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Chalone Doldrums

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It has been terribly sad, for a veteran wine guy like me, to witness the trials and tribulations of Chalone Vineyard over the years. When I first got into this racket, in the late 1970s, Chalone was respected as one of the pioneering Pinot Noir houses in California. Bob Thompson, in 1980, gave it four stars—his highest ranking—and said the “splendidly isolated winery…under direction of Richard Graff” was producing “one of California’s closest challengers to red Burgundy.” That same year, Olken, Singer and Roby, in The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wine, praised this “much revered winery” whose “best [wine] continues to be superb.” Even fifteen years later (1995), Jim Laube, in California Wine, was praising Chalone’s Pinot Noirs as “great wines, capable of long aging,” but a hint of critical negativity was beginning to creep in: the wines, Jim added, “are also austere and often tannic to a fault.” The cracks in Chalone’s reputation were showing.

That accorded with my own experiences of the wines; the highest score I was ever able to give a Chalone Pinot Noir was 90 points, for the 2004, although I always found the Chardonnays richer and better. It’s fair to say, I think, that by the new Millennium, Chalone had firmly fallen out of favor among critics as a producer of great California Pinot Noir, eclipsed as it was by dozens of top houses extending from Santa Barbara County on up through the Anderson Valley (and, beyond California, to the Willamette Valley).

What was the problem? My own suspicion always was that Chalone, located politically in the Monterey County town of Soledad (think: Salinas Valley chill) but physically situated 1,800-2,000 feet up in the eastern Gavilan (or Gabilan) Mountains, was too hot a place for Pinot Noir. It might have been thought of as a “coastal” growing region, but it really wasn’t; Chalone’s own website describes the vineyard as “Region IV” in warmer years, a temperature span that U.C. Davis defines as measuring up to 4,000 degree days per year, which is suitable, says the website CalWineries, not for Pinot Noir, or even Zinfandel for that matter, but for “Malvasia [and] Thompson Seedless.”

On the plus side, the Chalone AVA soils are pockmocked with limestone (as they are at Calera, not too far away), and the nights are quite cool, with a diurnal swing of as much as 50 degrees. But those summer daytime high temperatures can be brutal. To my way of thinking, the hot climate and exaggerated U.V. sunlight at that altitude make the grapes develop thick skins—hence Laube’s “tannic to a fault.” The wines lacked delicacy and charm. And over the past twenty years or so, rugged tannins—once the darling of critics, whether in Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Pinot Noir—have fallen out of favor.

Poor Chalone suffered, too, in its ownership. Long held by Diageo, after the original founders passed from the scene, Chalone seemed to descend into a netherworld of three-tier doldrums. It maintained a visible presence in the marketplace, not, unfortunately, by dint of quality, but through the force of Diageo’s marketing and advertising budget: most of the major wine and food magazines ran frequent “advertorials” on Chalone (and Diageo’s other California properties, including Beaulieu and Sterling); I should know, because I wrote some of them. When a wine writer is paid to write an advertorial (which never reveals the writer’s byline), he must think of pleasant things to say about the wines: not so easy, in Chalone’s case.

Therefore it was not surprising to read, yesterday, that when Diageo sold a portion of its wine portfolio to Treasury, Treasury “turned down the offer to buy Chalone.”

Why? It’s true that Treasury didn’t want or need tons more Chardonnay, which Chalone produces plenty of, to add to its portfolio. Still, the snub added insult to injury. Now, Diageo, which pretty much wants out of the wine business, is seeking to sell Chalone to someone else.

Exactly who that someone else might be cannot be known until a buyer steps forward. Chalone is a large winery (166,000 cases last year), making it difficult to absorb if not indigestible; and, as Shanken News Daily also reported, given that it has “lost steam over the last few years,” why anyone would want it is a good question. Chalone does still have a strong brand presence, particularly in off-premise markets such as supermarkets. Throw in some recipe cards and manager’s specials, and the cash flow would seem to be there, provided the retail price is right. So I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Chalone by any means.

But we have seen the last of its glory days, which are rapidly disappearing in the rear view mirror. Could someone come along and resurrect Chalone to greatness? I really don’t think so, and it’s not just the terroir. Like Beaulieu, like Sterling, like so many other once-boutique wineries that got caught up in the corporate shuffle, Chalone made the decision to go for quantity over quality. That decision, once made, tends to be irreversible.

  1. That decision was made once Diageo purchased the Chalone wine group. The first thing they did was ask every winery in the group to produce a line-up of fighting varietals, priced to retail at $10/bottle. For a vintage that had already passed (Edna Valley Vineyard was tasked with creating 2004 wines in the spring of 2005, and from varietals that were not consistent with the region II weather that EVV is located in. Trust me, the bulk wine we had to choose from on the free market was marginal at best.) That Diageo purchase was the beginning of the end for the glory days of any of the CWG properties.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    I have seen the 2007, 2009 and 2012 vintage Chalone “Estate Grown” Pinot Noirs — all three simultaneously — on the shelves of selective BevMo stores in greater Los Angeles.

    Citing wine labels:

    In 2007, they produced 991 French Oak Barrels (297,327 bottles).

    In 2009, they produced 201 French Oak Barrels (60,180 bottles).

    A reduction in production of 790 French Oak Barrels (237,147 bottles).

    Did Diageo see the proverbial handwriting on the wall, and tamp down production in the face of declining consumer demand?

  3. Steve,

    The position of the Chalone brand is lamentable, that much is true. I think it will be a difficult property for Diageo to sell because there is a disconnect between the large production of Monterey and Central Coast appellation wine under the brand and where the estate property needs to be positioned to be successful, not because the estate vineyards can’t still produce great quality wine.

    Have a look at the many great Chalone appellation wines being produced right now from the Antle, Brosseau, Michaud and Boer vineyards. Some from Pinot, but mostly from Chardonnay, Syrah, Pinot Blanc/Melon de Borgogne(long story), Mourvedre, and some younger Grenache vines. I personally prefer Grenache up there. The Chalone vineyards themselves are in great shape, and much of the vineyard staff from the Graff days still work there. My experience is that the Chalone appellation has some of the best winegrowing soils in the state. Dealing with the vagaries of the region require some skill and picking windows are short, but wines from Chalone are very rewarding to make. They can be absolutely incredible.

    I really hope the estate property finds its way into visionary hands that can restore it to its glory. Those vineyards have tremendous history and potential.

    Ian

  4. Bob Henry says:

    Maybe Bill Foley will purchase Chalone and add it to his collection of brands?

    From The Press Democrat (Section Unknown)
    (January 12, 2013, Page Unknown):

    “Foley Expanding Wine Empire with Recent Acquisitions

    http://www.pressdemocrat.com/csp/mediapool/sites/PressDemocrat/News/story.csp?page=0

    By Cathy Bussewitz
    The Press Democrat

    Excerpt:

    “Foley has openly tried to emulate the late Jess Jackson, who built Jackson Family Wines into one of the world’s largest wine companies before his death in 2011. Both men share similar traits, said Tim Matz, who worked as a senior executive under Jackson and Foley.”

  5. Bob Henry says:

    Erratum.

    The Press Democrat article “view[-ed] as one page” link doesn’t seem to be working.

    Proffered once again with a link to the six-page article.

    From The Press Democrat (Section Unknown)
    (January 12, 2013, Page Unknown):

    “Foley Expanding Wine Empire with Recent Acquisitions”

    http://www.pressdemocrat.com/csp/mediapool/sites/PressDemocrat/News/story.csp?cid=2209368&sid=555&fid=181

    By Cathy Bussewitz
    The Press Democrat

  6. Bob Henry says:

    Ian,

    The first exceptional Grenache I tasted from the Monterey area was the Burnstein-Remark Winery, Marilyn Remark Grenache, Monterey, 2001 . . .
    recognized as the “Best Wine” of the Los Angeles County Fair Wines of the World Competition in 2003:

    http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20030904005725/en/L.A.-County-Fair-Wines-World-Competition-Organizes

    Bob

  7. Bob,
    That was from an older, pretty ratty looking vineyard that was planted next to the Salinas “River” in some sand just south of King City, you could see the vineyard as you crossed the river on the highway bridge. It got pulled out sometime in the mid-aughts and Joel moved to some Grenache vineyards southwest of Greenfield. Everyone who worked with that vineyard raved about the quality it produced, no matter how ratty it looked (I’m of the opinion that Grenache vineyards should look ratty) but it’s more valuable in spinach and leafy greens.
    Ian

  8. Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Business & Tech.” Section
    (November 13, 2015, Page B2):

    “Diageo Overhauls Marketing In the U.S.”

    Link: http://www.wsj.com/articles/diageo-seeks-consumer-research-to-help-reverse-sales-slump-1447340399

    By Tripp Mickle
    Staff Writer

    Diageo PLC said it is overhauling its North American marketing operations and putting more emphasis on consumer research as it looks to reverse weak sales in its largest market.

    The British-based liquor company has lost ground in the U.S. … Deirdre Mahlan, its former finance chief, as the head of its North American business and charged her with turning it around … said Diageo was restructuring and investing in marketing because it came to rely “perhaps too heavily” on its U.S. distribution network and hadn’t paid enough attention to consumer trends.

    . . .

    “Just because you have distribution does not mean you’re going to grow brands for the sustainable future,” Ms. Mahlan said. She added, “We are structuring ourselves now in a much more deliberate and specific way because we think we’ve been underdelivering our potential with respect to consumer insights.”

    . . .

    … Diageo has been streamlining operations by selling off wine businesses in California and Argentina and beer brands like Red Stripe.

    … the company plans to fully exit the wine business — except for small, local operations in Turkey and India — after it sells off remaining brands like California’s CHALONE VINEYARD ESTATE.

  9. Dallas Galvin says:

    Dear Mr. Heimoff,

    Bravo. This is the most intelligent (and well-written) California wine-blog site I’ve come across in a long while. I am a Luddite and dislike reading blogs on Facebook. Is it possible to subscribe to your site with just dumb ol’ E-mail? I’ld sure like to, if it is at all possible.

    If not, I’m bound to stumble over your writing again ‘cuz I follow Wine Insight daily.

    P.S.: I managed a pretty prominent NYC wine store until recently and always dreaded selling the Chalone Pinots. Over $35 (NY prices), Chalone’s O.K., but a great many customers knew the wine in its heyday and would buy on memory/reputation. Below $15. it’s just nasty hooch. Though, truth be told, many people drink based on old, often romantic, experience and the real taste does not seem to matter all that much. Anyhow, thank you ever so much for this column. Great stuff and great to hear the truth in a booze column unvarnished, historic, and sympathetic all at once.

  10. Mr. Galvin, you can always look at my blog by typing in the URL in your browser.

  11. Update.

    Well, I guess my comment dated October 24th was prescient:

    “Foley Family Wines Purchases Chalone Estate Vineyard”

    http://www.hospitality-industry.com/index.php/news/comments/foley-family-wines-purchases-chalone-estate-vineyard

  12. Bob Henry says:

    In a recent comment, I touted this book on Martin Ray and Mount Eden Vineyards:

    “Vineyards in the Sky: The Life of Legendary Vintner Martin Ray”

    For a history lesson on Chalone, see this book:

    “Chalone: A Journey on the Wine Frontier”

    http://www.amazon.com/Chalone-Frontier-Gregory-S-Walter/dp/097010300X/ref=sr_1_33?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1459590012&sr=1-33&keywords=%22Andr%C3%A9+Tchelistcheff%22

  13. Bob Henry: I have always had a special place in my heart for Chalone wines due to some family history (as below) making it especially sad to watch its demise under corporatism (something I know about from personal experience). Here is a excerpt from something I am soon posting on Facebook:

    “Then I met Phil Woodward, a co-founder of Chalone, at a tasting and he gave me a copy of his book: Chalone: A Journey On The Wine Frontier. It has a chapter called Chalone’s First Stewards that recounts that my Grandfather John C. Dyer (whom I never met) bought in 1912 the 80-acre ranch that later became Chalone. Phil wrote: “For the children, the benchland was a wild and free paradise.” This included roaming the nearby Pinnacles. My father told he made his first dollar guiding visitors through the caves and rock formations. Uncle Johnny loved to climb the spires. Life for the parents was surely not so trouble free. It included twice daily journeys by horse and buggy to take the 5 children to the nearest school, down in Soledad (also attended by John Steinbeck and his siblings). They eeked out a living by, among other things, raising Mariposa Lillies, (shipping the bulbs to eastern markets), and raising bees–I have the gold medal awarded to my grandfather for his first place honey at the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition). In 1921 they sold the ranch for $2,500 and moved to Soledad—I sure wish that they kept it!

  14. Bob Henry says:

    Bill:

    Chalone Pinot Blanc and Chenin Blanc were always two favorite wines of mine circa the 1980s.

    Dunno if they are still made.

    On the Chalone appellation, see this 2013 San Francisco Chronicle article:

    http://www.sfgate.com/wine/article/Chalone-Monterey-County-s-unlikely-appellation-4812845.php

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