Chalone Wine Group, which is headquartered in Napa, Calif., had long needed to add a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon to its portfolio. And Tom Rinaldi, the veteran winemaker for Duckhorn Vineyards, needed a change of scenery.
A year and a half ago the two connected to launch a full-fledged Cabernet program. Now, Chalone Wine Group has released its first Cabernet from California's preeminent Cabernet district. Bottled under the Provenance Vineyards label, the wine is a 1999 Cabernet (88 points, $35), made from purchased Rutherford grapes. It's a solid effort, chunky and concentrated.
Future offerings under the Provenance label will include a Carneros Merlot, an Oakville Cabernet, a Rutherford Cabernet from Hewitt Vineyard and possibly other single-vineyard wines.
A Napa Cabernet would seem logical for Chalone given its Napa base, but the company's California brands and estates -- including Carmenet, Acacia, Echelon, Chalone and Edna Valley -- have concentrated primarily on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. (Carmenet produces Cabernet but mainly uses it in red blends.)
The company did not fully commit itself to a Cabernet venture until the late 1990s. In 1999, Chalone's president, Tom Selfridge, formerly a winemaker for Beaulieu Vineyard and an executive with Kendall-Jackson, contacted Rinaldi about heading up the new program, which had begun in earnest the previous year.
Rinaldi initially hesitated, but after he saw the Hewitt Vineyard property, which Chalone had recently purchased, he accepted the offer. "That sealed the deal," he said.
Rinaldi and Selfridge expect Hewitt Vineyard to be the star of Chalone's Cabernet program. "This is a great piece of property," said Selfridge, who worked with the grapes while making wine at BV in the 1970s and '80s.
Chalone paid $118,000 an acre for Hewitt, an expensive price at the time. But given the increase in Napa vineyard prices during the past two years, Selfridge thinks it was a good deal. Hewitt is in prime condition, according to him; it was replanted in the early 1990s, "so hopefully we won't have to touch it for another 50 years."
The Hewitt property is roughly 55 acres of Cabernet near the Niebaum-Coppola Estate, a site that is highly regarded for Cabernet. Most of the Hewitt grapes are currently used in BV's Private Reserve Cabernet, but over the next few years, Chalone will be gradually increasing its take. Its first Hewitt Cabernet comes from the 2000 vintage, which produced about 1,500 cases. By 2005, Chalone will use all of the vineyard's Cabernet.
The new venture gives Rinaldi a fresh start and a new challenge after working 22 vintages for Duckhorn Vineyards, a Cabernet and Merlot specialist in Napa Valley. At Duckhorn, "All the pieces were in place, and I felt like I was on autopilot," said Rinaldi, who had been winemaker at Duckhorn since the first vintage in 1978. "It was a little too cozy, and then when I turned 50 [in 2000], I felt the urge to do something different."
Chalone Wine Group, which owns wineries in California, Washington and France, has a plan to build a winery in Napa, but that is still four or five years away, Rinaldi said.
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