day, get out my guitar and sit and sing songs and people would come around - it was a brilliant experience". After that Karl worked a vintage with Brown Brothers in the King Valley where he stayed for six months: "Great experience—hands-on, get your hands dirty and really learn."
Then it was time to go home and get started at Wente: "In May of '02 I got back to the winery and started up what we call our Small Lot winery, which is essentially a winery within the winery where we can really drive a lot of experimentation of grape growing and winemaking and really drive quality, pushing the limits both in the field and in winemaking practice. By '03, I was overseeing all of the winery operation, and by '04, both the vineyards and the winery. So now I'm overseeing all of the production (we run about 3000 acres of vineyards) and all of the winemaking operations down to bottling and the packaging to go with it."
That's a lot to handle in itself, but Karl's ultimate passion lies in a project that he started with his uncle Phil: "We thought we would take our best vineyard blocks and farm them to the nth degree-do absolutely everything we could to get the best expression of fruit and showcase just what the Livermore Valley can really do. My uncle Phil came up with the name the Nth Degree and it stuck". As part of this programme they select the vine rows and often the individual vines that show the most promise. Every vine receives at least 15 passes by vineyard workers to prune, pull leaves, remove shoots and thin clusters in an effort to ensure that the grape clusters remaining at harvest are of the highest quality. The vineyard blocks are meticulously farmed, hand picked, sorted and brought to the new Small Lot winery that Karl helped to create. "They said go, do what you want, make the best wine possible, which is a little bit daunting, but I'm young, I love what I do, I've been educated well and hopefully I can go in there and do some good with it." Karl has produced a series of wines under the Nth Degree label including a Chardonnay, Syrah, Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon which are only sold through the cellar door.
Karl's passion for winemaking runs so deep it is nearly impossible to convey. You sense his legacy of being a fifth generation Wente winemaker, and with his extraordinary mind and education (he answers questions incredibly thoroughly, going deeply into the subject - even down to molecular level - before gradually returning to the question and giving you a final concise answer), he is very well equipped to take Wente to another level of quality. He is intimately connected with what he does: "My wines are all my babies in some way, shape or form. I'll remember them always thinking back to the soil, the clusters on the vine as I'm tasting the wine, so I like drinking all of my wines, and when I'm not drinking my wines, diversity is the spice of life for me. I'm really looking for diversity, broadening my palate and my depth of understanding of wine which will ultimately make me a better winemaker."
Karl's ultimate passion is to develop the reputation of the Livermore Valley and he is determined that the area should become recognised as being on a par with better known grape growing regions such as Napa and Sonoma. He is well aware that with its unique east-west orientation that allows sea mists to cool the vineyards overnight there is no reason why Livermore cannot produce the same (or even better) quality wines than the classic more northerly areas of California. Certainly if the wines that he showed us that night are anything to go by, I'd say that this extraordinary man will put Livermore up with the best of them - it's only a matter of time.
Karl Wente talked to Theo Sloot.