The Course at Wente Vineyards in Livermore: Norman creates a vintage blend

By Doug Saunders, Contributor

LIVERMORE, Calif. -- As the last bit of golden sunlight slipped behind rustling leaves of the huge oak trees surrounding the restaurant, the thoughts of just missing a par putt on the 18th hole at the course were still fresh in my mind. I had played a solid round that was made memorable by the setting where I played. The soft light in the comfortable dining room cast a warm tone and the high wood ceilings added to the peaceful atmosphere. As I took a sip of the 1999 Riva Ranch Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay, I began to understand what I was told to expect here at Wente Vineyards. This is truly a celebration of the good life.

Wente Vineyards golf course
The Course at Wente Vineyards was Greg Norman's first golf course design in the continental U.S.
Wente Vineyards golf courseWente Vineyards G.C.
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Wente Vineyards Golf Course

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Located less than an hour east of San Francisco, the Course at Wente Vineyards sprawls across the lush, rolling hills of Livermore Valley. Greg Norman carefully crafted the golf course, creating one of northern California's most challenging layouts. The course incorporates three different landscapes: woodlands, grassy meadows, and mature vineyards.

18 Holes | Public golf course | Par: 72 | 7181 yards | Book online | ... details »

Wente Vineyards, located in the Livermore Valley just an hour east of San Francisco, is the oldest family operated winery in California. What began in 1883 when Carl Heinrich Wente purchased 48 acres of land has grown into an internationally acclaimed winery with over 3,000 acres of vineyards. The family tradition continues today as the sons and daughters have worked hard to make Wente Vineyards "The Lifestyle Winery" with the addition of a five star restaurant, an inviting wine tasting room and museum, the production of a successful music series, and the creation of one stunning golf course.

Wente Vineyards rests in a canyon that is rimmed by the classic golden hills of California. Over the years, vines were planted along the valley floor producing several varieties of grapes. When the Wente family decided to add a golf course, they approached several designers. The final choice went to Greg Norman, who knew the minute that he first saw this landscape, that something special could be created here. To blend golf and wine, the Wente family willingly took out hundreds of vines in order to weave the vines and fairways together.

Golf at Wente Vineyards

While Greg Norman is notable for his competitive career, he has made a strong statement in golf course design with his works in Florida, South Carolina, and Hawaii. The Course at Wente Vineyards is his first in California and he made the easy choice to let this stunning location take precedence over the routing of the course. The layout plays through three distinctive settings and flows over 200 feet of elevation change with both grace and elegance. Norman worked to incorporate the classic ideals of Alister MacKenzie by not tricking up the terrain with big mounds or phony creeks or waterfalls. This course is just a knockout to view and a joy to play.

"I think that the most remarkable thing about The Course at Wente is that we really don't have a signature hole. Each hole stands on its own because of the variety of terrain. After you play here you think back on several holes as being memorable," Director of Golf Devin Meheen said.

From the moment you arrive at the course until you finish your round, you are pampered by an attentive and friendly staff who want you to feel like a member at a private club.

"We use 12-minute tee times here rather than 10 or eight minute intervals so that players don't feel pressured or crowded. It is a small touch, but our players like it," Meheen said.

A long drive takes you up to the ridge above the clubhouse where the awesome landscape captures your attention. From this lofty perch, the first five holes are visible and the backdrop of the Cresta Blanca, a dominant cliff feature, create a feast for the eyes. The 1st hole lies 100 feet below as a great invitation to hit out to the wide landing area and dive into this golf course.

Norman weaves the course into a charming forest of 200-year-old sycamores and live oak trees and then the course feeds back into the vineyards. Norman's bunker designs on these opening holes are distinctive as they help to frame the holes and not over power them. He also captured one of the traits of MacKenzie's work, camouflage of landforms. On every hole, check out the bunkers from the tee and then notice that from the green looking back you won't see the bunkers at all. This is a subtle thing but shows great command of landforms.

The sixth hole is a 300-yard par 4 that plays right up a hill, which demands careful consideration of what you hit off of the tee. The green rests on the top of the hill and is large but slopes to the front making the approach critical. From here you see both valleys of the golf course. Norman obviously had fun locating this green on this saddle of land just for the views.

The course drops off this ridge into the main valley and the acres of vineyards vary in texture with the seasons as they change in colors as the grapes ripen through the summer and fall. The seventh hole is a downhill par 3 of 182 yards where the prevailing winds can play havoc from the tee.

You notice coming off of the ninth green that this course plays out and back so the small halfway house offers a spot for refreshments before you head up Lombard Street, a cart path that climbs 250 feet in elevation over eight switchbacks. This ride is as exciting as the course.

The back nine at Wente Vineyards

The holes on top of the hill are not the best on the course but the Wente's finally got to put this land to good use with these holes. The par 5 12th hole was obviously a challenge for Norman as he tried to find a way off of this ridge with the layout. The tee shot has to carry over a large ravine to a wide landing area but the second shot on this 542-yard hole is blind with just the top of a large oak to aim for. You will be surprised to see the green when you get here as it hangs out over the valley below. This hole was obviously tough to dig into this ridge.

The golf course then drops off the ridge and winds into the valley and vineyards for a great mix of finishing holes. Just as wine is described in the Wine Spectator, you can use those descriptions for the golf course; "this robust blend of holes sparkle with flavors that build to a strong, full finish."

On the final holes, all the elements come together. The 15th is a par 5 with water off of the tee and down the right edge of the fairway, and the rest of the holes work through vineyards, creeks, wetlands, and lakes with the glistening hills adding to enjoyment.

Coming into the 18th hole, a creek splits the fairway to bring a decision on how to play this tricky hole. By going left you get a better angle to the pin but the landing is narrow between the creek and the fairway bunker. Going right has more room but you have to take your approach shot over the lake and wetlands that protect the big green. This all helps to make for a great finishing hole.

There is no better complement after golf than to visit the Restaurant at Wente Vineyards where the fare is New American with French and Italian provincial influences. The robust menu is created daily and only the freshest ingredients are used, including produce from their own organic gardens and olive oil produced from century old olive trees. It goes without saying that the attentive staff can recommend the perfect wine to complement your entree.

As I enjoyed the scallops with shrimp served on a bed of seasoned couscous I reveled in the flavor of the fine Chardonnay. This is the best of all worlds. Sit back and relax. This is the good life. You will find yourself planning your next visit to Wente Vineyards as you savor your last sip of wine.

Doug Saunders, Contributor

Doug Saunders has covered more than 20 major championships and his unique perspectives on the game have appeared in numerous publications including Golf World, GolfWeek, Golf Course Management, Golf Course News, Golfdom, and the USGA Golf Journal. He is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, California Golf Writers, and the Sierra Nevada Golf Course Superintendents Association.

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