California Wine Royalty Makes a Great Chardonnay

Chalone Gavilan Chardonnay, 2014
14.2 percent alcohol content
Soledad, Calif., $20

Gavilan Chardonnay is a distinctive golden-colored Burgundy-style wine, made from grapes grown in one of California’s oldest and most storied vineyards.

The Gavilan wines, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, are a lower priced line produced by Chalone Vineyard, which has been making excellent wines on and off for more than 40 years.

There are not many California Chardonnays better than Gavilan in the $20 price range. It’s a terrific bargain, and if I could afford it for more than special occasions, I’d purchase it regularly at full price. When it goes on sale for $10.99, I buy a lot.

The wine is a true reflection of not only the skills of the winemaker, but perhaps more importantly, the soils and weather of the isolated vineyard where the grapes are grown. Chalone’s 240 acres of vineyards are so unusual that they have been designated an appellation, an American Viticulture Area (AVA).

The vineyards are 1,800 feet above sea level on a rugged plateau in the Gavilan (aka Gabilan) Mountain Range on the edge of Pinnacles National Park in Monterey County, Calif.

They sit above the fog line that shrouds the Salinas Valley for much of the day. The fog burns off early at Chalone, and the vines are exposed to intense sunlight during the growing season. The heat of the 90-degree days is tempered at night by mist and cool air coming off the Pacific Ocean and Monterey Bay, which lower the temperature to 40 or 50 degrees, according to the company’s website.

The soils are an unusual mix of limestone, decomposed granite and clay that retain little water. The vines are stressed, and must be gently irrigated. The vineyards get only about 15 inches of rain a year; to keep the vines alive, Chalone uses roughly 200 acre feet of water, or more than 65 million gallons, per year.

The result is low leaf growth and small grapes that produce intensely flavored wines with pronounced varietal characteristics influenced by the terroir.

Gavilan Chardonnay, which is 99 percent varietal and 1 percent Pinot Blanc, has bright, fruit-focused layers of apricot, mango and peach infused flavors with hints of vanilla from spending six months aging in French oak barrels, the tasting notes say.

Although Chalone is the oldest bonded winery in Monterey County, with its first vineyard planted in 1919, its stellar modern history began in 1965 when Dick Graff bought the property. Just out of the Navy and with a music degree from Harvard, Graff recognized that the limestone soils of the Chalone vineyards were similar to Burgundy and were well suited for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Graff produced his first vintage in 1966, using an old chicken brooder house as the winery. It was a struggle, but Graff didn’t let problems stand in his way.

Water had to be trucked up twice daily from Soledad, about eight miles away. The generators needed for electricity broke down frequently, and ice had to be brought in daily to keep the wines cool.

In spite of the difficulties, Graff managed to produce excellent wines, so good that his Chardonnay was selected by British wine merchant Steven Spurrier to compete in the 1976 Judgment of Paris along with six other California Chardonnays and four French Burgundies in a blind tasting with French judges.

Graff finished third with his 1974 Monterey County Chardonnay. The 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena of Napa Valley finished first, and Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, also of Napa, won against competitors from Bordeaux. Two years later, in a blind tasting of the same wines, judges rated the 1974 Chalone in first place over the 1973 Chateau Montelena.

Graff became a rock star in the wine industry. He and his partner Philip Woodward built the company into a powerhouse with ownership stakes in eight wineries.

Along with his good friends Julia Child and Robert Mondavi, in 1981, Graff co-founded the American Institute of Wine and Food, a nonprofit organization that seeks to raise awareness of the culinary arts.

Graff continued producing great wines until he was killed in 1998 at age 60 when the single engine Cessna he was flying struck a power line and crashed into a commercial greenhouse in Salinas, a 2016 article in the Sacramento Bee says.

In 2004, Diago, a British beverage company, bought the Chalone Group for $260 million. The company didn’t flourish under Diago’s leadership, and in 2016, William P. “Bill” Foley II, the head of Foley Family Wines, bought the Chalone Winery and 1,000 acres of land, including the vineyards.

Foley, who is the executive chairman of Fidelity National and owner of the NHL’s Las Vegas Golden Knights, is known for producing quality wines. He hired a good, young winemaker at Chalone and brought back one of Graff’s experienced winemakers as an adviser. The future looks bright for the winery.

Gavilan Chardonnay is widely available. It’s an excellent wine for the full price and a steal when it goes on sale.

Suggestions of wines in the $10 range are always appreciated. Warren Johnston can be reached at raiseyourglassofwine@gmail.com.

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