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LOCKED AND LOADED: CHALONE PREPARES TO RE-JOIN THE CALIFORNIA WINE ELITE

by Andrew Chalk


View from Chalone Winery down the Gavilan Mountains

This year, storied winery Chalone Vineyards will release wines that it hopes will be the best in a quarter of a century. Winemaker Gianni Abate plans Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and the prized Chenin Blanc with the hope that they will earn critics’ accolades sufficient to launch Chalone into every wine drinker’s top-10 for that grape. A whole new generation will be introduced to Chalone as the winery that placed third with its 1974 Chardonnay at the 1976 Judgement of Paris, and was one of the most collectable wines from the 1970s until the early 2000s. Its AVA, created in 1982, even has its name, reflecting its flagship position in Monterey County.


The new focus began in 2016 when Chalone owner Diageo exited the wine business, selling all their brands. Chalone was picked up by Bill Foley, founder of Foley Family Wines. Foley wants all of his brands to emphasize a sense of the place that they come from. In that respect Chalone is an ideal addition with the Danville sandy clay loam, McCoy-Gilroy complex, and Vista coarse sandy loam soils, 1700-1850 ft altitude, and the Region 2 to Region 4 climate unequalled in Monterey, and maybe in California. The Foley rule on sourcing is that every wine with Chalone on the label must be 100% estate fruit. Think of it alongside his existing labels like Chalk Hill Winery, Lucien Albrecht, and Foley Estates (among over 50 brands).





History

To appreciate where Chalone came from consider its modern history, which really began in 1964. That year, California native and Harvard music major Richard Graff tasted the 1960 Chalone Pinot Blanc and was deeply impressed. He was to discover later that the wine was made by Philip Togni. He visited the vineyard in its remote location near The Pinnacles mountain outcrop in the Gavilan mountains. Chalone was, he found, insolvent and ready for acquisition. With the help of his mother he cobbled together enough money to buy it in 1965. There was no electricity (power came from generators), no water (it was carried up the mountain side by truck), and no phone service. The only reason to be in such an inhospitable location was the terroir.


A good 1966 vintage was followed by two wipeouts as birds stole the grapes. Finally, 1969 yielded a vintage that was not only of a viable size but also organoleptically like 1960. The 1969 vintage led to an event that would fundamentally change the future course of Chalone.

Philip Woodward, a management consultant with Touche Ross with an M.B.A. from the prestigious Kellogg School at Northwestern University moved from Detroit to San Francisco because he wanted to work with the company’s small firm clients. Among the projects he took on was advising Robert Mondavi on buying back Rainier Brewing’s share in the Robert Mondavi winery, consulting to a startup winery, and also Inglenook. However, his consulting rate was prohibitive for many small wineries so he offered his services in exchange for wine. One such barter involved the 1969 Chalone Vineyard Pinot Blanc. So impressed was Woodward that he visited Chalone and, after discussions with Graaf, became VP of Finance. The measures he implemented at Chalone were extensive. He put together a corporate vision that enshrined Graff’s commitment to quality over quantity. He brought in capital by forming a partnership that included some well-heeled clients from his old firm. He also foresaw expansion into each of the four premium wine- growing areas in California. However, an intrinsic part of that vision was that each brand would be a fully vertically integrated, self-managed winery, not just a brand. Each winery would be limited to 50,000 cases cases and the focus would be on quality.


Implementing this model led to Edna Valley Vineyard in SLO (in partnership with Paragon Vineyard) in 1980, and Carmenet in 1981. The latter saddled Chalone with heavy debt so in 1984 Woodward masterminded a way for it to become the first publicly traded premium winery in California. In 1986 came Acacia, 1989 a share exchange and business arrangements with Domaines de Barons de Rothschild (DBR) that ultimately led to Chalone owning 25% of Bordeaux Château Duhart-Milon in Pauillac and DBR owning 51% of Chalone. In 1990 it acquired 50% of Canoe Ridge in Washington State, and then Staton Hill Winery (renamed Sagelands) and then Jade Mountain.


In 1998 disaster hit Chalone when Richard Graaf was killed in the crash of the Cessna that he was piloting. The future of the whole venture was very uncertain but was eventually satisfactorily resolved with the recruitment of experienced hands in the form of Thomas Selfridge from Kendall-Jackson Winery as President and CEO.


During the time of Chalone Wine Group the winery was famous for paying dividends in wine allocations. Shareholders could pick them up at famous parties at the winery.


In 2005 Diageo, the largest distiller on earth, in a push into the wine business, acquired Chalone Wine Group and owned it through 2016. Diageo placed the Chalone name on wines from outside the remote estate in the Gavilan mountains and many industry insiders and wine drinkers felt that this debased the brand.

Since Foley’s acquisition from Diageo in 2016 all wines have reverted to sourcing only from the Chalone AVA.


CHRONOLOGY OF SIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN CHALONE’S HISTORY

YEAR

CHALONE EVENTS

1890s

Original planting by Frenchman Charles L. Tamm;

1964

Graaf purchases Chalone Vineyard;

1966

Graaf’s first vintage;

1967

Crop lost to birds;

1968

Crop lost to birds

1969

Vintage like 1960. Incorporates as Chalone, Inc.;

1972

Richard Woodward joins Chalone as VP Finance but also had broad marketing responsibility. He will later emerge as the corporate strategist;

1980

Joint venture with Paragon Vineyard to create and source Edna Valley Vineyard;

1981

Founds Carmenet Vineyard;

1984

Public offering of stock in Chalone

1986

Purchased Acacia Winery in Napa;

1986

Installed own utility lines down the mountain to connect to the electricity grid;

1986

Constructed eight mile long pipeline to provide water.

1989

Share exchange with Domaines de Barons de Rothschild (DBR);

1990

Purchased 50% of Canoe Ridge Vineyard in Washington State;

1991

Changes name to The Chalone Wine Group (CWG). Moves HQ from San Francisco to Napa;

1993

Acquires 24% of Château Duhart-Milon in Pauillac, Bordeaux. DBR acquires the remainder;

1994

DBR interest in CWG increases to 51%;

1996

Blaze destroys 75% of vineyards at Carmenet Vineyards;

1998

Richard Graaf killed in crash of his self-piloted Cessna plane. Woodward is named Chairman of CWG and Thomas Selfridge recruited from Kendall-Jackson Winery as President and CEO;

1998

Echelon Vineyards established. Large part of vineyard re-planted.

1999

Acquired Staton Hills Winery in Washington State. Renamed Sagelands;

2000

Acquired Jade Mountain;

2005

Acquired by Diageo;

2016

Chalone Vineyard sold by Diageo. Acquired by Foley Family Wines


The Wines

What is coming down the pike? On a recent visit to the winery I went through the current selections. All are Estate Grown and have the Chalone, AVA.

2016 Chenin Blanc

2016 Chardonnay

2016 Chardonnay, Reserve

2016 Pinot Noir

2016 Pinot Noir, Reserve

2017 Chardonnay, Musqué


The reserve offerings are definitely the cream of the crop.


Based on the recent changes and the quality of the wines, enthusiasts should look forward to Chalone’s re-emergence this year.

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About Me

Andrew Chalk is a Dallas-based author who writes about wine, spirits, beer, food, restaurants, wineries and destinations all over the world.

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