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« Bonarda, Comfort Food, and Typos | Main | 2012's Ugliest Wine Label: Domaine de la Chevalerie Bourgueil “Cuvee Venus” 2010 »

Not Pinot, Not Chardonnay... Chalone Syrah

2009 Graff Family Vineyards ConsensusChalone isn't likely to be the first appellation to come to mind when one thinks of California wines. Napa Valley holds that coveted title, with neighboring Sonoma providing healthy competition. Chalone was deemed an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1982, but its path to fame was paved years before that, by the infamous Dick Graff. A Harvard-educated music major, Graff worked in Chalone Vineyard in the early 1960s, which led him to realize his passion for wine and winemaking. He spent a year in the oenology program at UC Davis, and then purchased Chalone Vineyard, with the help of his mother, in 1965. He released his first vintage under the Chalone Vineyard label later that decade. Graff had a passion for the wines of Burgundy, and consequently focused Chalone Vineyard's production on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Although the winery now produces wines from other grape varietals, it is Chalone Vineyard, and its Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, that most people think of when they hear the word Chalone.

Ever the entrepreneur, in the early 1970s, Graff formed a partnership with Phil Woodward, who assumed responsibility for the financial and marketing duties of Chalone Vineyard. As demand for the estate's wines grew, the winery attracted investors, and with Woodward, Graff launched the Chalone Wine Group. By the 1980s, the group was able to fully acquire wineries such as Acacia and Carmenet, and make partial investments in Edna Valley Vineyard, Canoe Ridge Vineyard, and Chateau Duhart-Milon. Although Graff's entrepreneurial talents cannot be denied - he made Chalone Vineyard the country's first publicly traded winery and made the Chalone Wine Group one of the world's largest wine conglomerates - it would be a disservice to focus solely on his entrepreneurialism, as his winemaking talents were equally prolific. Graff retired from Chalone Vineyard in the mid-1990s, and in 1996, began to make wine from Chalone Vineyard grapes, under the Graff Family Vineyard label.

Sadly, Graff's return to small production wine making was brief, due to his untimely death on January 9, 1998. Graff crashed his single engine Cessna on a flight between San Francisco and Chalone. While Graff no longer directly controls the winery's production, his influence is ever present. The winery is run by the Woodward-Graff wine foundation, and the winery states that its Consensus red blend is made "in honor of the late Dick Graff and his book Consensus, [as] the wine shows how conflicting grapes like conflicting ideas,can come together to make the whole better than the parts."

A blend of 91% Syrah, 7% Mourvedre, and 2% Viognier, I found the 2009 Consensus to be absolutely delicious. It is soft and plush on the palate, with extremely fine tannins, and ripe, redolent flavors of blackberry, and blueberry pie. The practice of incorporating a small amount Viognier into the blend is typically employed in the Northern Rhône and Australia, and it has been used to great effect by winemaker Dan Karlsen, in this phenomenally sexy wine that might be the best wine under $20 that I've tasted all year.

Curiously, although Chalone Vineyard is known for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Graff Family Vineyard's lineup of wines does not feature either of those varietals, instead featuring Pinot Blanc, Viognier, Muscat, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Syrah. Chalone Vineyard states that the Syrah was planted for the first time in 1998, following Dick Graff's death. I'm not sure what, if any, influence the late Mr. Graff had on the decision to plant Syrah, but if the Consensus is any indication, consumers may soon start to recognize the Chalone AVA for more than just it's Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The full lineup of wines currently available from Graff Family Vineyards can be seen here. I've yet to try the full lineup of wines, but in addition to the Consensus, I can give a ringing endorsement for the winery's Pinot Blanc, which in my opinion serves as the best explanation available for how Pinot Blanc came to be called "Poor Man's Chardonnay." This is not to imply that Graff Family Vineyards' Pinot Blanc is in any way inferior, but it should be noted that this Pinot Blanc takes on a much richer and rounder character, than is sometimes expected from this grape. 

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