Monday, July 6, 2009

The B-52s rock Wente Vineyards

Wente Vineyards seems to have slipped below awareness. That's why they need "Planet Claire."

Wente makes 300,000 cases a year and is the flagship winery for Livermore Valley. The Wentes have been making wine in Livermore since 1883. In 1916, the Wentes planted the first Chardonnay in California. The winery is still family-run, and they were farming sustainably before it was cool.

But they haven't gotten much attention in about 20 years. The wines were well respected in the '80s, but seemed to take a dip in quality in the '90s.

And being in Livermore doesn't help -- though it's a mystery as to why the region's reputation is so weak. The area has always had great potential for terroir; a Livermore Valley wine won a Grand Prix at the 1889 Paris International Exposition. Temperature studies show that Livermore Valley has very similar climate to Napa Valley. And well-made wines from Livermore have an appealing minerality, perhaps the result of the rocky soils.

I'm not going to say Livermore wines are as good as wines from Napa and Sonoma -- they're not. But Livermore as terroir is at least as good as, say, Paso Robles, which has a growing reputation, while Livermore is such a downer to retailers that the Wine Group, which owns the other Livermore big gun, Concannon Vineyard, sometimes hides their Livermore wines under the appellation "Central Coast."

If anyone can put Livermore back on the wine lovers' map, it's the Wentes. They're always working on drawing people east from San Francisco -- they have a nice restaurant, a golf course, and in summer they put on outdoor concerts. They're realists, knowing that at present they can't draw people from outside the area with the wines alone.

I went out to Livermore on Thursday to see the B-52s, another group that was more famous in the '80s. There are few nicer venues in this area than Wente Vineyards; the stage is outside, immediately next to the restaurant, with great views of the surrounding copper-colored hills at sunset.

While there, I checked in on the wines the Wentes are making these days. I confess that the four wines I tried there were more Wente wines than I'd had since doing a major Livermore story in 2004. And I'll also confess that in 2004, I tasted their whole lineup and didn't find a single wine I wanted to recommend.

Since then, Wente has changed its focus under fifth-generation winemaker Karl Wente, who's barely 30 years old. Karl groomed himself to take over the winemaking, with degrees from Stanford and UC Davis and hands-on experience at Peter Michael Winery.

Karl Wente's pet project is the Nth Degree, a series of 300-case bottlings with no expense spared. The first Wente wines to turn my head during their dark ages were the first releases of Nth Degree wines -- in particular, that first Nth Degree Chardonnay (I believe a 2004 vintage) was excellent, with the minerality that Livermore can do and the right amount of French oak.

This weekend I really enjoyed the Wente Nth Degree Livermore Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 -- a well-balanced wine, with flavors of black cherry, cola and black licorice, good acidity and well-managed tannins. This is a sophisticated Cab and possibly the best wine I've had with the Wente label -- I'd give it a 91.

Any big winery can make a good 300-case wine, though, which is why I was more impressed with the Wente Louis Mel Livermore Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2008 ($12). It's excellent value: crisp, with lime and nectarine flavors and some minerality. Like all the Wente wines, it's a blend, not a single-vineyard wine, but it does show some regional terroir, which you rarely get anymore in California for $12.

As for the B-52s, they're not quite as revitalized as the Wentes; the spirit is willing, but the flesh (and the voice) isn't what it once was. That said, everybody was dancing, even in the expensive seats; this was much more fun than watching a singer-songwriter collect a paycheck. On the last three songs (Love Shack, Planet Claire and Rock Lobster), the band cut loose, reminding me of a veteran pitcher saving his best fastball for the last batter. While they're not aging as gracefully as a more serious act might, I'll be happy if, when the time comes, the B-52s play my assisted-care living facility.

Overall, I have to give the Wente concert experience a thumbs-up, and based on my brief tasting of the wines, I'm really looking forward to seeing where Karl and his sister Christine -- who has taken over sales and marketing -- take the winery. If Livermore is to make a comeback, the region needs the Wentes to lead it.

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