Wente Vineyards Celebrates National Chardonnay Day

Panna Cotta with candied kumquats, raspberry purée and whimsical Saltine streusel
Panna Cotta with candied kumquats, raspberry purée and whimsical Saltine streusel

by Anneli Rufus

May 23 is National Chardonnay Day, which the folks at Livermore’s Wente Vineyards celebrated with a televised live toast and gala dinner whose four courses — created by executive chef of catering Jeff Farlow— were paired with four Wente Chardonnays. And where better to mark this occasion with what promises to become an annual affair than this panoramic property a stone’s throw from San Francisco which is credited with introducing Chardonnay to the USA?

“We’re really proud to have a heritage and a history with this wine,” said Philip Wente, who along with brother Eric and sister Carolyn represents Wente‘s fourth generation of winemakers. Upon graduating from then-fledgling agricultural school UC Davis in 1912, their ancestor Ernest Wente persuaded his father, the winery’s founder Carl Wente, to import cuttings from France which over the next few decades became an intrinsic part of the Wente Clone of Chardonnay. More than 75 percent of the Chardonnay now grown throughout California — and that’s a lot of Chardonnay, comprising some 100,000 acres’ worth — originated from this clone.

The meal began with smoky-tender pan-roasted Central Valley quail atop fresh English-pea risotto, paired with 2012 Eric’s Chardonnay — named for the Wente brother who jovially dubbed this dinner “Death by Chardonnay.”

Chef Farlow praised this wine for its “pure, fresh, crisp, acid body” and pear aromas which “represent the naked expression of what the elegance of the fruit can be.” Because the quail and risotto were smooth and mild, this particular Chardonnay “shot right through the middle of the dish like an arrow,” Farlow avowed.

Later courses included a Laura Chenel chevre turnover with pickled apple and spring greens (an expansive garden thrives on the Wente property, supplying the restaurant with produce all year), paired with a gentle 2011 Morning Fog Chardonnay; grilled Pacific sea bass with baby carrots, whipped Yukon Gold potatoes and spiced beurre blanc, paired with a citrusy 2011 The Nth Degree Chardonnay; and Meyer lemon panna cotta with candied kumquats, raspberry purée and whimsical Saltine streusel, paired with a buttery 2011 Riva Ranch Chardonnay, made from grapes grown at Wente’s vineyards in Arroyo Seco, near Monterey.

Served with grace in the winery’s quietly elegant Mission-style restaurant, this dinner marked not only National Chardonnay Day but also the 130th anniversary of this winery whose motto, Philip Wente told me, is “Family-owned, estate-grown and sustainable.” The Wente clan promotes conscientious land stewardship with its innovative Farming for the Future program, a system of practices incorporating water conservation, natural pest management, the conversion of kitchen waste to biodiesel fuel and the distribution of organic hydrolized fertilizer through a drip-irrigation system.

The restaurant will serve a special Chardonnay-themed menu through May 26, and the annual Concerts at Wente Vineyards — held outdoors, under the stars, with a deluxe wine-and-buffet-dinner option — are about to start their 27th season; the year’s first concert, on June 26, features Martina McBride. Performing later this summer are a panoply of favorites including Styx, Chicago, REO Speedwagon and Huey Lewis and the News.

How grateful should we be to Ernest Wente? Well — Chardonnay is the most popular wine varietal in America.

“Think of all the corks popping in this country,” Philip Wente said during the dinner. “One out of every five of those corks is coming off a bottle of Chardonnay.”

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