On the eve of his first harvest as associate winemaker for Chalone Vineyard, Gianni Abate is awestruck by the legacy with which he has been entrusted.
During a tour of Chalone’s vineyards and cellar, he marvels repeatedly at the diligence and daring required to convert a hot and arid spread of chaparral high above Salinas Valley into one of California’s more storied wineries.
As we pass an old Kenworth flatbed truck, he notes how it had been used for decades to keep vines alive by hauling 3,000 gallons of water several times a day from Soledad 8 miles down the slope.
He points to utility poles and lines the owners installed themselves for $250,000 after PG&E officials told them the project would cost $2 million.
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He darts into a cave bored into the mountain at the back of the winery, perhaps the only wine cave in the state that needs air conditioning because of natural thermal vents that were found only after digging had begun.
He pauses by a small and fragile brooding shed built for chickens but converted into the site’s original winery, cooled by blocks of ice that also had to be trucked up from Soledad.
“The effort they went through is mind-boggling,” Abate said.
He’s the son of a Stockton farming family who was studying to be a pharmacist at the University of Pacific and working at a pharmacy when he realized he really didn’t want to be around sick people all day. He switched his major to biology and began an apprenticeship in winemaking that ultimately brought him to Monterey County.
Alongside the chicken shed sits a boulder with a brass plaque dedicated to Richard Hartshorne Graff, the Harvard music graduate and former U.S. Navy officer who in the 1960s got smitten with wine, saw vineyard potential high on the Gavilan Mountain Range (aka Gabilan), and bought the property in 1965. Over the years, several other investors helped him develop the site.
Graff was killed at age 60 in 1998 when the single-engine Cessna he was flying struck a power line and crashed into a commercial greenhouse in Salinas.
At the time Graff was chairman emeritus of Chalone Wine Group, which he was pivotal in growing from a single shaky winery nestled up against what now is Pinnacles National Park into a corporation that included sole or partial ownership of eight wineries.
Though grapes had been grown in the area since the start of the 20th century, the oak-studded hills formed California’s most unlikely fine-wine region, given its heat, aridity, isolation and sparse soils.
Graff, however, was giddy over the limestone in that dirt, which reminded him of Burgundy and inspired him to establish Chalone’s standing for remarkably complex chardonnays and assertive pinot noirs. A chardonnay he made from the 1974 vintage finished third among the whites in a celebrated blind tasting of Californian and French wines in Paris in 1976.
As Chalone flourished, Graff became a celebrity on the California culinary scene. In 1981 he joined Julia Child and Robert Mondavi to create the American Institute of Wine and Food, a nonprofit organization that seeks to raise the country’s appreciation of the culinary arts.
In 2004, Diageo, a British alcoholic-beverage corporation, bought the Chalone group for a reported $260 million. This February, Diageo sold Chalone to Foley Family Wines, which since its founding in 1996 has acquired 18 other wineries, including Chalk Hill and Sebastiani in Sonoma County, Langtry Estate in Lake County, Firestone in Santa Barbara County, and Kuleto in Napa Valley. It hasn’t been disclosed what Foley paid for Chalone, which includes nearly 1,000 acres, of which 240 are planted to vines.
Bill Foley, the founder of Foley Family Wines, as well as chairman of the board of Fidelity National Financial Inc., pretty much cleaned house with the purchase. In April, he hired Abate, who had been winemaker at Morgan Winery in the much cooler Santa Lucia Highlands just across Salinas Valley. Foley also called back as consulting winemaker Michael Michaud, who had been Chalone’s winemaker from 1979 to 1997. All the while, he vowed to restore Chalone’s standing as one of California’s more original, daring and esteemed estates.
“It was sad to see what had happened to the label,” Abate said, noting that Chalone’s reputation for profound estate wines got diluted as Diageo expanded production by bringing in fruit from vineyards elsewhere in Monterey County. “The wines were always good, but with the focus on marketing the label got left behind.”
Like rock climbers in the neighboring Pinnacles, Abate is scrambling to get his footing, starting with a thorough cleaning of the cellar, ordering almost 200 new barrels of French oak, recruiting fresh cellar workers and experimenting with irrigation practices in the hopes of providing vines with more vigor. “The vines didn’t look healthy, as if they weren’t getting enough water,” Abate said.
As we tasted through Chalone’s current portfolio, made by former winemaker Robert Cook, Abate talked of tweaking this and that, from vineyard to cellar. He tries not to depart significantly from Chalone’s reputation for wines that are characteristic, layered and forthright while also making them crisper, more refreshing and capable of early accessibility as well as longevity.
He muses that Chalone’s ample pinot blanc might show a little more life if its secondary malolactic fermentation were dialed back, while the dense chardonnay could benefit from more zing if it didn’t see quite as much oak.
“I think I’m shooting for classic Burgundy – high-acid wines that aren’t incredibly fruity. I’m looking for more minerality to show through in the whites, except for the chenin blanc,” Abate said.
Chalone’s chenin blanc is an oddity not only for the winery but for the state’s entire wine culture. It’s a grape and a wine out of fashion, but Graff inherited a 4-acre stand of chenin blanc planted on the site in 1919, and he treated it reverently, turning out interpretations unusually aromatic and flavorful, with subtle complexity and sharp acidity.
“We want to take care of that old chenin blanc,” Abate said, adding that he is lobbying to plant even more. “I think chenin blanc and pinot blanc will be more ageworthy and provide more entertaining tasting than chardonnay with 10 years of aging,” he predicts.
Chalone’s 2014 pinot noir is textbook precise in its fruity aroma and vivacious flavor, if a touch grippy with tannin. Abate shies from going into detail about how his approach to the estate’s pinot noir will change – “I’d be getting into trade secrets” – but he let on that he aims to do a faster fermentation in hopes of softening the wine’s tannins and retaining characteristic if less jammy fruit.
Young, bearded and animated, Abate wears a plaid flannel shirt that would be more fitting for his former stomping grounds in the Santa Lucia Highlands than in the blazing sun and torrid heat of the Pinnacles. He speculates that Foley hired him to revitalize Chalone largely for the consistency of the wines he made at Morgan for more than a decade and for his familiarity with Monterey County terroir.
“Chalone is a winery and an estate with so much history and uniqueness. It’s worth saving, and that’s what Foley is doing,” Abate said. “I’m in the right place at the right time.”
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.