by Andrew Chalk
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).
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
Original planting by Frenchman Charles L. Tamm;
Graaf purchases Chalone Vineyard;
Graaf’s first vintage;
Crop lost to birds;
Crop lost to birds
Vintage like 1960. Incorporates as Chalone, Inc.;
Richard Woodward joins Chalone as VP Finance but also had broad marketing responsibility. He will later emerge as the corporate strategist;
Joint venture with Paragon Vineyard to create and source Edna Valley Vineyard;
Founds Carmenet Vineyard;
Public offering of stock in Chalone
Purchased Acacia Winery in Napa;
Installed own utility lines down the mountain to connect to the electricity grid;
Constructed eight mile long pipeline to provide water.
Share exchange with Domaines de Barons de Rothschild (DBR);
Purchased 50% of Canoe Ridge Vineyard in Washington State;
Changes name to The Chalone Wine Group (CWG). Moves HQ from San Francisco to Napa;
Acquires 24% of Château Duhart-Milon in Pauillac, Bordeaux. DBR acquires the remainder;
DBR interest in CWG increases to 51%;
Blaze destroys 75% of vineyards at Carmenet Vineyards;
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;
Echelon Vineyards established. Large part of vineyard re-planted.
Acquired Staton Hills Winery in Washington State. Renamed Sagelands;
Acquired Jade Mountain;
Acquired by Diageo;
Chalone Vineyard sold by Diageo. Acquired by Foley Family 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, 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.