Imagine visiting a really special, beautiful and challenging award-winning golf course and then sipping fine wines and enjoying gourmet cuisine under the live oak canopies of the oldest continuously family-owned winery in California. In an easy hour’s drive east of San Francisco you can combine those three rare treats for a wonderful day at on outstanding venue. The place is The Course at Wente Vineyards.
One of the special secrets of the Greater San Francisco area is the Livermore Valley wine region tucked over the hills in the so-called East Bay. Actually the area is the oldest wine region in California and in terms of friendly folks, great wines, and value is what Napa and Sonoma were twenty-five years ago. Here you will often meet the owner or vintner while you sample the area’s 43 wineries with the assurance that some libations that will become lifelong “friends.” Couple that with more interesting topography than the Napa Valley and you will actually encounter more unique golf courses – the best of which may be The Course at Wente Vineyards Course.
As you leave the chill of the San Francisco or Oakland area and head over the hills on Interstate 580 East, you encounter the attractive Livermore Valley that also includes the charming town of Pleasanton (my home). About ten minutes east and then ten minutes south as you head out of Livermore into the hills, you leave suburbia and gaze upon the vines and yes, the golf. There is no place quite like it in California.
Today the Wente wine brand continues to be owned and lovingly managed by the fourth and fifth-generation of Wentes with the name being synonymous with leadership in the State’s wine industry. The property at Wente’s that includes the golf course would be special if it only included their winery, or their fine restaurant, or just a golf course. Here within steps of each other, you can experience the best of all three experiences.
Who would have thought that the Wente Family would also have such a wonderful influence on Northern California golf? Above the old oak to the right in the midst of the fairway must be negotiated if you expect to hit the green.
From a historical backdrop, a first-generation immigrant from Germany, C. H. Wente learned the art of wine-making from Charles Krug. Moving to California, Wente discovered that the warm days and cool nights together with the gravelly soils of the Livermore Valley were prime for growing grapes. He bought 48 acres and founded his winery in 1883. Today, Karl Wente is the fifth-generation winemaker and the family has significant land holdings in California that also include 2,000 acres of vineyards in the Livermore Valley and 800 more in Arroyo Seco near Monterey.
Above is the wine tasting room and event center.
As you approach the property that is tucked away in a pristine valley setting surrounded by steep hillsides on three sides, you are probably thinking to yourself what a great place to build a golf course. Then all of a sudden to the left on the flat valley floor you actually encounter four long holes that accompany you the last mile into the winery. Your heart rate quickens. The splashes of brilliant white sand, ribbons of green, golden hillsides, and aged oaks have all the earmarks of something special. As you encounter the understated old Spanish style wine tasting and separate restaurant area, you feel the glow of having made the short trek off of the beaten path for here the threesome of wine, food, and exemplary golf only need you and your friends to make it a “perfect foursome.”
The Wente’s commissioned Greg Norman to design an 18-hole golf course on the property, which was opened in 1998. The result remains one of Norman’s finest efforts anywhere. The layout is a combination of grassy meadows, flat valley floors, and some woodland areas interspersed with vineyards and hillside golf. The topography is at times rugged and carts are essential. That said, the thrills and views are easily worth the ride. The course is visually separated into sections with the first six holes completely invisible from the building facilities. Climbing to the first tee and playing in that pristine bowl all by itself is like really stepping out into a quiet nature preserve. With the elevated tee shot on the par-three 7th hole the course again shifts as much of the remainder lies out before you, but there are yet more thrills to be discovered.
I am always hesitant to describe individual holes, but The Course at Wente Vineyards has so many that I can’t
resist. I have previously called the first hole “the best opening bunkerless hole in America.” From an elevated tee with vineyards to the left and trees and water to the right and magnificent hills as a backdrop, it is not only breathtaking, but it is a beastly challenge from the tips at 474 yards. The second hole is contrast is only 307 yards and is drivable for some. Tucked into a pocket of mature woodlands, it is one of the best short par-fours you will ever encounter. My recommendation is to layup and find the fairway, and then apply a full spinning approach into the well-bunkered green if you hope to make a birdie. The course continues with any hole eligible to be your favorite, but the climb ala twisting Lombard Street in San Francisco from the 9th green to the 10th tee is amazing and surpassed only by the view at the summit.
Holes ten through fourteen, though not particularly long, are a treacherous stretch that plays in its own little envelope above the valley with the finish composed of a long, relatively flat stretch directly back to the clubhouse. And the 472-yard 18th is a dream-spoiler. With a creek splitting the fairway and a pond fronting the right side of the green, it has ruined many a good score.
Overall, the layout stretches to 7,181 yards and because of the abundant bunkering, elevation changes, and challenging putting surfaces can really play tough. If the wind is blowing multiply the “tough factor” by two. And how tough you ask? Well, the course hosted the Nationwide Tour for the three years and it set the record as being the toughest one on their schedule. If you play a more forward tee, the test is really quite versatile and very entertaining.
And what about the Wente Course is so captivating? Several things come to mind. First, Norman put considerable focus into the green sites. Typically they are punctuated with bright white sand faces and spill off into collection areas. From my perspective, they rate among the best greensites Norman has fashioned, comparable to the best anywhere. As referenced the putting surfaces are a distinct challenge to putt with slopes that are deceptively subtle, firm and usually very quick. Even the pros leave shots out there on these greens.
The conditioning is excellent so you can expect tight uniform fairway lies and speedy true, but firm rolling greens. Then there is the gorgeous scenery that ranges from the many vineyards and surrounding peaks and hillsides to the trees and valleys. Thankfully, there are no housing developments to distract from the magnificent vistas.
Golf is only the beginning of the golf/food/wine trifecta that makes Wente’s so uniquely special. Beyond that fact that all are beautifully situated, there is a small comfortable golf clubhouse with a patio area overlooking the 18th green from which to enjoy a cool beverage or a tasty sandwich as you replay your round.
The patio area overlooks the very difficult finishing hole.
For a gourmet meal, you will certainly enjoy a host of treats at the restaurant situated at the entrance to the property. Imagine yourself in a quiet, romantic countryside setting savoring simple food with complex flavors. The Wente Family realizes that fine wines only truly shine when they can accompany equally tasty food so you can be assured that the American dishes influenced by Italian, French, and California cuisines are fresh and designed to complement their wine presentation.
Adjacent to the restaurant across the lawn is the wine-tasting building where in addition to the restaurant you can sample the many varieties for which the Wente name is famous. In a portion of the property that hosts both numerous weddings and concerts by famous musicians and comedians, you can further relax during your visit.
Speaking of famous names, Annika Sorenstam is a wine connoisseur and has partnered with the Wente’s to produce her line of wines. No less that the PGA TOUR’s resident wine expert, Duffy Waldorf, awarded her his highest five-star rating, “Annika Sorenstam has teamed up with Wente Vineyards to do what she usually does, become a winner. Her 2006 Annika Syrah Livermore Valley combines exotic flavors of cinnamon and smoke in a balanced wine that keeps getting better in the glass, and will likely continue to get better with age.” Now wine-sipping golfers, does that whet your palette?
In the entire world, The Course at Wente Vineyards may feature the best combination of quality golf, superlative wine, and scrumptious food – a magical trifecta. When in Northern California, you’ll savor the day you spend enjoying it all here!
Below is the par-3 seventh and just another of the many mesmerizing views that treat you at The Course at Wente Vineyards – one of Northern California’s and Greg Norman’s best.