Wente Vineyards CEO Carolyn Wente wins wine industry leadership award

Carolyn Wente

Chief Executive Officer, Fourth Generation Winegrower

Wente Family Estates

5565 Tesla Road, Livermore 94550


Labor and environmental sustainability are challenges for the wine industry, says Wente Vineyards' Carolyn Wente, winner of the winery CEO category of North Bay Business Journal's Wine, Beer + Spirits Industry Awards for 2019.

The Business Journal asked her and the Wente team about how the Livermore Valley appellation producer came to its position as a pace-setter.

What is her background and that of the winery?

Carolyn Wente was behind the expansion and growth of Wente Family Estates portfolio of wines. She was also instrumental in the development of the Wente family's lifestyle business, which has brought Wente Vineyards worldwide renown and attracted visitors from all over the globe. Today, Carolyn works with fourth and fifth generation family members and company executives to continue the growth of Wente Family Estates and their portfolio of wines.

When Carolyn joined the business in the early 1980s, the family made wine, grew grapes and raised cattle. Carolyn and her brothers envisioned a place where visitors could learn about wine; enjoy the pleasures of the table, and retreat to the scenic surroundings of the vineyard.

There are very few family businesses that survive past the third generation. I am proud to be a member of the fourth generation in a successful and growing family business in a very competitive global environment, Through my nearly 30 years in the business, I have built relationships with employees, customers and consumers. We are still a relationship-based business, so having visible family leaders who are in it for the long run is extremely important. Carolyn Wente

The opening of the Wente Vineyards Restaurant and Visitors Center in 1986 was the first step in the realization of their dream. Under Carolyn's direction, The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards has become a culinary destination continuously rated among the top ten restaurants in the East Bay by a number of leading publications including the popular Zagat restaurant survey.

Today she and her team have overseen the evolution of the restaurant to the Vineyard Table and Tasting Lounge, keeping pace with evolving consumer preferences for experiences in dining.

In the summer of 1986, The Concerts at the Vineyard entertainment series followed, featuring world-renowned artists such as James Taylor, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow and Diana Krall, Now each summer, over 300,000 of San Francisco Bay Area concertgoers come to Wente Vineyards in the Livermore Valley to enjoy spectacular evenings of wine, food and world-class entertainment.

On July 15, 1998, Carolyn hit the ceremonial first golf ball at the opening of The Course at Wente Vineyards, an 18-hole championship golf course designed by Australian golfing great, Greg Norman.

The Wente family created a course which is beautifully located in the midst of the vineyards and offers exciting challenges for golfers and a unique reason to enjoy and visit wine country. For the past three years The Course at Wente Vineyards has hosted the Wine Country Championship, the 5th stop on the PGA's Nationwide Tour. It has also won the prestigious Certified Audobon Cooperative Sanctuary award several times.

As a family, we are always pushing the quality envelope for our wines. With our lifestyle businesses, the same holds true - providing a quality experience that exceeds our guests' expectations. Carolyn Wente

In 1999, Carolyn co-authored “Sharing the Vineyard Table: A Celebration of Wine and Food from the Wente Vineyards Restaurant” with Kimball Jones. Through her direction of The Restaurant and this book, Carolyn expresses her wide-ranging culinary knowledge. A second book, “The Casual Vineyard Table,” a less formal take on meal preparation and wine and food pairing, was published in May 2003.

As CEO, Carolyn is now heading the effort to meet the family's goals for Wente Family Estates: growing the business, strengthening the company's brand promise, and developing an enabled, high performing organization.

An important part of this effort is to secure an efficient transition, where the fifth and future generations take over a healthy and profitable business with seasoned, trained and passionate leaders - both family and non-family members.

Carolyn was born and raised in the Livermore Valley, California. She earned a degree in history at Stanford University. She also studied in Europe and was a student intern on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. To broaden her experience in the business world, Carolyn spent three years working for Crocker Bank as a financial analyst before returning to the family winery. Carolyn makes her home in the scenic Livermore Valley with her husband, Buck Layton. Her son, Buck IV, is active in the wine industry working at Southern Glazer's Wines and Spirits and lives in Dallas, TX.

Carolyn Wente

Chief Executive Officer, Fourth Generation Winegrower

Wente Family Estates

5565 Tesla Road, Livermore 94550


Describe the impact your company or you have had on the industry in the last five years:

Wente Family Estates has been a model for many wineries trying to connect with their consumer through wine experiences.

Since the 1960's when Carolyn's parents opened one of the first tasting rooms to the public, to today where Wente Family Estates offers multiple opportunities for guests to engage with wine on property with experiences; such as the Winemaker Studio, Wente Vineyards and Murrieta's Well Tasting Rooms, the Vineyard Table and Tasting Lounge, The Course at Wente Vineyards, The Organic Garden, The Concerts at Wente Vineyards – there really are no other California wineries that offer as many holistic educational and enjoyable connections to make time with wine and friends.

In viticulture the family continues to partner with emerging technologies to test advancements in grape growing that address the challenges the industry is facing in labor, water resource, soil management and sustainability.

We have worked with Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers to develop and support sustainable winegrowing over the past decade and to be among the first to gain certification for both vineyards and winery.

Less than 4% of all California wineries hold both certifications, which should be a major goal for all producers to set California wines apart on the world wine stage. We pushed for a logo to represent sustainability certification on packaging to help educate the consumer who cares about where and how the grapes are grown and the wine is made.

Lastly in this ever-consolidating industry, our five generation, family owned winery remains open and supportive to other family owned business that are seeking to continue from one generation to the next.

Carolyn's father, Karl helped the fledgling California wine industry in the 1960's and 70's by consulting on planting vineyards and counseled on winemaking. Her brothers, Eric and Phil, carried that legacy forward in the 1980's as wineries continued to emerge and look for guidance.

Additionally, the fourth generation was instrumental in developing the South Livermore Valley plan that has become a model for balanced growth and preservation of agricultural land around the nation. The fifth generation is equally determined to be a support and influence through pushing science and technology, along with keeping their generation connected to the roots and unique place wine holds in our culture and lifestyle.

As a family, we continue to give back to our community through the Wente Family Foundation to support Arts Education with children in the Bay Area.

We actively support and work the California wine industry and our local community where we work every day, which is an inspiration to many and influences their own participation to improve our lives and business environment.

Connection with consumer who wants experiences, always evolving these to meet consumers' curiosity and desire for new.

Over the past year we refreshed our former fine dining restaurant to become the Vineyard Table and Tasting lounge, to better meet the needs and expectations of today's consumers. The new model places a much larger emphasis on a wine and food tasting experience lending to a much more social and approachable environment. We hope the modern interior design, shareable plates and casual environment will attract a younger demographic and larger number of people.

We also recently launched an initiative called MakeTime, which we are hoping allows us to create meaningful, emotional connections with our customers and staff. Whether it's over a glass of wine, a meal, enjoying a concert or taking a group hike together, something we know is that people are happiest when they make meaningful connections.

In this day in age, where anxiety and depression are at an all-time high, we fully believe the MakeTime movement can help our customers and employees find ways to MakeTime for what matters most in their personal lives. MakeTime will continue to be the means by which we interact and create a dialogue with current and new consumers. We are excited to watch MakeTime evolve and hopefully give back to the personal lives of our customers and employees.

What changes have you noticed in your industry in the last five years and how have you and/or your company moved to capitalize on those changes?

The biggest shift in the industry is the changing consumer landscape. Consumers' shopping and purchasing behaviors are changing, varietal preferences continue to evolve, premiumization-- consumers are trading up for higher priced wines, expectations and desire for experiences are growing, and brands are looking for ways to create an emotional connection with consumers to help them stand out against the competition.

The digital e-commerce and direct to consumer worlds have become an ever-growing priority, now that more consumers are shopping online. We have grown our internal team to better capture the expanding opportunity. We have also begun to innovate through new varietals, packaging and price points based on trends we are seeing the market. Customers are looking for a unique experience, in all forms of interaction with the brand: on property and digitally.

We recently updated our fine-dining restaurant and refreshed it to focus on a wine and food experience with a modern aesthetic. The new concept is much more casual, approachable and social, which we hope will resonate with today's consumer. We are also speaking to our customers differently, in the digital and traditional advertising realm, through our MakeTime initiative. We are talking about the consumer to the consumer, focusing on ways we can help give back to their overall happiness beyond our product.

Quality counts: estate grown, family owned, authenticity. Quality and sustainability have always been interchangeable to us. My grandfather and great-grandfather before him raised each generation to be stewards of the land, first and foremost. Take care of the land and it will take care of you. We are proud to be a Certified Sustainable Winery and Vineyard through California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. We are also proud that our Wente Vineyards and Murrieta's Well wines are 100% estate grown. We have a commitment to sustainability and continue to educate ourselves so we can create a cycle of continuous improvement.

How are you combating labor issues?

In a strong economy and job market such as this, the labor shortage presents real challenges. We combat these challenges with the following strategies which align to our Values of Respect, Integrity, Sustainability, Excellence: providing competitive wages above average hourly rates, establishing a strong presence and reputation within our community, building strong, long-standing relationships with talent providers, creating an inclusive, fun and friendly culture, providing meaningful work that connects our people to the purpose and mission of our company, and investing in personal development for all employees.

How are you managing water issues?

For the last 10 years, we have utilized Sap-Flow sensors provided by Fruition Sciences, which monitor the water use of the vines in real time. In addition, we utilize weekly aerial images to visually monitor vine water status and vineyard block uniformity. We recognize water is a precious resource…and while grapevines overall are not big users of water, these new technologies and tools have allowed us to reduce water use throughout all of our

What about industry consolidation at the distributor and retail levels?

While the industry has continued to consolidate, we are focused on our relationships with distributor partners and accounts alike, to maintain relevance in their shifting priorities. Having multi-generational relationships between our family and distributor ownership is definitely a plus and gives us a legacy that counts.

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