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Going clonal with Concannon and Wente in Livermore Valley

Exploring, sipping and cloning around in my neighborhood wine region of Livermore Valley proffered several of my most memorable wine moments of the year. I trooped after John Concannon into the “mother vine” vineyard where his great-grandfather planted vines in 1883 brought from Chateau Margaux and Chateau Latour for Concannon Vineyard. I also laughed at a winemaker dinner as brothers Phil and Eric Wente of Wente Family Estates, “California’s first family of Chardonnay,” bantered over the best style of Chardonnay.

Early members of the Wente and Concannon winemaking families nurtured clones for these varietals that permeate California vineyards.  Winning wines at the 1976 Paris Tasting from Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars contained much fruit from the Wente Chardonnay and Concannon Cabernet clones.

But what stands out for me is how the fourth and fifth generation vintners from Wente Vineyards and fourth generation vintner from Concannon Vineyard, the two “alpha dog” wineries of the 55 Livermore Valley producers, refuse to rest on their historic laurels. They continue to delve even deeper into their family’s winegrowing history while serving up notable food pairings at the winery.

I live in Pleasanton, next door to Livermore in the East Bay of San Francisco. Early on I wrote about the business acumen and cookbook authorship of fourth-generation winegrower Carolyn Wente, CEO of Wente Family Estates. As I traveled broadly to many wine regions, I continually heard about the Wente Chardonnay clone, the most widely planted in California, but referred to by the parent winery and not Chardonnay Clone 2A, its official UC Davis name.

From meeting third-generation winemaker Jim Concannon a decade ago, I knew that he was the first to put “Petite Sirah” on a Concannon label in 1964. Indeed I tasted and heard so much about Concannon Petite Sirah that the Concannon’s deep roots with Cabernet escaped me. Meanwhile if someone asked me which Cabernet clone is widely planted in Calif., I would say Clone 7.

But this summer John Concannon launched a mission to re-educate the wine world about the role his great-grandfather James played in bringing Cabernet budwood from Bordeaux to plant in his gravely soils. Fourth generation John Concannon represents the wine label; Concannon Vineyard is owned by behemoth The Wine Group, headquartered at the Livermore winery.

After 10 vintages of Concannon Cabernet, phylloxera hit Livermore and beyond. Founder James Concannon journeyed back to Bordeaux for more cuttings. As the first Irish winery in America, Concannon survived Prohibition by making sacramental wine for the San Francisco diocese. In the 1970s James’ grandson Jim took rootstock to UC Davis in the 1970s where it was heat treated and named Concannon Clones 7, 8 and 11.

Though the association with Wente and their Chardonnay clones is very tight, the Concannon connection to the Cabernet clones is less visible in the trade. Jim’s son John is traveling the country to share his family’s Cabernet heritage with stories and documents.

At a winery lunch in Livermore John reinforced the Concannon Cabernet connection with a robust entrée designed to stand up to the Bordeaux style Cabernets.  Both the 2010 Conservancy Cabernet Sauvignon and top end 2010 reserve “Mother Vine” Cabernet showed their Left Bank leanings with beef short ribs in a red wine-fennel sauce, with sweet basil oil-infused mashed potatoes, grilled squash and zucchini.  Both “Mother Vine” Cabernet and the Reserve “Captain Joe’s” Petite Sirah made the chocolate layer cake with white, milk and dark chocolate icing and caramel and hazelnut filling sign.

But other Livermore winery meals kept popping in my head.

The Wentes celebrate Chardonnay Day in May to honor second-generation Ernest Wente who brought Chardonnay cuttings from the famous nursery of the University of Montpellier in France to Livermore Valley in 1912; the family celebrated “A Century of Chardonnay” in 2012.

Wente Vineyards has profoundly influenced the U.S. wine industry in many ways. The winery simplified access to wine through nomenclature—no mean feat that we take for granted today. Wente was the first American winery to varietally label a wine (Sauvignon Blanc in 1933) and Chardonnay in 1936.The family widely propagated Chardonnay vines in Calif. and beyond. The old Wente budwood became known as Clone 2A and the heat treated version, Clone 4.

Unlike the Concannon Cabernet clones, the Wente name stuck to clone.  According to fifth generation wine grower Karl D. Wente, the vast majority of California Chardonnay is planted to Wente clones. 

At the Chardonnay dinner, it was blatantly obvious that the family does not have a consensus on how Chardonnay should taste. Middle sibling Phil Wente, the sustainability and viticulture expert, calls the Small Lot Eric’s Chardonnay very refreshing, but “like a big Pinot Grigio.” Oldest sibling and chairman of the company Eric says that Phil just has to have his ‘big malolactic” Chardonnay. Eric reminded the audience that Chardonnay remains the most popular purchase of wine drinkers, with nearly 1 in 5 choosing it.

Each Wente had an opportunity to enjoy their favorite Chardonnay at the table. The first course of pan roasted Central Valley quail with English pea risotto suited Eric’s taste for a drier, leaner Chardonnay, in fact, the one his son Karl made for him, the Small Lot Eric’s Chardonnay.

The salad course with spring greens, chèvre turnover, pickled apple and garden herbs vinaigrette matched well with the crisp and dry 2011 Morning Fog Chardonnay. The grilled Pacific sea bass with whipped potatoes, baby carrots and spiced beurre blanc met Karl’s love of top end Nth degree Chardonnay, with its complex aging in a combination of New and Old World barrels. The rich dessert of Meyer lemon panna cotta with candied kumquats, raspberry purée and saltine streusel stood up to the 2011 Riva Ranch Chardonnay, the Wente’s biggest seller and most buttery expression of the varietal which suited Phil the best.

All, in all, a mix of Chardonnay clones, terroir, winemaking in the cellar and catering to the family’s taste—let alone the world’s thirst for Chardonnay sums up the huge variations in this winemaker’s playground.

From Cabernet clones to those of Chardonnay, Livermore Valley started much of the buzz on getting the best vines in the right places to produce the most intriguing wines. And there is still another 130 years of knowledge to gain in my own backyard.


John Concannon in the original vineyard of Concannon Cabernet Sauvignon plantings

Phil Wente Heidi Barrett Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena Karl Wente at Century of Chardonnay celebration

Photo Credit: Deborah Grossman

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