Growing & Winemaking

 

KARL WENTE

January 2009
 
by Laurie Daniel
 
 
Karl Wente
Karl Wente, 31, is the fifth-generation winegrower to work at his family's Livermore Valley winery, which celebrated its 125th anniversary earlier this year. Wente Vineyards produces about half a million cases per year, but Wente is particularly enthusiastic about the winery-within-a-winery--dubbed the Small Lot Winery--created in 2002 to produce small lots from selected vineyard blocks. The Small Lot Winery also is the home of Nth Degree Wines, the Wentes' effort to make the best wines possible from their 3,000 acres of vineyards in Livermore Valley and Monterey County's Arroyo Seco appellation.

Wente
Before returning to work in the family business, Wente earned two master's degrees (in viticulture and enology) from the University of California, Davis, and had stints at Peter Michael Winery in Sonoma County and Brown Brothers in Victoria, Australia.

W&V: How did the Small Lot Winery come about?

Karl Wente: The Small Lot Winery was a concept that my family had long been discussing as a way to continue to showcase the Livermore Valley and drive the experimentation process of growing wine from the soil. I am not sure it was anyone's idea, per se. I designed and started it to deliver the wines I wanted to make.

My Uncle Phil, the company's vice chairman; our director of viticulture, Ken Kupperman (who's now farming Pinot Noir in Oregon); and our current director of winemaking, Brad Buehler, had been selecting our best vineyard blocks and farming them more and more intensively. I joined the team in May of 2002 and saw the need to harness the true potential of the grapes. With Phil's passion for trying new things, we had new plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Counoise, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Viognier, Barbera, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo (the deer generally get the best of the Nebbiolo), Riesling, Orange Muscat and Muscat Canelli.

Ah, but I get ahead of myself. In June of 2001, I began working at Peter Michael Winery in the Knights Valley. There were five people for the entire vintage, and I got to see all aspects of the operation. They make amazing estate-grown wines by meticulously farming beautiful vineyards. During the 2001 harvest, I watched nearly every cluster go across the sorting table on the way to the press or the crusher, and learned to appreciate great farming and attention to details.

I got to taste clusters at each pick and think about flavors. In whites, I saw how both the press cycle and the settling time affect the dissolved solids (thus flavors and mouthfeel); learned the importance of acidity, natural fermentation, feeding regimes (or lack thereof), battonage, ML management and blending. In reds, I learned the importance of picking decisions, tannin ripeness, cold soaking, extended maceration. I learned about natural fermentation, I learned how temperature and oxygen management affect flavors. I learned that everything we did was either about flavors or mouthfeel.

After Peter Michael, it was off to Australia, for a vintage at Brown Brothers in northern Victoria, Australia. Brown Brothers is about the size of Wente, and they have a "kindergarten" winery ("the kinda") where they process their best fruit and experiment every year. It was in the kinda that I worked the 2002 Southern Hemisphere vintage. There, I saw the processing of 20,000 tons, all the while conducting small-lot experiments on yeasts, cold soaks, extended maceration and more. It was a great learning experience. The way the Brown Brothers structured their winery was a great model for the Small Lot Winery.

Cut forward to May of 2002. The vineyards were in place, and I began to work closely with Ken Kupperman and manage the physiology of the vines to grow intense flavors and tannins. We were farming our best vineyard blocks to the Nth Degree. Meanwhile, winemaker Willy Joslin and I began sourcing equipment for what was to become the Small Lot Winery: a homemade sorting table, a Puleo crusher, 1-ton fermentation bins, two upright 7-ton fermenters (one from Santa Rosa Stainless Steel, one from Modern Stainless), pumps, pump-over irrigators and refrigeration plates. We emptied a room and plumbed water, glycol and electrical. It seemed that the equipment and grapes were arriving at the same time. In one span, we worked a 22-hour day, went home to change and get a meal, worked an 18-hour day, got five hours of sleep, and worked another 18. We never lost sight of the fact that harnessing the quality of fruit was paramount. The Small Lot Winery was born.

W&V: How did you come up with the name Nth Degree?

Wente: We knew that we were going to release these wines differently, as a way to showcase the great Livermore Valley growing region. Uncle Phil, at the end of a long meeting, said that we had been farming the vines to the Nth degree and making the wine to the Nth degree. Why not call the wine the Nth Degree by Wente Vineyards? We all just nodded our heads. The packaging came reasonably easily.

W&V: In the vineyard, some blocks or rows are farmed to a higher standard by your "five-star crew" for inclusion in Nth Degree and some of the small-lot wines. What sort of practices do you use on these vines that you wouldn't use elsewhere in the vineyard?

Wente: We farm each vineyard individually to achieve the flavors and tannins that we are seeking for the wine that we are going to make. In the case of grape sales (we have contracts to sell 2,500 tons this year), we work with the receiving winery to farm to their specification for the flavor that they are seeking to achieve. I developed the five-star system as a way to communicate to the crews that we are seeking different flavors and different tannin from each vineyard. There is nothing that we do in the five-star blocks that we would not do in the other blocks; it is about timing and the number of passes--perhaps four more passes for cluster thinning for the higher-input farming, for example. Each block is treated as unique and aligned with a program or label.

W&V: In the winery, how do your procedures differ between the Small Lot Winery and the larger Wente operation?

Wente: The differences are mostly about fermentation size: lots of 1-ton bins, some 1.5-ton, some 3- to 7-ton. (By comparison, the larger-production Wente wines go into 17- to 75-ton fermenters.) Clearly, with a 1-ton bin, it is more practical to punch it down than pump over. In the Small Lot Winery we use a sorting table, but most of the time, due to the training of the five-star crews (and paying by the hour), the fruit is exceptionally clean. Other than that, the procedures are the same. In both cases, I am thinking about the flavor molecules and the tannins. How can I affect those flavors? Or not affect the beautiful fruit flavors the come in with the grapes.

W&V: Do you filter your wines?

Wente: We can filter any size lot, and each lot depends. For wines that don't go through ML, I will always membrane-filter. For any wine with residual sugar, I will always membrane. Other than that, it all depends on the flavors that I am seeking in the bottle. All things being equal, I would rather not filter. If there is a chance of Brettanomyces contact, I will generally run the wine through a pad filter. Again, it depends if I am worried about bottles within the same lot being different. For small, artistic lots, I don't worry.

W&V: Do you generally add acid?

Wente: There are many wines where we do not need to add acid, but generally we do. The rate will be based on the taste and the numbers: pH, TA, malic acid and potassium. Watching the development in my wines, I am paying more attention to acidity than I was in the early vintages. More and more picking decisions are based on acidity, and I am pulling away from taste in the vineyard. I am picking based on future taste in the bottle, which is a function of all facets of the artistic process. The earlier the acid is added to the juice/must or the wine, the better the integration. Natural acidity is the earliest.

Adding barrel diversity
 

 
When Karl Wente returned to Wente Vineyards in 2002, the winery was buying oak barrels from four coopers. But Wente wanted more diversity in his barrel regime.

wente
 
Wente Barrel Room
"I immediately increased that to 15 in the first year and close to 30 by the second. We are at around 30 now," Wente says. "We were buying French and American barrels; now we have barrels from Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, the Czech Republic and Poland. Barrels are about adding flavors and oxygen. The diversity of countries adds to the breadth of flavors."

He finds that the Eastern European barrels add notes of ground spices, such as cumin, clove, white pepper and coriander, to his wines. "They bring a nice spice component that I'm not seeing in either the French or the American barrels," he says.

But if you use too much Eastern European oak, he warns, the flavors can come across as heavy, harsh, even resinous. So on the Reliz Creek Pinot Noir, for example, which is aged in mostly French oak, Wente might use 15% Eastern European barrels.

He thinks that Latour, Francois Freres, Trust (from Hungary) and World Cooperage "are doing a great job with wood sourcing and custom-toasting programs. But all coopers deliver something worthwhile and different."

L.D.

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. Although she grew up in wine-deprived surroundings in the Midwest, she quickly developed an interest in wine after moving to California. She has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006. Contact her through edit@winesandvines.com.
 
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