Sometimes it’s Mom, not Dad, who hooks the kids and grandkids into golf. In 19 holes with Christine and Carolyn Wente, GottaGoGolf learned how the game plays out in the oldest continuously operating family winery in the United States. Bet they’ll be on the course on Thanksgiving!
A round of golf with three generations of Wente women, on their own stunning Greg Norman-designed course in Livermore, California?
Well, that’s a great idea not so easily executed when the family’s 130-year-old winery demands the devotion of the 86-year-old matriarch, the CEO and the “Fifth-Generation Winegrower” (yes, it says so there on 37-year-old Christine Wente’s business card).
Alas, Jean Wente cracked her hip in a 2012 fall and isn’t all that sure she’ll be testing her game again. But when daughter Carolyn, 58, and granddaughter Christine took to the course for 18 holes of Wente golf recently, they credited Jean and their beautiful golf course for cultivating an interest in the game to rival their passion for the grape.
“Golf has been a big deal for us and as a family it’s really fun,” said Carolyn, who plays as often as she can with her husband, Buxton Layton, and their teenage son, Bucky. “When Christmas is at my house, we have the whole golf course to ourselves and the entire family goes out, then we get cleaned up and have Christmas dinner. It’s part of our holiday routine. And those are pretty much the only times we are all in town together at the same time.”
“IN THIS FAMILY, IT’S MANDATORY,” JEAN SAID IN A PHONE INTERVIEW. “AS SOON AS THEY WERE OLD ENOUGH TO HOLD A CLUB, I HAD THEM ON THE COURSE.”
It was Jean who mandated Wente golf when she married Karl Wente in 1949.
“I don’t remember that my father (Louis Robinson) ever didn’t golf, so we all golfed,” said Jean, who grew up with two sisters in a Central Valley farming family. “I was taking lessons as soon as I was just old enough to hold a golf club. There was a teacher at Stanford — she was so wonderful, we never could please her.”
The Robinsons sought refuge from hot Central Valley summers in Monterey, and eventually bought a house in Pebble Beach that is still in the family, now on the 14th hole of the Dunes Course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club.
Jean, who figures she was a 6 or a 7 at her best, became one of the first women to join fabled Cypress Point nearby. By then, Karl had died suddenly at 49, in 1977.
“He had been diagnosed with Hodgkins (12) years earlier but had lived with it very well,” recalled Carolyn, who was winding down in her history studies at Stanford by then and had an internship in Washington D.C. with Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt when she received the sad news. “I returned home to help my mother, who really inspired me with her courage and strength.”
Carolyn’s older brothers, Eric and Phil, stepped in, with Jean serving as chairman of the board. After a few years in banking, Carolyn joined them, handling PR and marketing.
Her own golf game developed mostly at nearby Castlewood Country Club, and she became a steady player quite capable of breaking 90. Eric and especially Phil had their own passion for the game, but still there was some hesitation when it came to repurposing some of their property’s 2,000 acres of cattle land and vineyards for a Wente golf course in the 1990s.
“Phil is quite the visionary, even though as a farmer he asked, ‘Do I want to give up some grapes to put in a golf course,’ ” Carolyn said. “But he was the one who picked up the phone and talked to Greg Norman.”
THE WENTE PROPERTY CAPTIVATED NORMAN, WHO DESIGNED 18 MEMORABLE HOLES.
The family favorite, No. 2, is a super-short par-4 (203 yards from the most forward tees) with a tree-lined chute off the tee looking out at the beautiful Cresta Blanca that was the namesake of the original winery here. In 1998, the Course at Wente Vineyards opened on a property that also includes a concert venue, event facilities, a tasting room, and a four-star restaurant.
The driving range is a bit remote, but that’s because Carolyn put her foot down. Her house overlooks the finishing holes, and Phil thought the obvious spot for the range was right below. “I said, no way — I don’t want people standing in front of my house hitting golf balls all day. I was here first.”
The Wente golf course is, of course, very welcoming to women — even serving wine by the glass at the turn shack. The most forward tees measure 4,866 yards, so many women are tempted to step back to the whites at 5,637 yards. In fact, we lost Christine at the first tee because she’s so used to playing back there with Carolyn that she disappeared for a few minutes; yet, on a chilly day after some rain, the course plays plenty long from the reds.
Christine, obviously an athlete, shows potential with her golf swing. But with two small kids at home and her impressively titled position, she doesn’t have enough time to hone a game. “When I do, I will be beating Roland,” she said of her golf-loving husband. “I promise.”
Her aunt makes steady contact and uses her local knowledge to advantage. She’s obviously played the course many, many times, both for business and pleasure. As we sit after the round enjoying a glass of a Cabernet with grapes grown right in front of us, Carolyn says a bit wistfully, “I just have to kind of laugh at my game. I have to have fun. And that’s pretty much the way I approach life anyway. You do the best you can do and you have to have a good sense of humor.”
As CEO now, time for 18 holes has become elusive. Though according to her mother, Carolyn Wente’s time may be better spent elsewhere.
“I THINK I TURNED OUT A MARVELOUS DAUGHTER, WITH AN AVERAGE TO BELOW-AVERAGE GOLF GAME,” JEAN SAID, SOMEWHAT JOKINGLY.
She does not, however, begrudge Carolyn her golf because, she said, “The course is just so great, the setting so wonderful. I certainly played it as much as I possibly could.”