January 2019 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Grapegrowing Interview: Jordan Wente and Nikki Wente

Fifth-generation winegrowers at Wente Family Estates in Livermore, Calif.

 
by Jim Gordon
 
 

For this Collector’s Edition of Wines & Vines, we thought that a youthful perspective from family members of the oldest continuously operated family-owned winery in the United States would be appropriate. Sisters Jordan Wente and Niki Wente are the youngest family members now involved in running Wente Family Es¬tates, a 750,000-case winery and dining, golfing and concert destination founded in California’s Livermore Valley in 1883.

Jordan, whose title is fifth-generation winegrower and project manager, procurement, joined the business in 2015 and has worked in project management and supply-chain roles. Currently she supports ongoing custom- and private-label projects. She earned a B.A. in political science from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and an MBA from California Polytechnic State Univer-sity (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo.

Niki, whose business card says fifth-generation winegrower and viticulture supervisor, joined the business in 2017 and now manages the buy¬ing and selling of grapes and winegrower rela-tions. Niki graduated from Cal Poly in June 2014 with a B.S. in wine and viticulture. One of her interim jobs was a role in grower relations and viticulture at Napa-based Huneeus Vintners.

Both are daughters of Phil Wente, who with his sib¬lings Carolyn Wente and Eric Wente are the senior members of the family ownership structure. Jordan and Niki are first cousins of Karl Wente and Christine Wente, who have been involved with the family business for about 15 years. The sisters sat for the interview at the Wente winery on Tesla Road in Livermore on Oct. 15, 2018, when their grape harvest was about 40% finished.

Q: What’s it like to be the youngest family members working at a 135-year-old family winery? Do you feel pressure?

Jordan Wente: Really there is not a lot of pressure on us. Our family has always shared so much and developed us so much that it’s a really comforting feeling to have that support. You never feel like you are under a ton of pressure, or at least I don’t. Because I know that they’re there to coach me and to teach me and grow me and support me.

Niki Wente: For me, I think that it is a lot of pressure. I’ve worked at other businesses in the wine industry, and coming back here I feel a lot of pressure that I really want to perform well, and I want to make this a wonderful place to work for everyone around me as well as kind of continue to move forward in this industry. But we have such a good support system. I call my dad almost daily and can talk to him about any issue we’re going through in the vineyards. He’s there to listen and talk me through it. It’s never an overwhelming pressure. It’s more of an exciting thing, because I’m excited to come to work every day. I want to see us succeed. I want to see my kids have the op¬portunity or option to come here and work.


Q: As a person in your 20s now working in a mature industry, what does the wine business look like to you? Is it staid?

Jordan: I find a lot of excitement in it because I deal with a lot of our new projects, new initiatives, new brands and new labels we’re developing, so there’s a lot of possibility out there and ex¬citement that’s happening in the market that’s really fun to see. Sometimes it’s not fun to see, as the classic brands like Wente Vineyards aren’t getting as much attention as I’d want as a family member who wants to put all of her life and family and en¬ergy into developing the core brand. It’s interesting that the traditional is not al¬ways the go-to, but there are such fun and exciting things that we do get to work on.

Q: What’s a brand you’re working on that’s taking Wente in a different direction?

Jordan: We just launched Ravel & Stitch, which is a Central Coast Cabernet selling solely at Safeway for the first year. It was just really cool going through the whole product-develop¬ment process with the marketing team and telling the story about the vineyards and the wine.

Q: What techniques and technologies are you using now in the vineyard that are future-oriented?

Niki: We do a lot, especially this time of year, to see what kind of quality we can expect from each vineyard. We partner with a company called Fruition Sciences who have a lot of new tech-nologies coming through on the grapegrowing side. This year we did Multiplex mapping. Basically, we go through the vineyard with what looks like a scanning gun, scanning clusters across the entire block, and they will get you a plot of where the highest anthocyanin complex is in your block. You’ll be able to look at a map of your vineyard and see where you’re going to get the highest color out of the vineyard. Then we can selec¬tively pick different parts of the block for our different programs. Maybe our Nth Degree (high-end) Cab is coming from that highest-color portion. We also use Enologix, which is a laboratory that will do similar things, but on more of a broad basis. Multiplex mapping is very specific. We are literally just scanning the fluorescence in the berry. We’ve done it in 15 or 20 blocks, and we’re just trying to get a lot of our Cabernet blocks on this program.

And then we use another Fruition Sciences tool called Dualex that reads the nitrogen in the leaves during the growing season so we can kind of monitor how our nutrient uptake is and to not overapply nitrogen because that’s a huge issue, especially in the Central Coast, around the Monterey County area, where they have nitrogen leaching into the water supply. It’s another one of our sustainability efforts.

Q: What about innovations in the winery?

Niki: In the winery they just changed over, and they’re no longer doing cold stabilization for tartrates. They got a new machine called a STARS (from Oenodia North America), and it eliminates the cold stabilization and also saves a lot of energy. So that’s really cool. We have a new method about 4 years old called WineXR¬ray that goes back to measuring the anthocy¬anin and tannin complex to help us see where we can stop our fermentations in order to get the highest bound anthocyanin and the best color. Those two innovations we use on every single wine that we make. Because we want to make sure that we’re getting that high quality on everything we make

Q: The same question about innovations in packaging.
Jordan: We’ve looked at a lot of forward-think¬ing packaging and label ideas. We’re currently doing a package refresh for the Wente Vine¬yards label, and we were able to use an ink instead of a foil (from G3) for the single-vine¬yard label that gives it the same feel as a foil, but it’s really ink. I don’t know if that’s super-crazy or innovative, but it’s kind of cool for us.

We continuously try to look at technology around TCA detection to be sure that the qual¬ity of our wine is as great as it can be. Several suppliers do the TCA testing. There isn’t one that’s 100% effective for natural cork, but we just continue to look at the technologies there, and look at screwcap. Now we’re looking at the dry soak method (by Cork Supply USA) for our Small Lot wines. It’s sensory tested.

Niki: And for the rest we switched to DIAM cork because it’s 99.9% right.

Q: What does sustainable mean in your vineyards?

Niki: All of our vineyards are Certified California Sustainable. We were one of the first, I believe, eight wineries, and we helped to write the rules on it because we’ve been living sustainably for a long time. It’s a family value of ours.
Because sustainability goes further than just taking care of the land. It’s taking care of your people. It’s taking care of your customers. It’s taking care of your neighbors. We are farming in communities. We have vineyards that are surrounded by houses, so you’ve got to be super-careful about what you’re putting out in the vineyard, and we want to be sure that kids and dogs and our workers and myself are safe, as well as our soils.

Q: Have you given up sulfur dust as a fungicide?

Niki: We use a couple of synthetic fungicides (Kaligreen by Otsuka Agritechnica and Vivando by BASF) in conjunction with (JMS) stylet oil, which is an organic product. It’s just a natural oil that can smother mildew, and the synthetic fungicides that we do use are all really, really soft chemicals. We don’t use anything with a higher than 12-hour re-entry level so that it’s safe for people to go in. On our reds, we use stylet oil more often than not, but Chardonnay is just a little more susceptible, so you have to put something else on there in conjunction with the stylet oil.

Q: How do you tell the trade and customers about your sustainability credentials?

Jordan: We are also a certified sustainable winery as well as vineyards, so we’re now able to use the certified sustainable wine and vine¬yard logo on our packaging. It’s a cool thing to be able to put it out there in a marketplace that has become more and more conscious of sustainability.

Q: You both are in the millennial generation. Do you see your cohort embracing wine in a way that could keep wine sales strong for another generation?

Jordan: My age of millennials? Absolutely. I’m in the older end of the millennial scale, and I think that it’s definitely wine purchasing to stay.

Niki: I’m probably a mid to young millennial. My friends all drink wine. A lot of my friends from this area drink wine about the price point of Wente Vineyards. Somewhere between $15 and $35 is their sweet spot. And then friends from San Francisco tend to be drinking cheaper wine, probably because rent is higher (laughs), but all of my friends do drink wine

Jordan: I think the adventure component and the experience really speak to the millennials as well. You can come out and see this beautiful property, experience these things, have a great wine-blending experience. It’s not just a drink that you pick up in the supermarket but a full vacation experience that the millennials tend to embrace.

Q: Do you see Livermore Valley moving toward specializing in grape varieties in the way that Napa has with Cabernet Sauvignon or Sonoma has with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay?

Niki: There are a lot of different varieties planted here. Just Wente Vineyards has 26 varieties planted across our own acreage here. But Cabernet, Chardonnay and Petite Sirah are for sure the top three planted in Livermore Valley. I do see a lot of people specializing in Cabernet Franc right now, which from Liver¬more Valley is delicious. But I mean every win¬ery you go to is going to have a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay

Jordan: I think for the winemakers it’s really about artistic expression. It’s not really about “we’re going to be known for Cab,” it’s really about creating their ex¬pression of who they are as a winemaker in the bottle, whatever variety that may be.

Niki: I think that our cli¬mate here in Livermore Valley really allows for it to be an elegant style of Cabernet across the board. It’s a little harder to get a super-overpowering fruit bomb here. We have this reputation for being very hot, but you talk to climatologists and Fruition Sciences, who measure across California and across the world, and we are seen as a cooler climate in their eyes. We have shorter days, our heat spikes are shorter generally than most other regions in California, so we have this weird rap of being really hot, but we’re reallynot that hot. I wish it was a little warmer this year, honestly, because then we would be done with harvest (laughs).

Jordan: It makes the wardrobe essentials in¬teresting when you’re dressing for all seasons in one day. It’s going to be 85 today, but at nighttime it’s going to be 50 and windy and cold. But I guess that’s what makes the wine really balanced

Q: Many family wineries turn over to an¬other company or another family after one or two generations. It’s happening all over California right now. How has your family been able to continue in the wine business so long?

Niki: I think it starts with a no-pressure atti¬tude from all our family. We were never ex¬pected to be here. Our parents gave us all the opportunity in the world to do whatever we want in college and supportive of letting us go to other places to work and learn and de¬velop ourselves. When we figured out what we loved and what we wanted to do, they were supportive of letting us come back to the company.

I think that it’s also been really helpful that we’ve all found a niche that is separate. I love grapegrowing and viticulture and being outdoors, and that was where I went. Jordan is in project management because she’s organized and driven, and she’s pushing us through and making sure we’re getting our work done.

Q: Some multigeneration wine families have split up over disagreements about running the business. What are Wente disputes about?

Niki: Our family’s biggest fights are always over our shared vacation home. It’s nothing to do with the business, it’s like who is going to get the vacation home on Christmas this year.

Q: I understand that the family has de¬fined Wente company values.

Niki: Our company values are respect, integrity, sustainability and excellence. It’s RISE, I know it in my head. We’ve really stayed true to our values over the years. You’ve got to trust that your family has your back and that we’ll always be there for one another and respecting each other’s decisions, and that really gets us through.

Jordan: We also did an exercise in coming up with our own values for the family, not just for the business, and it’s funny because we ended up in the same place. Those business values are the family values. Even though we spent this time doing the exercise, we just came full circle, which is a great place to be. And it’s not just our family. The company is our family, the employees we’ve had, some for over 40 years, have become even more a part of our family and our support and the reason we’ve been able to sustain ourselves.

 
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