Friday, June 8, 2012

Low alcohol winemaking leads to big money partnership

Gavin Chanin
At age 26, winemaker Gavin Chanin has already worked 8 harvests at two of the best wineries in California, which doesn't even seem legal. He's already one of the best winemakers in California, and according to Forbes, one of the 30 best food professionals under 30 in the US.

And now, he's got big-money backing for his own winery -- his second winery.

Chanin and Bill Price, owner of Durell Vineyard in Sonoma County, announced a partnership Monday to create a new premium Pinot Noir-based brand.

Sorry if I sound like a broken record on the lowering alcohol trend in California wine, but that's what this was all about.

Durell Vineyard is known for ripe, rich wines. Its Pinots were big before big was hot.

Chanin, by contrast, makes beautiful, expressive, low-alcohol wines.

"Bill approached me after In Pursuit of Balance* last year about making some Durell Pinot in my style -- a low-alcohol style," Chanin said. "I jumped on it because it was outside my element, one of the great vineyards of Sonoma County."

* The influential seminar run by sommelier Raj Parr

That wine is still in barrels and will be the first release from the new company, which doesn't have to choose a brand name until it starts selling the wine next year.

In the meantime, Chanin has quit as assistant winemaker of both Au Bon Climat and Qupé, which has to hurt ABC's Jim Clendenen because Clendenen practically adopted Chanin as an heir.

"He took it really well," Chanin told me. "I started there when I was 18 and grew up with it. It makes sense to split away."

The Chanin/Price project will be based at Bien Nacido Vineyards, which also means that one of the three major wineries based at Bien Nacido -- Au Bon Climat, Qupé and Tantara -- is moving out. Chanin wouldn't tell me which because he doesn't want to break the news in advance before that winery does. I know the Bien Nacido folks relatively well and could ask around, but would rather just advise the winery that's leaving to get that press release ready for Monday.

The Chanin/Price wines won't be cheap. Chanin expects to make 800 cases in 2012, not even as many as the 1000 wines from his own label, Chanin wines.

"We've discussed the potential to do 2000 or 3000 cases," Chanin said. "But we're not going to do 20,000 cases. It's really focused on small amounts and quality production. That's something we really connected over. Making that amount of wine allows us to spend a lot of time in the vineyard and pay attention to some of the little things you can't do when you're making big production wines."

Price, who also has invested in Kosta Browne, Kistler Vineyards and some others, is not short of funds. He was once a partner and co-head of the Financial Services Practice of Bain & Company -- yes, the Mitt Romney company. Price co-founded Texas Pacific Group and pulled off a leveraged buyout of Continental Airlines in 1993.

This is as good a time as any to reference the excellent New York Times story from last month about wealthy people who get into the wine business and don't care whether or not they make money.

Chanin/Price won't make all its wine from Durell Vineyard; in fact, it won't make much wine from there, because the grapes are tied up in long-term contracts.

"We did a lunch at Durell (Wednesday) with 15 or 20 Durell producers from all different styles," Chanin said. "There are similar characteristics even at low alcohol. It has this really pure, pristine fruit that I'm not used to. Santa Barbara County has more muddled, forest floor, spice character. There's also a spice element I'm not used to from Santa Barbara, where we have more of a white pepper, in your face spice. Durell has a more rosemary spice. It's really subtle. Even though the vineyard has that reputation for super ripeness, it's interesting to see what it's like when it's not that."

Other vineyard contracts the project has apparently already locked up are three in the Santa Rita Hills: La Rinconada, La Encantada and Sanford & Benedict. Sashi Moorman has shown that great low-alcohol wine can come from there; now he's got another ally.

I love Chanin's wines already, and the guy's only 26. Now he's got financial backing and access to even more great vineyards.

Free advice on the brand name: Don't put your name in it, Gavin. Just look at Sanford, Mondavi, Arrowood ...

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1 comment:

SUAMW said...

When I first tasted his wines and interviewed him several years ago, Gavin liked and was comfortable with how atypical for California his wines are. It's good to see that sticking to his guns has paid off.