Patio Dining with a Splash of California Wine History at Wente Vineyards

Labor Day might have just passed us by, but if you live in the Bay Area you know we still have another couple of months of sunny weather ahead of us. (If you live in SF, your summer only just started.) What better way is there to spend a beautiful day than to leisurely dine on a patio with good food and wine? 

Frankly, I’m often a little surprised that we don’t have more restaurants and bars around here with outside seating to take advantage of weather which is so ideal nearly year round. Living in an apartment, we don’t have our patio or deck, so we must borrow one when we can, but there just aren't all that many. Greg and I recently had the chance to do just that for a wonderful afternoon of patio dining in an area you may not have considered for a day trip. . .  Livermore. 

With Napa and Sonoma looming large to the north, it’s sometimes easy to forget all of the other wonderful wine regions and incredible winemaking history we have in California. I recently started working in a PR capacity with Wente Vineyards (full disclosure), and it has been a great chance to delve into some of that history. Founded in 1883, Wente is the country's longest, continuously operated family-owned winery, and are now in their 5th generation. They have a gorgeous property in Livermore that includes tasting rooms, a golf course, and dining options.

They recently did a major revamp of one their restaurant spaces that has now reopened as the Vineyard Table & Tasting Lounge. We were invited to check out a preview of the new space at the end of June. 

(Please note that while I am doing some work with the company, I attended with my blogger hat on. The meal was comped as a member of the media, but no other compensation has been received for this post.)

Before we get to the dining experience though, let’s geek out a little bit and delve deeper into some of that wine history I mentioned. Nowadays it’s hard to believe that there was a time when Chardonnay wasn’t everywhere in California. That time was actually not all that long ago since Chardonnay really didn’t become “a thing” here until the 1970’s and 80’s. What’s even more interesting is that the majority of Chardonnay in the state can trace its origins to one place. That place isn’t Napa or Sonoma; it’s actually the Wente Vineyard in Livermore Valley. 

A Brief History of Wente Chardonnay

In 1882, a vintner named Charles Wetmore founded Cresta Blanca Winery in the Livermore Valley. Charles had also recently become the first President and Chief Viticultural Officer of California’s State Viticultural Commission, which he’d been instrumental in creating. California really wanted to up the quality of its wine game, so in his newly minted capacity, Charles headed off to Europe to acquire and bring back cuttings for California’s fledgling wine industry. Amongst the cuttings he brought back was some Chardonnay sourced from excellent vineyards in France. Upon his return, he made the selection available to other vintners in Northern California.

A Cresta Blanca Barrel, now on the Wente Property.

C. H. Wente started his vineyard in Livermore Valley in 1883, not long after Charls Whetmore started his winery and brought back his cuttings. Of course, some Chardonnay made its way to this new vineyard down the road. His sons Herman and Ernest came on board to work in the family business as well. 

Ernest was the farmer in the duo and he really saw the potential for Chardonnay in California. He decided to plant more and brought in new cuttings from a vineyard not far away in Pleasanton, as well as additional cuttings from France in 1912. Prohibition put a wrench in things for a while, but nonetheless, the two brothers were ready to go when it was repealed in 1933. They released the first varietally labeled Chardonnay in the U.S. three years later.

Ernest kept selecting the plant material with the most attractive aromatics and flavors over generations of vines. Eventually, the Wentes developed a reputation for their amazing Chardonnay, which by now could be classified as its own clone. Winegrowers around the state started coming to them for cuttings. (To oversimplify a bit, there have been a few waves of this, so there are really a few Wente clones, rather than one.) On top of this, new vintners also got cuttings from the wineries that originally took cuttings from the Wente Vineyard, essentially starting new branches of the Wente clone family. All in all, nowadays, somewhere between 70-80% of California Chardonnay can now trace its ancestry back to Wente Vineyards.

Vineyard Table & Tasting Lounge

When you visit the winery and its tasting areas, this history is all around you. The Wente family actually bought the Cresta Blanca Vineyards property in 1981, so the origins of California Chardonnay are literally all right there. 

This tree marks the location of the Cresta Blanca winery.

That said, the new concept for the restaurant really aims to modernize the tasting experience by creating a relaxed, comfortable, yet upscale vibe. The space is divided into different areas so that you can kind of choose your own adventure depending on what you’re in the mood for – full meal or smaller bites and sips. 

If you'd rather have small bites while you have your sips of wine, head to the Tasting Lounge.

We sat outside in the beautiful patio area so that we could enjoy the sunny day. It was hot out, but even so, we were all good under the shade of the umbrellas. (Greg is pretty fussy about the heat, so it’s saying a lot that he was comfortable.) 

A lot of the menu is intended for sharing. It's also seasonal, and it is still evolving, so some of the dishes here may not be available. However, everything we had was flavorful and well executed. Since it was hot out, we tended towards seafood and veggies. . . plus, some fries.
Shrimp a la Plancha with green goddess, chili sauce, and cherry tomatoes. All the flavors came together really well in the dish. A Sauvignon Blanc (see descriptions below) added citrus notes, while Eric's Chardonnay played up the minerality of the seafood.
Roasted Cauliflower with chimichurri, sauce Basques, and lemon Aioli. This dish had strong, fun flavors. The cauliflower was nicely charred which added pleasant smoky notes. We particularly liked the Sauvignon Blanc with this dish.
It's hard to resist getting French fries in the mix.
Roasted Steelhead Trout with corn succotach, elote, grano padano, and basil Aioli. Perhaps they were a little heavy-handed with the sauce, however, the fish was cooked perfectly. The skin was really crispy on the outside, while the inside was absolutely spot on with a nice ribbon of rare pink at the center. All three wines below worked with this dish.

Taking recommendations from our server, we chose crisp wines to fit the hot the day and the style of the food. Here’s what we had:

2018 Winemaker’s Selection 4+5 Sauvignon Blanc (a wine club exclusive). It was clean and fresh, with green apple notes light herbs and hints of stone. 

2018 Eric’s Unoaked Chardonnay. Given the context, we had to have at least one Chardonnay, and our server recommended this one out of the line-up Chards as his favorite. (It actually seemed to be a staff favorite, since we heard a couple of other waiters say the same.) He also thought that it would be particularly food friendly and versatile thanks to the wine’s lack of oak. (Heavy oak can sometimes make wines harder to pair.) I completely agreed, and our tastes run in a similar direction as well. The wine had a mix of green and gold apples, pears, white flowers, and plenty of minerality on the finish. 

2018 Niki’s Pinot Noir Rosé. (Had to have it – it has my name on it. 😉) The wine had a bouquet of floral notes, tart cherries, slightly green strawberries, and light herbs on the finish.

To close the meal we had a peach ice pop which came in a glass with the Wente Brut Sparkling wine. Essentially, it was a fun twist on a Bellini and absolutely the perfect way to end a meal on a hot day while chilling on the patio.

Altogether, this felt a world away from Oakland, even if it was just a short drive away. It was an ideal afternoon getaway.



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