Wente Untucked: Vineyard Table and Tasting Lounge
The grande dame of Tri-Valley fine dining goes casual—and that’s a good thing.
Vineyard Table and Tasting Lounge offers shared plates, including roasted cauliflower, blackberry shortcake, and mozzarella with olives.
Having dined at The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards dozens of times since its debut in 1985, worked in its kitchen in both the late ’80s and ’90s, and written critical reviews and glowing features on Wente over the past two decades, I can say with confidence there’s never been a better—or more affordable—time to plan a wine-tasting trip to the Livermore Valley. And that expedition should start or finish with snacks or a repast at the storybook setting now called Vineyard Table and Tasting Lounge.
Reopened this summer after an extensive three-month renovation, the eatery—with a half dozen venues inside and out—marks the most deliberate move to shed Wente’s straitlaced fine-dining image and reimagine itself as a drop-by (if still drop-dead gorgeous) setting for casual conviviality. While the restaurant has been trending more relaxed since its inception—the decor softened over time, and the menu moved from precious California cuisine, to rustic American, to locally sourced global fare—Vineyard Table leans all-in, featuring shared plates from noon until 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, with its more laid-back areas limited to bar snacks. One note of continuity is master gardener Diane Dovholuk, who started as a server in 1986 and has worked the now half-acre plot for decades. And Joshua Leidreiter, promoted to chef de cuisine prior to the relaunch, is in his 10th year at the establishment.
The main dining room is now split, courtesy of a see-through steel wine wall holding more than 750 bottles. Oversize leather couches and chairs define the lounge side, while custom-made walnut tables (no more white tablecloths!) anchor the dining side, providing a warm setting with bucolic views. In the airy space, a triptych of vineyards echoes the historic fifth-generation family-run winery’s extensive, award-winning wine list—as do the gnarly vines of Wente clone chardonnay that are displayed behind glass at the bar.
It’s true that the new menu is now less ambitious in scope and execution; executive chef Mike Ward left shortly before the reopening, and that formal top-toque job will not be filled. Yet the lower prices and snacking options should act as a magnet for those who previously equated the restaurant with expensive special occasions and a long drive. My own meals here, covering a dozen chefs, have proved contrived just as often as revelatory—dining disappointments made especially conspicuous when the eye-popping check arrived. But there simply has been no prettier spot in the East Bay since the ’80s, particularly priceless when the sun heads for the hills.
Now, let’s talk about the pork chop. For 20 years, the restaurant’s go-to dish was a 16-ounce smoked cut served with chef-selected seasonal accompaniments. The mere fact that the refreshed menu ditched that $39 chop in favor of an $18 pork tenderloin (with the same exacting three-day process: brined in aromatics, air-dried, and gently smoked)—and the formidable Caesar has been displaced by a perky salad inspired by the on-site garden—is evidence of Wente’s transition to light and casual.
Still, Vineyard Table and Tasting Lounge isn’t so casual that it welcomes dogs on the restaurant's patio. However, clean canines are able take in the sunset with their human companions on the stunning new lower dining deck, with its multiple firepits and snacks-only menu.
Dinner was a joy and came to $60 for two before drinks. (Wente’s world-class wine list can still drive up the tab, but a bottle of Wente Riva Ranch Chardonnay can be had for only $22.) Diane’s Garden Bowl—with mixed greens, gloriously ripe peaches, and sweet beets, topped with a snowy drift of Manchego and sprinkled with toasted almonds—stole the show. A close second was the ultra-fresh sea trout, its skin dusted with Wondra flour, crisped to a glassy crunch, and laid upon a king-size bed of summery corn succotash. Even the roasted cauliflower was arresting, laced with a trio of sauces, including rich lemon aioli and a tangy chimichurri with garden herbs. The only hiccup was an order of fries that arrived too cool, but our server (in relaxed bistro attire) took it off the bill.
My next two visits, spent sitting at the brand-new white granite bar in a lounge that will double as a wine-tasting room, turned out to be uneven. The tenderloin—that pork chop interloper—sounded well matched to roasted peaches and polenta spiked with Comté and parmesan cheeses. But the dish didn’t come together; the cheesy polenta and brut-glazed peaches were too disparate.
Yet the baby shrimp, seared á la plancha with just-blistered cherry tomatoes and garden red onions, bathed in creamy chili and green goddess sauces, was pure pleasure; served with a generous fan of grilled sourdough, it was a joy to eat in the style of bruschetta.
Which should be the whole idea here: uncomplicated but intriguing dishes that you can eat unselfconsciously and often with your hands. The relaxed spirit aimed for at Vineyard Table and Tasting Lounge was perhaps best captured by my meal’s final act: a house-made peach ice pop served in a glass and topped tableside with a generous pour of Wente’s own sparkling brut. Now that’s dessert—at only $8 a serving. wentevineyards.com/dine.