Carolyn Wente, CEO, Wente Vineyards & Lars von Kantzow, president and CEO, Nomacorc
It’s not enough to be the First Family of Chardonnay. Or at least, it’s not enough forever.
In 1883, German immigrant Carl Wente purchased land in California’s Livermore Valley and began developing a new vineyard and winery. The project enjoyed success, and in 1912, seeking to expand and improve his white wine program, Carl and his son Earnest, then a new graduate of the viticulture program at UC Davis, imported Chardonnay cuttings from the University of Montpellier in France. Together with bud wood from the Gier Vineyard in nearby Pleasanton, Calif., father and son began a years-long field selection process to develop a vine best suited to the Livermore Valley. The result of their efforts was dubbed the Wente Clone.
After Prohibition, Wente began offering its Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Sémillon with varietal labeling—the first winery in America to do so. The Wente Chardonnay clone gradually spread to other parts of California, too, and over the next several decades received research attention from UC Davis, where vine geneticist Dr. Harold Olmo developed additional Wente clones for enhanced yield and consistency.
Fast forward to 1976: A Chateau Montelena Chardonnay—from Wente clonal stock—won the Paris tasting. Instantly, demand exploded for Chardonnay in general and the Wente Clone in particular. From only 2,700 acres of Chardonnay in Californian in the 1970s, vineyard acreage has swelled to over 100,000 acres today. And the Wente Clone accounts for over 70 percent of the total.
It’s an all-American tale of ingenuity, perseverance, and resounding success. But being the First Family of Chardonnay is a legacy, not a business plan. By the 1980s, a new generation of Wentes—Carolyn, Eric, and Philip—was running the business. That fourth generation realized they’d need to make radical changes if the company was to sustain a fifth.
“For my grandfather, the point of differentiation was about making varietal wine,” said Carolyn Wente, now Wente Vineyards’ CEO, speaking to an audience of wine marketers recently. “But making good wine, great wine—that’s just not good enough anymore. In today’s competitive environment you have to say a few more things.”
And be a few more things. In the 1980s, Napa Valley began attracting San Franciscans eager for a sip of wine and a breath of country air—and willing to make the one-hour drive north to get them. Livermore Valley was just an hour away, too, to the east across the first coastal mountain range. But Livermore Valley was not Napa Valley. It was a place, not a destination.
“My brothers and I felt strongly about getting people on-property,” Carolyn said. But the trip had to be about more than just a visit to the tasting room. It had to be about more than a sip of wine and a lecture on grapes. “We wanted to show them about wine—have them experience wine country.”
That meant a shift in strategy. The company embarked on an ambitious set of new initiatives to entice visitors. In 1986, they opened a new visitor center and restaurant—astonishingly (in hindsight) it was only the third winery restaurant in the U.S. That summer they also launched an outdoor concert series. Visitors could dine under the night sky while listening to performers like James Taylor, Elvis Costello, and Sheryl Crow. Later, they added 18-hole golf course to the property, too, designed by golf champion Greg Norman. Guests could play a round of golf amidst the vines, then enjoy a spectacular sunset view while kicking back—with wine—at the restaurant.
That first concert series attracted 1,700 visitors. Today, over 300,000 people experience some part of the company’s hospitality, venturing to Livermore for tastings, tours, dining, golf, weddings, concerts, meetings, and events. And all of these lines of business are self-sustaining—wine sales don’t subsidize concerts, golf doesn’t prop up the restaurant.
Diversification has meant more than just added traffic. It’s also proved a canny strategy for media relations. Journalists want to talk about what’s new, not what happened 130 years ago in a plant breeder’s laboratory. The company’s new lifestyle businesses gave writers something new to write about.
“Having a restaurant got us off the Wine page and into the Food section,” Carolyn Wente said. “Having a Greg Norman-designed golf course got us onto the Sports page. When we added the summer concert series, we had the musical entertainment media writing about us.”
And it got consumers talking about Wente Vineyards, too. People who’d had a great time would tell their friends.
“Wine is not only about the great quality in the glass. It’s about the experience around it,” Wente continued. “You remember it by the friends that you’re with, or from looking at the sunset. That’s what these lifestyle businesses are about—tracking back to our core business of growing grapes and making wine, but also creating brand ambassadors. People who come on-property and enjoy it, then go away and talk about their experiences.”
Now with social media, that narrative—great wine, great experiences—comes alive online, too, during #ChardonnayDay and everyday on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Wine-as-experience happens in Livermore, and people see it in Singapore, in real time. New customers are everywhere.
What would family forefather Carl Wente think of the new developments? I’d guess he’d be pleased. He’d re-invented his life in California, then set about re-inventing Chardonnay, too. The fourth and fifth generations of Wentes are also re-inventors, shifting the focus of the narrative to stay relevant. Wine might have been central to the company’s origins, but hospitality is central to its future. And isn’t hospitality one thing families do best?