Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: The Giguieres of Dunnigan Hills

Owners Lane and John Giguiere of Crew Wine Co. in the winery's new tasting room at Zamora, Yolo County.
Owners Lane and John Giguiere of Crew Wine Co. in the winery's new tasting room at Zamora, Yolo County.

Even as Road 92B rises and falls through the Dunnigan Hills in the Zamora area of northern Yolo County, California motorists can’t get far without coming across a winery tasting room.

There motorists will find Crew Wine Co., perhaps more readily known as Matchbook Wine Co., the name on the gate.

That the gently rolling hills surrounding Matchbook mostly are given over to vineyards, olive trees, cattle, wheat and sheep would seem to be a disadvantage for Matchbook. Only a handful of pilgrims show up at remote and isolated Matchbook on a typical weekday, though traffic picks up on weekends.

This doesn’t concern Matchbook’s principals – John Giguiere, his wife, Lane, and his brother Karl. As they tell it, Matchbook’s tasting room isn’t so much stranded as perfectly poised to tap the curiosity of wine tourists who wander in off Interstate 5 just to the east.

Since the sleek and sunny tasting room opened last fall they’ve found that visitors “don’t save their money for the next winery,” says John Giguiere.

The risky placement of the tasting room is one more example of the family’s business acumen.

In 1981 the Giguieres began to diversify from reliance on wheat by planting their first vineyards in the Dunnigan Hills. As that gamble started to pay off three years later, they built their first winery, R.H. Phillips, at nearby Esparto, which quickly established a reputation for high-value varietal wines.

The winery’s standing accelerated dramatically in 1997 with the introduction of what proved to be an immensely popular style of chardonnay, marketed under the catchy label Toasted Head.

Three years later, however, the Giguieres cashed out, and by 2005 they left executive roles with the new owners of R.H. Phillips, retired to Sacramento and addressed their golf games more earnestly.

But almost immediately they realized how much they missed the wine trade, and the next year created Crew Wine Co., a name inspired by their efforts to round up and regroup with many of their former workers at R.H. Phillips. Under the Crew umbrella, four brands – Matchbook, Mossback, Sawbuck and Chasing Venus – each has its own story to tell, its own niche in the marketplace.

The Giguieres have become recognized for their astute reading of the American wine consumer and their willingness to embrace risk. The formula paid off at R.H. Phillips and is paying off at Crew, now up to 100,000 cases of wine per year.

In the vineyard they are celebrated for innovative management methods and for their focus on clonal differences in grape varieties. In the marketplace they are admired for the imaginative and classy ways with which they stage their wines.

Both traits are evident in a tour of their 1,250 acres of wine grapes and the more than 300 acres of olive trees they tend in the Dunnigan Hills. (Over the next few years they plan to add 500 acres of vines on a 2,100-acre plot just to the south of the winery.)

One vineyard is given over to an experimental trellising technique called “hanging curtain,” which involves growing vines unusually tall and training their arms wide, allowing canes to fall in a cascade of leaves and buds.

Their hope is twofold. For one, they’re counting on the spill of canes to spread out bunches of grapes to better expose them to sunlight and circulating air. They also anticipate that clusters and berries will be smaller, intensifying the concentration of the resulting juice and wine.

Secondly, they calculate that the system will help save water and labor costs, although the technique is more expensive at the outset.

“We’re all learning from this,” says Crew viticulturist Yannis Toutountzis.

They’ve been down this experimental road before. The Giguieres were among the earlier vintners in California to adopt the machine harvesting of grapes at night and among the first ambitiously to plant the black Spanish grape tempranillo, their 70-plus acres of tempranillo likely the state’s biggest plot devoted to the variety.

They sense tempranillo isn’t living up to its potential in California, so they continue to tinker with new clones from Spain.

The Giguieres are so keen on the future of Spanish grape varieties in the Dunnigan Hills that they are laying the groundwork for a new label, Tinto Rey, which has been the name of a tempranillo-based blended red wine in the Matchbook portfolio but will be the brand to include varietal and blended wines made solely with Spanish grape varieties.

In another bold step, the Giguieres have released under the Matchbook label a chardonnay called The Arsonist, a name that ignited much passionate in-house debate. They took the unusual step of approaching key accounts across the country not with the wine but with the concept and the name. Restaurateurs and retailers loved it, sealing the deal.

“In today’s marketplace you have to be edgy,” John Giguiere says. “We’ve had no blowback with the name. It’s actually helped us, opening so many doors it’s been incredible.”

There’s no escaping family history, from the wheat field set ablaze by the young Giguiere brothers firing off rockets to branding around Matchbook, Toasted Head and now The Arsonist.

They continue to take risks in the Dunnigan Hills, and with wine are drawing attention and traffic.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne can be reached at mikedunne@winegigs.com.

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