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A Chardonnay Convert

Longtime Zinfandel advocate Pete Seghesio charts a new wine path
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Mar 19, 2015 4:00pm ET

There was a time not so long ago when Pete Seghesio bled Zinfandel.

His family owned Seghesio Family Vineyards, one of California' top Zinfandel wineries, and he stood not only as the family spokesman but as one of the industry's strongest advocates for that often underappreciated wine.

In 2011, his family sold the winery to Crimson Wine Group, which retained the services of Seghesio and his cousin and winemaker Ted Seghesio. Ted is still in charge of things, but the sale left Pete on the outside looking in, with a diminished role in the family's wine business.

Seghesio worked as a consultant through 2013, all the while entertaining thoughts about how to get back into wine. A non-compete clause prohibited him from making Zinfandel for five years, and that agreement is due to expire next year. In the meantime, he entertained other wine projects and, overcoming one of his prejudices, discovered a taste for Chardonnay.

In an about-face few could foresee, Seghesio, long a Chardonnay antagonist, learned to love California's premier white wine.

"It has been a long and illuminating road," he said. At times, it's been "humbling, enriching [and requiring] incredible patience—I have learned a lot."

What he discovered, and what many wine lovers already appreciate, is Chardonnay's complexity and multidimensionality. It's hardly the only white that matters, but many consider it the cream of the crop.

He has just released his second Chardonnay under the Journeyman label, a new brand he and his wife, Cathy, and two sons, Joseph and Will, own and operate. The debut is a Sonoma Coast 2012 ($48), tapping a handful of choice vineyards. It's a compelling mix of bright, zesty flavors, capturing the tartness of lemon and green apple, with floral scents and a gentle kiss of spicy, toasty oak.

"It's an amazing varietal," Seghesio said, and tapping his experience at Seghesio in blending Zinfandel with grapes such as Petite Sirah, Seghesio opted to blend vineyards.

At Seghesio Family Vineyards, working with old-vine Zinfandel showed him the power and complexity achievable by blending vineyards. "That's where the idea for multiple Chardonnay components came from. But imagine if one did it with components that are usually reserved for single-vineyard designates. That would be intriguing. That could be great."

After Seghesio Family Vineyards, he came to appreciate the restraints of wine hierarchy, Zinfandel being a notch or two below Cabernet and Pinot Noir among many wine drinkers. "For so many years people kind of pooped on Zinfandel," he lamented. "It's an amazing varietal too, but it doesn't have the pedigree of Chardonnay."

His instincts turned him to Pinot Noir, but at the time it seemed as if that market was growing too crowded too quickly. "I love Cab, too," he said, "but I'm not gonna make a Napa Cab. I don't have the line on [those grape sources], but I did with Chardonnay."

He also turned to winemakers he respected to advise and direct him, names like Craig Williams, the former winemaker at Joseph Phelps, and Erin Green, who made wines for Pahlmeyer before starting her own consultancy.

Seghesio's friend Lee Martinelli gave him access to Three Sisters and Zio Tony Ranch vineyards, once used by Helen Turley when the Marcassin winemaker made Martinelli's wines. He's also buying grapes from Ritchie Vineyard and Ulises Valdez.

Each year Seghesio says he's trying to make improvements, using the winery he built to teach his sons about winemaking. Next year he'll add Zinfandel to the lineup, using the family's San Lorenzo vineyard, which he retained during the winery sale.

Call it what you want, the conversion, or education, or salvation of a die-hard Zin lover. But it happened to the most unlikely of converts, with a wine he never gave a chance to appreciate.

Mark Loux
West Chicago, IL USA —  March 20, 2015 3:44pm ET
I've had the privilege to get in on the ground floor of their new wines. The 2011 chardonnay was delicious and 2012 was even better. I can't wait for the 2013. What's been really fun to watch is the role Pete's sons, Joe and Will, have had in the process.

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