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Focus on: Chronicle Wines

Coming off a winemaker dinner on Monday night with Mac McDonald from Vision Cellars, a notable, small Pinot producer from Sonoma, I have North Coast Pinot on my mind. 

I thoroughly enjoyed Mac’s wines and the meal while also noticing that Mac worked hard at not breaking character from his shtick. 

Mac’s a very bright guy, and makes his wines at Caymus, but he dodged the question about how he got to California (amongst others), and let the Texas cotton picking story from his youth hang pregnant as his well-honed patois redirected askance, matching the favored position of his straw hat on crown; a quick one-on-one reference to formerly being a chemist at Sherwin-Williams belied his persona. 

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The guests ate up the pork and Pinot pairings while McDonald charmed with timeworn rib ticklers that have more mileage than his coveralls and frequent flier card.  He definitely plays a character when he’s on the road – somewhere between John Coffey in The Green Mile and Minnie Pearl from Hee Haw.  And, he’s probably seen it all – perhaps one contributing factor to why he was in Indianapolis doing a winemaker dinner with a room full of people that could have just as easily fit in at the Friday night Kiwanis Club fish fry.

Such is the life of a boutique producer.

Because of this, or perhaps despite this, I have a keen interest in the fledgling and their story, real or manifested by omission.

Strip away the shiny veneer and luster of the wine lifestyle and the going is tough when you’re building a brand.  The domestic wine market isn’t wanting for another “boutique” producer over $25 a bottle, let alone $45.  Which means those that are successful—McDonald and others—must possess an enduring charm and moxie that rides shotgun to the good juice.

Undaunted or, perhaps, too far in to turn back, Mike Hengehold, by day the VP of Sales for Luna Vineyards, no stranger to the road, released his inaugural wines under new label Chronicle Wines in 2008.

15 years from now, after having gone through his certain and imminent red hot streak, Mike will laugh nervously—the titter giving way to a sigh of relief … yes, he launched with two varieties and 1300 cases in the midst of The Great Recession and lived to tell the story. 

Focused on Pinot and Zinfandel, wines that his consulting winemakers Ted Lemon and Dan Cederquist coax into what I call the “Nü California” style – fruit forward, restrained, elegant, food-friendly OR delicious alone.  Mike has much to be proud of to this point as the real work begins in order to develop a business that constitutes an ongoing concern.  I caught up with him to talk business and fun.  The transcript from our interview is below. 

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The Serious Stuff

Good Grape:  Starting a garagiste wine project on nights and weekends is the way many wineries get their start – what was the impetus for you to augment your responsibilities with Luna and start your own project? 

Mike: It was a burning desire to apply what I’ve learned over the last many years toward my own project, one that returned me to my Sonoma roots.  I’m fortunate through my relationship with Mike Moone and Maryann Tsai at Luna to have the latitude to act on that creative inspiration.

Good Grape:  Each of the wines are what I would call “lovely.”  Very evocative, but restrained – delicious without being blowsy.  Did you start with a vision for what you wanted the wines to be, or did you work backwards from the talent of the winemakers you work with?
 
Mike:  I’ve always felt naturally drawn to wines with elegance, balance, and subtlety; wines that reflect a sense of place that extends beyond their simple fruit characteristics.  Pinot Noir and Zinfandel from the North Coast are particularly well-suited to this style.  With that in mind, I sought out two winemakers at the top of their craft who could help execute my vision.  The key component was working closely with Ted and Dan at the outset to identify which vineyard sites we could source from that would serve as a foundation for the Chronicle program.

Good Grape:  An opinion on the state of Zin and Pinot in California – varietals that have morphed (in many cases) to be something different than what their history as a varietal would indicate? 

Mike:  I am a contrarian by nature, and these “trends” have strengthened my conviction for the style of wines we pursue at Chronicle.  It differentiates us from many other producers.

Good Grape:  Your presence right now is mostly on-premise in CA and allocation based.  In this economic climate, what are the challenges to building a brand for a small and new(er) winery?  And, what are the challenges to growth outside of CA? 

Mike:  As a new brand, you must find a way to connect with your target consumer, amidst an abundance of brands.  It takes much patience and consistency to gain a customer’s loyalty.  Especially during these times, I believe it is vital that a new brand offer competitive value (at whatever price point) - it is a challenge to maintain that component and yet be uncompromising in approach. Beyond CA, it is of course difficult to get a brand represented with so much competition and consolidation on the wholesale side.  It is also a challenge to keep the messaging consistent over a broader scope.

Good Grape: Any future plans to add a white to your lineup? 

Mike: Yes, a Chardonnay starting with the 2009 vintage.

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The Fun Stuff

Good Grape:  What do you like to do in your spare time? 

Mike:  All forms of outdoor adventure – hiking, fishing, kayaking, skiing.  I regularly play tennis, golf, and basketball and have recently dabbled with coaching.  My son Drew is 7 and daughter Lauren is 5 – I try to spend my spare time with them as much as possible.  I am also a volunteer fireman, which involves weekly training.

Good Grape: Which of the Seven Deadly Sins are you most guilty of? 

Mike:  I suppose Extravagance! I have a small but ever-increasing classic car collection.  I struggle with the constant urge to add to it.

Good Grape: What is your biggest pet peeve? 

Mike: Be true to your word.  If you say you’re going to do something, then get it done.  It’s a true measure of your integrity.

Good Grape: What is on your nightstand?  Men’s Journal and A. Lincoln, a Biography by Ronald White Jr.

Good Grape: What is in your refrigerator or pantry that you might be embarrassed other people knowing? 

Mike: Haribo Gummy Bears - The Best

Good Grape: What do you drink when you’re not drinking wine? 

Mike:  Fresh fruit juices, especially guava nectar.  I will drink beer on occasion, preferring crisp pilsners and creamy Belgian ales.

Good Grape:  Are you always early or terminally late? 

Mike: I used to be terminally late, but with some age and wisdom I believe I’ve corrected that.

Good Grape: Who would you want to play you in the movie about your life? 

Mike: Ewan Macgregor or Emile Hirsch

Good Grape: What super-power would you most like to have, and why? 

Mike: Precognition - it would be a subtle power, yet one I could use to perform a tremendous amount of good in the world.

Good Grape: You are moving and can only take three or four articles with you—what do you grab? 

Mike: My iTunes music collection, family photo album, a mixed case of select wines from my cellar, and my pillow.
 
Good Grape: Where and what was the last great meal you had? 

Mike:  Christmas dinner at my in-laws - fantastic honey-baked ham with scalloped potatoes and fresh winter greens.

Good Grape:  What is your favorite ice cream flavor? 

Mike: Dulce de leche gelato

Good Grape: What is the best compliment you have ever received? 

Mike: “You are the best Dad ever!”

Good Grape:  Thanks for taking a couple of minutes, Mike.  Any family man, who makes good wine and also knows to give credit to his mother-in-law is a smart guy and a friend of mine.  Good luck with the rest of the year, the wines are fantastic.



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Posted in, Twenty Not So Penetrating Questions. Permalink | Comments (4) |


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