The Wine Guys: Rugged Terrain

February 21, 2014


There have been made times when we stood atop a rocky mountain overlooking a verdant vineyard and wondered aloud what inspired a grape grower to choose such a rugged terrain for his crop. Boulders had to be moved, packed ground dynamited and tractor equipment destroyed to get a crop that, at best, was often just good. In most cases, something great was eventually produced because the grower was stubborn – and confident of what was beneath the surface.

Charles Tamm, in search of soil similar to his native Burgundy, had confidence — and guts — when in 1919 he planted vines on the Gavilan Mountain Range in California’s Monterey County. Talk about an uncompromising, rugged environment. The property struggled under different owners until Philip Togni came along in 1960 to label the wine Chalone. So isolated was the winery that Togni had to haul ice from Salinas to cool the cellar. The closest burg, Soledad, is more famous for its prison than tourism or wine.

Given the cost of making wine under such circumstances, Chalone was near bankruptcy when Dick Graff — with financial help from his mother — came along to save it. A pioneer of malolatic fermentation, his first wine was produced in 1966. Still, it wasn’t until 1986 that the remote property paid to install its own electricity, phone service and water line.

You have to wonder why anyone would want to make wine with such challenges, but we’re happy Graff stuck it out. Today’s Chalone chardonnay, made by winemaker Robert Cook, is one of the best deals on the market.

History like this makes you want to drink Chalone. It is the same history that has captivated our thirst for old wines from the historic properties of Inglenook, Beaulieu Vineyards and Louis Martini. It is what makes wine more than just an alcoholic beverage.

We recently caught up with Chalone’s winemaker, Robert Cook, during his second visit with us in Annapolis. Cook didn’t really like chardonnay — until he tasted Chalone – when he arrived in 2007. He was sold on Chalone’s minerally, textured chardonnays.

He marvels at many of the estate’s 1971 vineyards still producing grapes — albeit at about a ton an acre. Because of the soil and the rootstock, these vines survived the phylloxera epidemic that wiped out nearly all of California’s vineyards.

Chalone is known primarily for its chardonnay and pinot noir. We tasted its offerings from the estate vineyards and an adjoining vineyard whose grapes go into the Gavilan label. Both labels deliver more than what you would expect for the price.

Our favorites were the 2011 Chalone Estate Chardonnay ($26) for its mineral character, burgundian-like balance, and layered peach and citrus notes. The 2012 Gavilan chardonnay ($20) has pure fruit character and the same mineral notes that come from the region’s limestone soil.


Journey Red Wine Sonoma County 2010 ($100). This proprietary red wine is brought to you by the Matanzas Creek Winery and is made up of 88.6 percent cabernet sauvignon with the balance made up of merlot, malbec, and a dash of petite verdot. This big bodied wine was aged in 63 percent new French oak for about a year and a half before release, and exhibits a complex nose and flavors of red and black currants, some herbal notes and a hint of licorice. This wine, although expensive, shows the care of the winemaker and is very full and pleasing.

Kendall Jackson Avant Chardonnay 2012 ($17). Very nice yeasty toasty notes in the nose with citrus and peach flavors developing in the mouth. A lot of pleasure and complexity for the price. Try this one.

Matanzas Creek Winery Chardonnay 2011 ($26). One of our favorite chardonnays, this Sonoma County beaut is very expressive with pear and hazelnut aromas and luscious, ripe pineapple and citrus flavors. There is a good dose of oak and caramel notes to keep it interesting

Philo Ridge Coro Mendocino 2010 ($40). We loved this delicious and fruit-forward blend of zinfandel (50 percent), syrah and petit sirah. Now in its fifth vintage, Coro is one of several wines made by a consortium to promote the Mendocino region. Coro is Italian for “chorus.” Indeed, this wine sings.

Teso la Monja Romanico Toro 2011 ($16). We loved this Spanish tempranillo for its simplicity and clean fruit. Ripe, candied aromas with a touch of violets. Bright berry fruit flavors with a dash of black olives and earth.