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Walnut Creek Magazine

The Tastemakers

Dec 21, 2018 07:40AM ● By Fran Miller

BY FRAN MILLER

Meet three Northern California luminaries - Carolyn Wente, Tim Lochner, and Joel Peterson - whose passion for wine creates a common thread.

Carolyn Wente: Wente Vineyards

Few family businesses survive past a third generation. Wente Vineyards is run by members of its fourth and fifth generations. As CEO, Carolyn Wente follows in the footsteps of founder, C.H. Wente, her great grandfather, who planted roots in the Livermore Valley 135 years ago. Today thanks to her efforts, the Wente brand is associated with a whole lot more than just wine.

What changes in the Livermore wine industry have you witnessed over the years? I was born into the wine business in the 1950’s. My father and grandfather were champions of the California wine industry and encouraged others to plant vineyards and start wineries.  There were fewer than 100 wineries in California prior to the 1970’s when a fairly rapid expansion of the industry began. In the Livermore Valley, there were only a handful of wineries. The industry did not grow until the South Livermore Valley Plan passed in 1992—an initiative which protected the vineyards and the open space from encroachment by residential development. It was a renaissance for our region. We supported our new neighbors, excited to see Livermore wineries receiving accolades for vintages produced in this beautiful region.

You also oversee an award-winning restaurant, a summer concert series, and a championship golf course. What is the best way to experience Wente?  I am an active outdoors-type so I would suggest taking a vineyard tour or going on a hike with a viticulturist followed by a wine blending seminar where you can handcraft a bottle of wine. If the day is planned right, it ends with a meal at The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards followed by an outdoor concert. Of course a round of golf on our Greg Norman designed course with lunch and a wine pairing is a great alternative.

Many California wineries are being acquired by large corporations. How has Wente managed to remain family-owned? We are committed to being family-owned. We consider ourselves stewards of the business with an understanding that we want to be in the business, not that we must be in the business. Therefore, I think each generation has grown the business and left it to the next one to bring passion and energy, love, and success. Each generation has been a part of the journey.

Wente recently launched a “Make Time” campaign aimed at inspiring people to unplug. What led to this effort? Since day one, our winery has been about bringing people together. Whether that be through a shared bottle of wine at the dinner table, or a golf game, or a summer concert. These experiences help people to form meaningful connections, to avoid distractions like cell phones and instead make time for things that matter like real human connections.

Do you have a favorite wine? Of course, I love all of our wines.  And I love food, people, and entertaining. So every one of my favorite wines plays a role in the season, the cuisine, and the occasion. I think my favorite wine is the glass in my hand at the time I am enjoying it. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir are my go-to food wines with the greatest versatility for a wide range of flavors and food styles.

Tim Jochner: Shadowbrook Winery

Long before it was known for its walnut trees, Walnut Creek was known for its grapes. A preeminent growing region in the late 1800s, grapes were the single largest moneymaker for local farmers before Prohibition decimated the industry. The area's rich soil and temperate climate produced abundant crops. With the opening of their new 10,000-square-foot winery and tasting room in north Walnut Creek, Tim Jochner and his wife Courtney are turning back the clock at Shadowbrook.

You enjoyed a successful career in the financial services industry. Why start a winery? When we bought our house on Shadowbrook Court, Courtney suggested grape vines on the barren hillside, so we planted them, and a few years later harvested the grapes, and made a batch of wine. While the wine wasn’t great, picking grapes and making wine with friends was a wonderful community experience. We decided to learn how to produce wines that could someday rival Napa Valley vintages. It was 2005 when our deep dive into the agriculture business began complete with animal hazards, water, noise and pesticide restrictions, plus plenty of red tape. I have a newfound respect for farmers; farming is hard work.     

We equate winemaking with Napa, Sonoma, and Livermore. Walnut Creek? Not so much. What makes Contra Costa County a good region for growing grapes? I like to say we were Napa before Napa. The Walnut Festival started here in 1911 as the Grape Carnival to celebrate farmers’ most profitable agricultural crop—grapes. Walnut Creek’s Mediterranean climate is similar to the Rutherford region and best-suited for Bordeaux varietals. We produce very fruit-forward wines, with plenty of tannin and structure, but the varietal character of Walnut Creek’s fruit shines through without lingering soil and mineral aftertastes. Our vineyard’s proximity to Mt. Diablo, means not only unbelievable views, but it also plays a big role in cooling the grapes at night, something vines love so much.  

How many cases do you produce annually? Where can Walnut Creek Magazine readers find Shadowbrook wines? In 2005 we were licensed to produce 1,000 cases, however, at our new Northgate Road tasting room and winery, we can do 4,000 cases. We grow and produce Chardonnay, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Petite Verdot, Zinfandel and Viognier. We bottle Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and red blends. Most of our wines are sold directly to wine club members, but you can also find Shadowbrook on the list at Moresi’s Chophouse in Clayton and Postino’s in Lafayette. Rocco’s, Massimo’s, and Total Wine also carry limited varietals. 

Many of your wines are consistent award-winners. How does it feel to be ranked among the best in the business? Our goal from the beginning has been to make great wine from grapes grown in Walnut Creek that could stand up to the best in the Napa Valley. We continue to do that year after year. Napa quality wines or better are produced right here in Walnut Creek.    

Shadowbrook's new tasting room is the first to open in Walnut Creek since Prohibition. What can we expect? Our new tasting room is spectacular, rivaling some of the finest. We installed a processing system with state-of-the-art fermentation tanks that are the first of their kind in the United States. I’ve traveled all over the country, yet to find a more beautiful place than Walnut Creek. The climate, and big city amenities with small-town charm are really hard to beat. This winery project is meant to celebrate Walnut Creek by giving it another feather in its cap. 

Joel Peterson: Ravenswood Winery

Betting on the underdog Zinfandel grape, wine industry maverick Joel Peterson founded Ravenswood in 1976 and won big. Educated as a clinical laboratory scientist with a degree in microbiology, the Point Richmond, California native started making wine as a side-hustle while working full-time in cancer research at Sonoma Valley Hospital. Peterson didn’t retire until 1992 when his wine brand began to dominate the California Zinfandel market. And although he has since sold the label, Peterson continues to work in the wine industry as consultant to the 100+ NorCal growers who produce grapes for Ravenswood’s library of wines. 

How did your interest in wine originate? It started at a young age with my mother who enjoyed sipping and sharing French wines at dinner. My father took our family’s wine passion to the next level founding the San Francisco Wine Sampling Club where I began tasting wines alongside him. As a young adult, I pursued a career in science while using my knowledge of European wines, vineyards, and vintages to consult for the Bay Area’s wine community on the side. Eventually I apprenticed with Joseph Swan—one of California's premier craftsmen of fine Zinfandel and Pinot Noir—and learned the art of winemaking as practiced in Bordeaux and Burgundy. 

What drew you to Zinfandel? I came to see the older vines as the most European grapes in California; Zinfandel is a grape that shows the reflection of terroir the best.It was my hope to make wine similar to that made in Europe but with a Californian twist; small open-topped redwood fermenters, hand punchdowns, extended macerations, native yeast, gentle transfer, minimal processing, and small French oak aging—all done by hand.

The Ravenswood logo is one of the most recognizable in the wine world. How did it come about? On a fall day in 1976, as ravens taunted from tree branches above, I worked doggedly to bring in four tons of grapes before a looming thunderstorm hit. Remarkably, it was pouring all around me, but I never got wet. It was like the ravens protected me. The fruit crushed that night produced the first bottles of Zin to bear Ravenswood’s signature ring of ravens.I told the logo’s designer, David Lance Goines, the raven story and he created a logo with three intertwined ravens in a triskelion. It’s become one of the most tattooed images around. 

After a 2001 sale to wine and spirits juggernaut Constellation Brands, how have you maintained Ravenswood's “no wimpy wines” vision? As part of the deal, I stayed on as head winemaker, making wine decisions alongside the new owners. For the ensuing 15 years, I enjoyed a large amount of independence, as well as all the support a large organization affords. When it was time to retire, Gary Sitton, Ravenswood’s current Director of Winemaking, had the knowledge to uphold my standards for the brand. I still stop by to check on the grapes and taste the wines with Gary. 

You’ve had a storied career. What continues to motivate you? Wine has been my passion for as long as I can remember. When I decided to retire from Ravenswood, I knew I wasn’t done, so I started a smaller venture, Once and Future, which I make at Bedrock Wine Co. cellar, owned by my son, Morgan Twain-Peterson, MW.