Dunne on Wine

Dunne on wine: Chatom Vineyards owner ready to sell

With mixed feelings, Gay Callan is bracing herself to step away from the wine business.

After three decades as an ebullient presence on the Calaveras County wine scene, she has her ranch and her winery, Chatom Vineyards, on the market, and she is more or less ready to move on.

None of her four children is particularly keen on farming. They’re studying or practicing white-collar careers like public policy, education and law.

“After 33 years of doing this, I still love it,” Callan says. “I work with a terrific team. It’s helped put my children through school and given me this lifestyle. But there’s not enough time to do everything I need to do. I’m losing my energy level. I can’t run around the United States selling wine like I used to.”

She made up her mind just as the nation’s economy seized up in 2008. The property she’s listed includes her 745-acre spread in Esmeralda Valley just outside of San Andreas, of which 65 acres is planted with wine grapes, and her rammed-earth winery along Highway 4 at Douglas Flat east of Angels Camp. The ranch includes her residence, which once housed a post office where Mark Twain is said to have posted some of his manuscripts. “My living room is the old post office,” Callan said.

Since she settled in Calaveras County in 1980, Callan has distinguished herself by doing things her own way, often contrary to prevailing practices in the Sierra-foothill wine trade. Of her 65 acres in vines, 12 each are planted to cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, and eight more are merlot, all of which have checkered histories in the Mother Lode.

She and her vineyard and ranch manager of 33 years, David Bassham, also tend small plots of equally uncertain varieties like touriga nacionale, sangiovese and semillon. Just 9 acres are devoted to the region’s signature grape, zinfandel.

Yet, from the start, her winery, Chatom Vineyards, which she built in 1990, has continued to grow and to gather esteem for the quality of its wines. Annual production ranges between 8,000 and 9,000 cases.

Chatom’s citrusy sauvignon blanc is popular in the tasting room, while its cabernet sauvignons, zinfandels and tourigas steadily collect high medals on the competition circuit.

And just this spring, the Chatom Vineyards 2011 Calaveras County Semillon, another rarity in the region, won the best-of-show white-wine honors in the commercial wine competition of the Calaveras County Fair at Frogtown, a contest open to wineries from throughout the foothills.

It’s an unusually lean, crisp and aromatic interpretation of a varietal often turned out as thick, soft and shy. This one, however, is intriguing in its directness and complexity, possessing a stone-fruit freshness laced with suggestions of minerality and smoke.

Only about 900 acres of semillon are planted in California, where as in other regions it’s used largely to blend with sauvignon blanc.

That’s how Callan came to plant semillon in the first place. In 1983, she put in her 2 acres of semillon at the urging of her winemaking mentor, Barden Stevenot, the dean of Calaveras County’s vintners, responsible for launching the area’s contemporary grape growing and winemaking.

Stevenot needed some semillon to blend with his sauvignon blanc. But a few years later he began to cut back on producing sauvignon blanc, leaving Callan with some semillon for which she had no outlet.

“We had a little too much semillon, so we started to craft it (as a stand-alone varietal) around 1988,” she recalled.

Since then, vintage after vintage, the semillon has done consistently well on the competition circuit, but she believes the 2011 is the first to win a sweepstakes.

Though a native San Franciscan, Callan is a member of a family with roots deep in agriculture, primarily with ranches in Tulare County and Turlock. In the 1970s, while she was working in the high-tech industry in the Bay Area, her family expanded and diversified their farming with the purchase of the Esmeralda Valley spread.

Initially, Callan oversaw the property from her base in San Francisco, but in 1980 she moved to the old ranchhouse. At the time, she and Stevenot were virtually alone in seeing Calaveras County as prime grape and wine country. Today, Calaveras County has about 20 wineries and nearly 700 acres in wine grapes.

Though she’s preparing to ease herself out of the wine trade, she isn’t relaxing her standards. For one, her winemaker, Jason Lewis, is being tutored by consulting winemaker Rich Gilpin, widely and steadily acclaimed for his own Calaveras County brands, Lavender Ridge and Coppermine.

Together, they are turning out wines more in a traditional European style than the brash California model generally associated with the foothills.

In addition to the polished semillon, their lineup includes a slim yet persistent sauvignon blanc, a sweetly fruity chardonnay, a minty merlot, a supple touriga and a ripe, oak-caressed syrah called Esmeralda.

Callan isn’t sure what she will do with herself if and when she closes a sale. “I’ve no idea what’s going to happen next. But I love this, I really love it,” she said, indicating she’s in no hurry to abandon the ranch and the industry she’s cultivated for more than three decades.