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In late October, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., commemorated the 80th anniversary of Prohibition's repeal by inviting the proprietors and representatives of several historic wineries to town. Among them was Christine Wente, a board member of Wente Family Estates in California's Livermore Valley. During an interview with the Beverage Journal, Wente remarked, "Prohibition is significant for us because we were one of the few wineries that continued to operate during that era. In addition to branching out into cattle ranching and olive farming, we sold sacramental wines to the Catholic Church through a contract with Beaulieu Vineyard. The Church would hold two or three masses a day back then, so they needed a lot of wine. As a result, we were able to come out of Prohibition strong and able to make some great advances in the 1930s, including being the first winery in California to varietally label Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc."
She continued, "It was an amazing time. Wineries were allowed to ship crates of grapes to home winemakers. But they would have to put notes on the top of crates that said: 'Caution! Don't add yeast or grapes will ferment into wine!'"
During her presentation, Wente shared with the Smithsonian the three main factors that have contributed to the success of the business. Number one has been the family's continual search for consistency and quality "and never believing you have achieved it." Second, she spoke of the passion that has grown up through the generations of her family.
"Finally," she remarked, "it's about understanding what will allow you to continue for generations to come -- that long-term version. Trying to follow the latest trend of today isn't the DNA of this company. We recognize there are interesting trends and taste profiles going on.
But it's about the steadfast dedication and passion to understanding our land and the type of grape it can grow best and making that execution of the best wines in every vintage with that long-term vision. It's never been about morphing our brand to fit a market or a time, but allowing each generation of the family to make a mark on the industry as things move forward for the next generation ahead."
As September stretched into October, though, the turmoil on Capitol Hill between the Republicans and Democrats threatened to scuttle the Smithsonian's Prohibition retrospective at the National Museum of American History. Wente concedes that it was a bit "touch and go" there for a while, especially when the federal government was shut down for 16 days so close to her travel dates. "They were always going to go through with their special dinner," she noted, "but we weren't sure about the location. That was the one thing that was up in the air."
The occasion was something of a double celebration for Wente. The 37-year-old graduate of Princeton and Stanford Business School noted, "This year, we're also celebrating our 130th anniversary as a family-owned winery. In fact, we are the oldest continuously family-owned and operated winery in America."
Indeed, her great-great grandfather founded the Wente business in 1883. Over the decades, numerous Wentes have overseen the family legacy. Stories have been passed down, business strategies have evolved, but the dedication to the product has remained steadfast.
"I think my favorite era is the last 20 years," Wente stated. "That's because we have continued to evolve and innovate and really invest in the winery. We have evolved with each next generation being involved in management. Over the last 20 years, I've personally observed our collection of oak barrels explode. My brother, Karl, is now our winemaker. He joined in 2002 and has become a great spokesman and representative for the winery. He's 36, and he has really infused some great energy into the wines and how they are presented."
The new generation has also embraced the push for "green" in both the wine business and the larger corporate world. "We are very big on sustainability," Wente stated. "We have been certified 'Sustainable' for several years now by the Wine Institute, and we were one of the first wineries that are certified as 'Sustainable' from the vineyards all the way through our operations. Even our golf course, which was opened in 1998 on the property, is a National Audubon Society cooperative sanctuary. We do things to preserve and enhance the habitat."
Amy Hoopes, Executive Vice President, Chief Marketing Officer at Wente Family Estates added, "While sustainability has become quite a focus and a buzzword, it's really been part of the fabric of what the Wente family has been doing since 1883. At the core of it all, they are farmers. After the Wentes purchased the land and planted the first vineyards back 130 years ago, they understood that if they wanted that land to continually grow quality grapes for generations to come, they had no choice but to be sustainable."
The two women had praise for both the Maryland and D.C. markets in terms of wine consumption and sales. The company is represented by Southern Wines & Spirits in both markets. "We have a great relationship with them here as well as in a couple of other key markets around the country," Hoopes said. "Our business is quite healthy locally. In D.C., we've been seeing double-digit growth both on- and off-premise. In Maryland, we're continuing to engage and present our wines at really key restaurant accounts as we move the business forward."
Also present at the Smithsonia event were Gina Gallo from E&J Gallo Winery and Christine Wente's aunt, Carolyn Wente. There was a dinner arranged around a Prohibition theme. Money raised from the $500-a-head meal went to support the American Food and Wine History Project, whose curators have been soliciting archival documents and artifacts from winemakers such as Gallo, Wente, and Gundlach Bundschu.