By: Robert Kaufman
What does The Course at Wente Vineyards and Disneyland have in common? You guessed wrong if you think the Greg Norman-design is some kind of Mickey Mouse layout or anything resembling a Goofy putt-putt course. Rather, the correct answer is, it is one of the premier “E” ticket rides on the Northern California golf landscape.
If you’re old enough, give yourself an extra mulligan if you recall what an “E” ticket once represented at Mickey’s kingdom. Having sweated through many long lines with nervous anticipation as a kid, let me remind you that one of these coveted passes granted admission to the most popular and thrilling rides and attractions the park had to offer. Sadly, my ticket book typically included far more “A” tickets than I’d ever care to use.
Now, imagine playing golf courses based on a comparable alphabet classification? I’d make sure to have handy plenty of “E” tickets for challenging the 18 championship holes tucked between the vines at Wente Vineyards and for exploring an enticing selection of bonus attractions beyond the Norman adventure park in the Livermore Valley wine country, 45 minutes east from San Francisco.
The history of Wente has forever been synonymous with wine by virtue of being America’s oldest, continuously operated family-owned winery since 1883, when C.H. Wente, a first-generation immigrant from Germany, purchased 47 acres in the Livermore Valley. In recent years, however, the fourth and fifth generation clan of winegrowers: Eric, Phil, Carolyn, Christine and Karl Wente, has stretched the boundaries to expand the family tale from the vineyards to fairways.
In 1998, the family uncorked a vintage 7,181-yard golf course created by the Shark who, at the time, was the world’s No. 1 golfer and when he finished taking bites out of the native woodlands, mature vineyards and rolling hills of natural grasslands, he had completed his first design in the United States and added a new chapter to the Wente legend.
“With as close as we are to the city, when golfers drive out here and catch glimpse of the vineyards as they approach the course, you feel like you’re miles away from the hustle and bustle,” says Cabe Jones, Director of Golf at The Course at Wente Vineyards. “There are zero homes on the course so, it’s a great place to come out and breathe and enjoy a day with friends.”
As for Norman, an accomplished vintner with his own wine label and an appreciation of the varietal synergies with golf, the two-time Open Champion (1983 & 1993) managed to harmonize a sequence of holes with the terrain as well as he blends grapes in a bottle. But as any oenophile or seasoned golfer will assert, it’s all about taste.
The several minute drive from the clubhouse to the first tee box is your first indicator The Course at Wente Vineyards is not designed to be a walking course. Upon arriving at the opening 474-yard, par-4, you’ll find yourself perched 100 feet above the bunker-less fairway and a panoramic view of the hill-draped backdrop. From there, the picturesque journey meanders like a gentile roller-coaster (including the twisty San Francisco-like Lombard St. heading uphill to the No. 10 tee box with a sweeping vista of the course and Livermore Valley) through a variety of ecosystems that come into play around a mix of short and long par 4s and 5s, plus a series of par 3s that demand thoughtful club selection. But should you happen to be victimized by an errant shot into the vineyard, Jones offers a simple remedy. “Walk in, pick a grape and move forward.”
For that alone, when the PGA Tour’s Nationwide Tour (now Web.com) visited The Course at Wente Vineyards (2006-08), many pros probably wished the tournament had been scheduled during harvest time because there would have been lots of grape picking in between shots. In 2007, the course proved to be the hardest on their schedule with a player-average score of 75.24. Duffers, have no fear. With six sets of tees providing a variety of playing lengths down to 4,866 yards, there is a comfort zone fit any caliber of golfer.
Regardless of the final number – or not – on the card, the last putt is only steps away from The Grill offering nearby greenside seating to enjoy an eclectic menu with sustainable and organic grown local ingredients bearing zero resemblance to the standard hot dog and nacho clubhouse fare. Then to further broaden your horizons outside the links, drive the wine trail to The Winemakers Studio for tastings or immerse yourself into a hands-on, interactive and educational winemaking seminar (Thurs-Sun) and walk away with a corked bottle of your very own blend.
Hole for hole, bottle for bottle, any day spent in the land of Wente is worth every chip and sip.