OK, I admit it – I’m a Wine Country snob. But it’s not like I’ll only head for Napa. In fact, quite the opposite. I like more laid-back Dry Creek and western Sonoma. At least I did before movie directors started opening uber-trendy swimming pools.
Yes, I knew there were grapes east of San Francisco in the Livermore Valley – somewhere over the hill from those overgrown Tinker-toy windmills that decorate Highway 680. (Could I have been subconsciously avoiding the whole area because the words “liver” and “more” do not exactly send me into raptures?) At any rate, I wasn’t aware of the history – or of just how many vineyards had sprung up there – until I was lured onto a freeway exit by the Wentes.
The Wentes are a wine dynasty without the drama, totally lacking in Mondavi-quality dish, who have been in this valley for five generations. They farm 2,000 acres of grapes in Livermore, with 32 different cultivars – including some funky varieties I’d never even heard of. Why grow 32 cultivars? Best I can figure, because they can.
The arrow on my snob meter would normally point toward “grocery store wine” when you mention Wente, but I discovered that fifth-gen winemaker Karl Wente (who is about eight feet tall and prone to busting out impressive yoga poses at the least provocation), is also making some very good, rather pricy, small-lot wines.
If you head out to Wente, you can play golf on the Wente golf course, take in a big-name act at the at the Wente summer concert series or eat in the Restaurant at Wente. Why do they have all this stuff? Best I can figure, because they can.
But this column is about restaurants, so let’s stick to food, which is a nice thing to have when you’re wine-tasting. I’m impressed with any restaurant that grows its own produce, and Wente has a vast kitchen garden where master gardener Diane Dovoluk reigns supreme.
“We expanded the garden a year ago,” Diane told me in her thick, New Hampshire accent. “I saw some guy with a backhoe down the road and told him I’d give him a case and a half of beer to dig up the new ground for me!” He (like most everyone, I’d suspect) couldn’t resist Diane.
She took me on a tour of the acre plot, plucking bits of foliage and yanking things out of the ground to show me along the way.
“This is a mangle!” Diane announced, holding up something that looked like a yellow, bullet-shaped beet. “They’re actually a forage crop, but they have a really sweet taste when you roast ‘em.”
“Here – onion flowers,” she explained, scattering tiny, purple petals into my hand. “The chefs love these!” Their taste started out mild, with a gentle hint of onion, and grew to a wallop.
Veggie flowers are one of the best luxuries that lucky chefs with a garden out back can get their hands on (Christopher Kostow at Meadowood swears by his carrot flowers). Later in my visit, I was able to sample squash blossoms, fresh from the furrow, stuffed with lemon-spiked, house-made ricotta. But they weren’t fried, like you’d typically expect – they were simply set on a swath of spicy romesco sauce. (Check out the slide show; they tasted as good as they look.)
The Restaurant at Wente is a fine-dining environment, but the food isn’t fussy – it’s ingredient-driven, in a good way. Exec Chef Eric Berg isn’t opposed to playing with Moroccan spices, but generally, he relies on showcasing garden bounty or local produce.
Highlights were a lightly smoked round of lamb with favas and toasted cumin and wild King salmon with a crackling-crisp skin. Salmon also made an appearance in a house-smoked salmon hors d’oeuvre that was so fresh and moist, I’m still dreaming about it.
I wasn’t crazy about the buckwheat dessert crepes with almond butter – a bit too heavy for the end of a meal – but pastry chef Leena Hung’s deep dish blueberry pie was spectacular, from its latticed top crust to its bursting-with-berries filling.
It’s clear that the food is meant to be wine-friendly, and it cozies up nicely to the Wente-centric wine list which, the night I was there, also offered 20 choices by the glass. To taste the top-of-the-line wines Karl Wente has brought to the party, go for the Nth Degree label.
The way Karl tells it, he and his uncle were trying to come up with a name for the small-lot wines Karl was making with extreme care, with the goal of expressing the distinctive vineyard and varietal characteristics of each wine. “You’re doing everything to the nth degree!” the uncle exclaimed, and a name was born. The wines under this label are truly nuanced and luxurious – and unavailable except at the tasting room and a few restaurants.
On my second night in the Livermore Valley, I had a chance to sample one of the Concerts at Wente events. This comes with the option of an al fresco buffet dinner which, considering they were serving a big crowd, was surprisingly fresh and flavorful – from the glazed nuts with maple, cayenne and garden herbs (could NOT stop eating them!) to the heirloom tomatoes with mozzarella to the wicked chocolate cake topped with a quenelle of rich chocolate mousse.
Two superb, contemporary jazz groups (Soul of Summer and Jazz Attack) provided the entertainment – a break from the marquee names (Diana Ross, Beach Boys, Kenny Loggins) that are featured most of the season. I got a taste of the brisk evening wind that whips in to cool down the vineyards – Livermore Valley runs east-west, so the ocean breezes have easy access – but luckily the jazz was hot. And, of course, there was always wine to warm the blood. Yep, I’ll have another Nth Degree Chardonnay. Why? Because I can!
The Livermore Valley is about an hour from San Francisco, and is home to about 4,800 acres of vines and 48 vineyards (up from a low of 12 after Prohibition, but not quite back to the 50 there were pre-Prohibition).