Vintner Profiles is a post series that puts a spotlight one of our East Bay Vintner Alliance winemaker members.
Chouinard Winery is located in Palomares Canyon between Castro Valley and the Livermore wine country on the historic Cook Ranch. Since 1983 they have been welcoming guests into their Winemaking family. Visitors can bring a picnic and taste wine under 100 year old oak trees, listen to live music, or celebrate a special event, wedding or party in the vineyard. Chouinard’s winery is an extension of their winemaking passion. From Malbec, Chardonnay, Barbera Rose, Cabernet, Chenin Blanc, Port, they craft award-winning wines of all types.
The Palomares Canyon area was originally a summer hunting ground for the Ohlone Indians (Miwoks) and later became the Cook Ranch. Palomares Canyon supported both cattle and sheep grazing. In the 1940s and 50s, Royal Ann cherries were grown commercially in the canyon.
George, Caroline, and their two sons, Damian and Rick, found the property in 1977, and fell in love with the beauty of the countryside–rolling hills, streams, and wooded slopes–all within a few miles of major San Francisco Bay cities.
George, Caroline, and their sons planted the first grapes 28 years ago with an old garden tractor. Waxed milk cartons kept the rabbits from nibbling the young vines. The canyon floor where the original grapes were planted was previously used for loading pens for the cattle and sheep, making the native loam soil even richer. Sauvignon Blanc vines flourished in the canyon, but were later grafted over to Chardonnay because of the region’s tendency to experience late spring frost.
At 1,000 feet above sea level, the vineyards of Palomares Canyon are cooler than much of the Central Coast region. The new San Francisco Bay appellation defines the region’s cool, sometimes foggy nights and warm sunny days.
Around 1983, George Chouinard started what the family called his Egyptian project–cutting terraces into the steep hillside in the canyon to plant Cabernet Sauvignon. The leaner, well-drained soils, good air circulation, and sun exposure on the 35% slopes provided an ideal, if somewhat inconvenient location for the distinctive Cabs he wanted to produce.
A “retired” architect, George likes challenging projects. The winery itself was to be housed in an old barn build of hand-cut redwood. George started remodeling the 85-year-old structure, with its dirt floor and dilapidated roof. The results are delightfully eclectic and a welcome change from the commercial atmosphere of many wineries.
Damian Chouinard became the Winemaker for the family operation in 1985. A graduate in Enology and Viticulture from California State University in Fresno, he apprenticed briefly in the Champagne District in France before putting his personal stamp on the wines produced by the Chouinard family. Awards for his wines line the walls of the tasting room.
Damian’s artistic talent shows up in other locations as well. The winery logo design and the native rock walls framing the vineyards are a few examples. He also has an unusual talent–he “knaps” arrowheads. During the springtime, he provides demonstrations for winery visitors, showing them how the Indians who originally lived in this beautiful canyon made arrowheads for deer hunting.
For this Q & A we spoke to Caroline Chouinard.
Who is the winemaker at Chouinard?
My eldest son Damian. We had lived in Europe, in France. We were interested in wine beforehand, and became more so while we were there. We liked the concept of a family winery – we could make and produce it, and see it from beginning to end, and have family involvement. We started small upon returning to the U.S. – we were both still working. Damien began his studies in Forestry, then decided switch majors to Enology at Fresno State.
How long did it take before your wine got the attention of wine drinkers, restaurants, and others? What kept you going?
It didn’t take very long (to get attention). In our second year we received two silver medals from Orange County. That was a definite boost! Damien is very talented. We received Best in Show in the state (SF international) – and that was before they split white and reds in the competition. He always entered his wines in competitions, almost from the start – he wanted to know how his wines stacked up to others.
He has worked on his wines for 30 years, he started making wines right out of school. By not training under any body his wines really are unusual, unique and distinctive to him.
What was the first wine you made?
Cabernet vintage (own) 1985. Gewürztraminer. Won best in show for that gewürztraminer ‘Best of the Bay ‘competition last year, 2013.
Is there something in particular about the Bay area and to why you chose it?
We are in love with this area. The mountains the hills. We are between three major cities. My husband has always worked in urban settings. We like having the urban setting but also nature nearby. This is where we worked and live and it was natural that we would start the winery here.
From where do you source your fruit?
Like a lot of urban wineries we source from other vineyards. We do source some of our own in Livermore, but also Monterey, Lodi and Paso Robles and sometimes Mendocino as well.
What makes Chouinard Vineyard and Winery different and special?
Our emphasis on the fruit characteristics in the wine. Damien doesn’t usually do a lot of aging. But that allows those who don’t have the space to maintain/keep wines to not worry too much about it – makes wines very drinkable. His preference is to make reds, chardonnay and Viognier.
Can people visit your winery?
Yes, and there is a large picnic area and we encourage people to bring a picnic, and we often have music in the tasting room.
What should we know about Chouinard Vineyard and Winery that you haven’t been asked?
Most urban wines don’t produced grapes, most visitors aren’t used to that. It makes them question if the wine is of good quality. Most urban winemakers focus on the wine making, and not grape production – which are two separate skills. It allows the winemaker to focus on the wine production, and that’s how you get unique passion put in the wine and dedicated winemakers.
To learn more, visit Chouinard Vineyard and Winery online at www.Chouinard.com, or visit their tasting room at 33853 Palomares Road Castro Valley, CA. Telephone: 510-582-9900
Image courtesy of Chouinard Vineyard and Winery