Driving up and up a twisting dirt track toward the Chalone winery, nothing in the steep, sere hillsides, lying arid and exposed to the glaring sun that reigns over this realm of dust and chaparral, could convince you that the landscape and climate are anything like Burgundy. Yet from this improbable parched landscape, some 1800 feet up the Gavilan range, high over the city of Soledad and just under the Pinnacles National Monument, emerges some of the best (and at times controversial) chardonnay and pinot noir wines in California, as well as pinot blanc and chenin blanc, the latter from a vineyard planted in 1919, the oldest in Monterey County. (This image looks down on Chalone from the hills above.)

That vineyard was planted by F.W. Silvear, who after the end of Prohibition sold grapes to Almaden and Wente and made a little wine of his own. He died in 1957, and the property went through various changes of name and ownership until Richard Graff, a Navy veteran with a degree in music from Harvard, bought the insolvent company, with investment from his mother, in 1965. After a great deal of trial and error, the first wines were produced in 1969. Graff was fascinated by Burgundian methods, and he introduced to California the concepts of barrel fermentation and malolactic fermentation for white wines. It wasn’t easy making wine at Chalone. The winery was a former chicken coop that held 40 barrels. The property had no electricity, water or telephone service until the early 1980s; water for irrigation had to be trucked in from Soledad, and at night oil lamps came into service. A “real” winery was constructed in 1982, but it’s more easily described as a facility than a winery; no fancy digs here, no beautiful building designed by a famous architecture, the Chalone winery consists of serviceable offices, metal sheds and tanks. That former chicken coop/winery (see accompanying image) now holds the library of Chalone’s past vintages, a collection that can make visitors downright giddy.

In 1972, Phil Woodward resigned from the accounting firm Touche Ross and joined Chalone Vineyard as vice president of finance, a position that allowed him to take over all marketing and financial matters and to bring in a group of investors and much-needed cash. Graff and Woodward shared a vision that included maintaining Chalone as a fairly small producer but expanding the company through partnerships or through the creation of new wineries in other regions of the state. Thus came about the establishment of Edna Valley Vineyard winery in San Luis Obispo County, the Carmenet winery — since 2009 a brand for cheap wines from Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Co. — and Canoe Ridge in Washington and the acquisition of Acacia and Jade Mountain and Staton Hills (in Washington), renamed Sagelands Vineyard. Chalone made an initial stock offering in 1984, the first California winery to go public. The Chalone Wine Group was purchased in 2005 by beverage giant Diageo, though as Robert Cook, Chalone winemaker since 2007, said, “They take care of the books. We take care of the wine.”

Dick Graff was killed in 1998, when his single-engine Cessna went down near the town of Salinas.

The Chalone American Vitacultural Area was approved in 1982, the first AVA in Monterey County, as Chalone was its first bonded winery. Though the region now contains seven vineyards, it has only one winery, Chalone itself. As long ago as the 1890s, when Frenchman Maurice Tamm planted vines in the declivities of these long, dry slopes, the area’s unique properties — its deep calcareous soils and its paucity of rainfall, about 14 inches a year — were recognized for the demands they would make on vines to work hard for nourishment and for the element of minerality the soil contributes to the wine.
Here are the wines we tasted, under a blue sky and bright sun, on Wednesday, September 12:

If you taste enough wine, you learn pretty quickly to recognize a great one, because great wines convey a sense of resonance, dimension, presence and character that go beyond the sum of their parts. Trying the Chalone Estate Chenin Blanc 2011, for example, I immediately felt the wine’s superior quality in its balance, ineffable weight and finely woven fabric of myriad nuances. The grapes derive from the vineyard planted in 1919, which saw replantings in the 1940s, ’70s and mid-’80s, so some of the vines range back 70, if not 90, years. While the details of the chenin blanc grape’s typical nature come through distinctly — I mean the intense hay/roasted lemon/lime peel/waxy white flower/spicy elements –what particularly impresses here is the broad vibrancy and liveliness, the plangent body, poise and personality. (About $25) Equally momentous is the Chalone Estate Chardonnay 2010, a classic welter of candle wax, quince jam, roasted lemon, smoke and jasmine set into a structure that scintillates with undertones of limestone, flint, supple oak and chiming acidity. (About $26) Then there’s the Chalone Estate Pinot Noir 2010, a model of delicacy and decorum and well-knit, satiny texture whose intense notes of strawberries, raspberries and rose petals are supported by undertones of briers and brambles and dry, slightly leathery tannins. (About $37). The chardonnay and pinot noir rate Excellent; the chenin blanc rates Exceptional.

We also tasted several wines, notable for their purity and intensity, from the label of Michael Michaud, winemaker for Chalone from 1983 to 1997, beginning with the powerful yet perfectly balanced Chardonnay 2010 (about $39) and going on to the deeply spicy and floral Marsanne 2010 (about $43); the absolutely entrancing, poised, spare and elegant Pinot Noir 2006 (yes), wonderfully fresh and delicate (about $40, and I wish I had a case); and a still firm, leathery and tannic Syrah 2005 (about $40). These wines rate Excellent.