The oldest bonded winery in Monterey, the Chalone winery is the one-and-only vineyard in the Chalone appellation.
Chalone Vineyard is the sole winery in the Chalone American Viticultural Area (AVA), a federally designated area that has climatic, geologic and geographic features that distinguish it from the land surrounding it.
Dramatic climate changes occur at Chalone Vineyard not only from season to season but hour to hour. Temperatures can swing from intensely hot during the day (90 degrees F) to considerably cooler at night (50 degrees F) over much of the growing season. Grapes need these cold nights to maintain their acidity while fully developing their flavors.
The appellation is dry, with an average rainfall of less than 15 inches annually, and Climatological Data Reports from the US. Weather Bureau classify the Chalone appellation as Region I in some years and Region IV in others. Despite such variation, we see very little difference in wine quality from year to year. We feel Chalone Vineyard’s unique character is not based on weather, but on its unique soils.
Terroir may not be tangible, but its presence is undeniable in the wines of Chalone Vineyard. A French word that has no direct English translation, terroir can be loosely interpreted as a sense of place conveyed through wine. The earliest known use of the word comes from the medieval writings of the Cistercian monks of Burgundy. It is believed the monks literally tasted the dirt to understand its inﬂuence on wine production. Often misused, even in the wine industry, the idea of terroir encompasses not only the soil but also the subsoil, drainage, degree of slope, soil temperature, orientation to the sun and the inﬂuence of climate on all of these factors.
Into the 1980s, most California winegrowers didn’t pay much attention to terroir because it was believed that the desired Old World characteristics could be achieved through winemaking technology. Back then, and even today, the major concern in considering a site was climate, but Dick Graft searched for soils. Recognizing that Chalone Vineyard’s soil composition was signiﬁcantly similar to that of Burgundy, Graff set out to produce great wines in which true terroir could be tasted.
Although the Chalone appellation is part of Monterey, it sits above the fog that shrouds the Salinas Valley for much of the day. During the growing season the fog usually burns off by 8:00 am to 10:00 am at Chalone, leaving intense sunlight in its wake. This warming effect is greatly tempered by the mists and cool air from the Paciﬁc Ocean, which swirl around the Pinnacles and its neighbor, Chalone Peak. These afternoon cooling inﬂuences can provide for daily temperature variations of 40 degrees to 60 degrees during the growing season. If it were not for the upwelling of very cold Pacific Ocean water in Monterey Bay, the local climate would be more constant but much hotter.
These environmental elements combine to produce vividly ﬂavored grapes and wines with pronounced varietal character, a great deal of complexity, and a pronounced “terroir”, a French concept which describes those ﬂavors unique to a speciﬁcally deﬁned locality and derived from the soil, microclimate, and other environmental phenomena.
We are passionate fanatics who grow grapes at this estate vineyard to express its terroir. By growing every grape in the vineyard to achieve homogeneity of ripeness, we cultivate rich ﬂavors in our wines. Our vineyard is one of the few in the U.S. that grows grapes in limestone-based soils, and has a microclimate unique in Monterey County. Because of its uniqueness, the area surrounding Chalone was granted its own American Viticultural Area.
Chalone Vineyard’s remote location and rugged terrain provide challenges to growing grapes. To maintain vine health and proper grape chemistry, substantial irrigation is required to augment our normally sparse rainfall. Approximately 200 acre feet of water (1 acre foot = 325, 851 gallons) are used annually to irrigate the vineyards. We have found that with the appropriate amount of irrigation water, the pH, acidity and ﬂavor of the grapes are greatly improved over grapes that are either not irrigated, or receive water for only part of the growing season. Because we have to pump the water almost eight miles from the valley ﬂoor, the cost to grow here is greater than in other wine growing regions.
Our main vineyard pests and diseases are the grape leafhopper, the Willamette mite, occasional mealy bugs, several species of nematodes, grape-loving wildlife (gophers, deer, birds, rabbits and ground squirrels) and last, but perhaps most bothersome, powdery mildew.
We use integrated pest management, a philosophy that dictates using the minimum inputs needed to control a specific problem as well as attempting to balance the environment to control long term problems. For example, a prune orchard was planted to host wasps, which feeds on leaf hoppers. Cover crops provide beneficial insect habitats, improved soil tilth and fertility, and control erosion. We eagerly participate in-vineyard trials of new organic and IPM materials for vineyard pest control. Examples are AQ10 (a predatory fungus to control powdery mildew), hopper tape (a giant version of flypaper), various organic soaps, and microfine oils. These are sometimes effective, often expensive, but provide promising alternatives to the use of conventional vineyard chemicals.
Much of the high cost of farming here is the result of the extensive hand labor needed in hillside vineyards. Pruning, training, tying, harvesting, as well as other operations, are all performed by hand to maximize the quality in each bunch of grapes.
Our vineyard’s soils are quite unusual in that the limestone deposits are interspersed with decomposed granite and moderate amounts of clay. The high levels of calcareous rock contribute to the intense expressions of terroir. The limestone base causes the vines to struggle, which limits their vigor and packs more flavor into the grapes. The overall soil composition produces minerality and brioche ﬂavors in our wines. The structure of the soils inﬂuence drainage and helps create homogeneity of ripeness. Decomposed granite, which has very little water-retaining capability, further reduces vigor, making second crop, excess crop, or canopy management relatively unnecessary.
A volcano 28 million years ago sculpted what is now the Pinnacles National Park, which sits astride the San Andreas Fault. The fault separates the Pacific plate from the Continental plate, and has long interacted with the Pinnacles, alternately dividing and forming a fork around the other side of the formation, resulting in its sinking slowly into the mountain range. The majestic Pinnacles border Chalone Vineyard and its silhouette is depicted on our label.
We conform to the Burgundian concept that great vineyards are naturally low-vigor and have small crop loads. Generally, the French believe that you shouldn’t have to drop crop but should ﬁnd sites that naturally regulate themselves. The ability to achieve true ripeness coupled with minerality and limited vigor deﬁnes Chalone Vineyard’s terroir and viticultural area.