Attack of the Clone (Talking American Chardonnay History With 5th Generation Vintner Karl Wente)

If you’ve enjoyed a California Chardonnay anytime in the last, oh, one hundred years or so, I bet I can tell you where it came from.

That’s a bet I can confidently make because I’ve got statistics on my side, provided we’re talking about the genetic parents from whence those Chardonnay grapes first came. You see, there’s about an eighty percent chance (that’s bet-worthy odds, statistically speaking) that the grapes that went into the California Chardonnay you enjoyed descended from those planted by the Wente family in Livermore, now in their fifth winemaking generation and heading the longest-running family winery in existence in the U.S. The Wente family actually bottled the first varietal-labeled Chardonnay in America, so let’s just say that they’ll probably forget more about Chardonnay than most of us will even learn.

During the 2013 Chardonnay Symposium, I sat down with fifth-generation vintner and musician Karl Wente to talk about the Wente Chardonnay clone in anticipation of Karl’s participation in the Symposium’s winemaker panel discussion on the topic of clones and Chardonnay growing and winemaking. Now. that might sound like a paint-dryingly dull topic, but don’t fear that you’ll get glossy-eyed watching this interview; we’re talking about a winemaking scion who, when I first met him, egged me on to pick up an upright bass at his house and got me jamming on some of his original acoustic “porch rock” tunes before we tasted (okay, more like drank) through a good bit of the modern Wente wine portfolio. So watch with reckless abandon, preferably with a glass of Morning Fog Chardonnay in your glass, and prepare yourself to learn a thing or two, because Karl is not only knowledgeable, but also entertaining and opinionated.

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Bien Nacido Vineyard 2009 Harvest

Bien Nacido Vineyards after harvest

Both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were average-to-above-average in size this year. Syrah┬ácame in slightly below average. Weather was close to ideal until a big storm in late October brought 2″ of rain. This was followed by warm, humid temperatures. The small amount of fruit that remained held up for about a week before we began to see the onset of rain-induced diseases, mainly botrytis. Fortunately, we received the heat we needed to ripen the grapes sufficiently after the storm and got them off the vine. Good year.

Chris Hammell, Vineyard Manager of Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Maria Valley

Photo by Ragan Fife.