Historic Family Winery Thrives
By Mike White
Tri-Valley Herald

LIVERMORE -- Phil Wente is part of a family team that heads one of the state's most storied wineries, yet he possesses something potentially more valuable.

If only he knew what it was.

Wente, 51, and his siblings Eric Wente, 52, and Carolyn Wente, 48, run Wente Vineyards in Livermore, the oldest continuously owned and operated winery in California. All but a few historic family wineries have perished or have been absorbed by larger companies.

If the Wentes knew how they survived as a family operation, they would probably have something more priceless than their best Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or Chardonnay.

"If I knew how we did it, I would bottle it and sell it," Wente said. "It might just be a case of being lucky."

Wente Vineyards is ranked as the 30th to 45th largest winery in the country, according to various published industry surveys. The winery, with 2,000 acres of vineyards in the Livermore Valley and another 700 acres in Monterey County, produces about 250,000 cases of wine a year and an equal amount for other wineries. A major part of the business is farming, as it sells about 40 percent of its grapes to other wineries.

Eric, Phil and Carolyn are the fourth generation to lead the winery. Clues as to how they have survived can be found in the winery's long history. Clearly, the winery's reputation for innovation has helped fuel its growth.

Carl H. Wente, a German immigrant, started the winery in 1883 on 50 acres on Tesla Road in Livermore. In 1933, Wente produced California's first Sauvignon Blanc-labeled varietal wine, and in 1936, it produced the state's first Chardonnay-labeled varietal.

Wente also has pioneered selling wine outside of the United States. It sells half of its wine overseas, including in Switzerland, Great Britain and Japan. Wente's overseas' sales far exceeds industry standards. Among wineries that sell overseas, exports average between 15 percent and 18 percent of sales, said Robert Koch, president and chief executive officer of the industry trade group, the Wine Institute.

"The Wente's percentage of overseas sales is quite high," Koch said.

Wente has also been one of the first wineries to enter new markets, particilarly those in Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Viet- nam, Koch said.

In 1963, the winery acquired property in the Arroyo Seco wine region of Monterey County, and in 1981 the winery bought the historic Cresta Blanca Winery in Livermore, which had long been out of service.

The Cresta Blanca property on Arroyo Road is the center of the winery's tourism-related ventures. The site hosts a popular concert series. A Greg Norman-designed golf course, which attracts about 40,000 people a year, and the Wente Vineyards Restaurant, which draws about 50,000 people a year, also are located on the property.

The Wente family also owns Murrieta's Well Winery and Tamas Estates Winery, both in Livermore. In 1992, Wente family members were involved in a group that purchased Concannon Vineyard, another historic Livermore Valley winery. They sold the winery last year to The Wine Group, the nation's third-largest wine company.

Even with its innovation, and its expansion into the wine tourism market, the winery may have remained in family hands in part because of other factors. Carl Wente's winery passed down into the hands of two sons, Ernest and Herman, who were among his seven children. Herman married but did not have any children. And Ernest had just one child -- Karl Wente.

"The Wentes were a smaller family, so maybe the winery didn't get parceled up as much as others," said Tom Lane, who worked as winemaker at Concannon from 1992 to 2003. Concannon was family-owned until Wente family members bought it. Many say their purchase helped rescue a brand that otherwise would have perished.

Karl Wente's three children -- Eric, Phil and Carolyn -- were thrust into a leadership role sooner than expected, however. In 1977, Karl Wente died at age 49. Eric and Phil were working at the winery at the time, and Carolyn was in her final year at Stanford University, where she was studying history.

"I never had a question about what I would do. I just knew within me that I didn't want to do anything else but work at the winery," Phil Wente said.

Eric Wente said there was no pressure when growing up to take over the winery one day, but when the moment came, he and his siblings knew what to do.

"We came into this business because we liked it, and we are still doing it today for the same reasons," Eric Wente said.

The three siblings did not hire an experienced wine person to help them during the transition. Instead, Eric took over as chief executive officer, and Phil took charge of the vineyards. They learned on the job. Grandfather Ernest Wente was still alive at the time and helped during the transition.

Even if the new operators of the winery took time to learn their jobs, Wente Vineyards could have survived for several years because of the people Karl Wente had hired, Phil Wente said.

After graduation, Carolyn worked for Crocker National Bank before Phillip and Eric asked her to join the winery to help with sales and marketing. Today, she is president for sales and marketing.

"It was fortunate that Eric, Phil and I all had a sense of history and tradition and were passionate about the winery," she said.

Carolyn Wente is passionate about other subjects as well. She is co-author, with Wente Executive Chef Kimball Jones, of "The Casual Vineyard Table," their second cookbook.

Although she appreciates fine food, she knows when to be tough. Friends tell a story of how rattlesnakes live in abundance near her hillside home, and she carries a shovel when she walks around at night.

"She knocks their heads off," joked Sblend Sblendorio, a vineyard owner in Livermore. "She knows how to take care of herself."

If she does what she must to protect her family, she and her brothers also help others, Sblendorio said. During the annual Christmas parade, they allow people to use their property to put together floats. One of the floats is the winery's large harvesting machine.

"Kids love the harvester. It has a lot of lights on it, and we add even more," he said.

Meanwhile, Eric Wente's children have become the fifth generation to work at the winery. His daughter works in marketing, and Karl Wente joined the business in 2002 as winemaker after studying viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis.

Phil Wente has three girls ages 11, 12 and 18, and Carolyn's son is 8.

"It is tough to know when to push them and when not to," Phil Wente said. "If you try too hard, you just might push them away. If you asked 100 families how best to raise children, you would get 1,000 different answers."

Carolyn Wente said her son, Bucky, is showing interest.

"He is asking a lot of questions and is trying to figure out the general process of a winery. He is really outgoing and enjoys people, so he would probably do well on the sales side," she said. "But as an 8-year-old, he probably wants be a fire truck driver or a train engineer, or maybe he wants to drive tractors like his uncle Phil."