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Written by Nikitas Magel   

Rolling Vineyards in Sonoma

Sonoma Winery Delivers Quality with Value
— An Interview with the Proprietors of Charles Creek Vineyard

I'm normally very cautious about making sweeping generalizations when it comes to wine.  As an artisan-driven product with a dizzying array of styles, production techniques, regions of origin, distribution channels, and variations stemming from climate and soil, wine is entirely too complex to sum up with a single turn of phrase or flourish of hand.  But when it comes to the wines of Northern California, namely from the likes of Napa and Sonoma, there's one generalization that I have no hesitation with asserting: they are expensive.  That is, of course, if you're looking for wines of quality.  Granted, it might be stating the obvious that a price tag must be high for something well made.  But if we take a good look at the continuum of wines produced in this region, many will agree that below $30 per bottle retail, their quality sharply plummets into a category overwhelmingly dominated by the uninspired and insipid.  Much of it frankly verges on plonk.  There are, however, a few regional producers who manage to make wines of exceptional value in the $20 to $25 range, one of which is Sonoma's Charles Creek Vineyard.  In an effort to learn the story behind the portfolio of wines I admire so much for its remarkable quality in the context of great value, I spoke with the winery's proprietors, Bill and Gerry Brinton, over a casual lunch on Sonoma's main square.

[After working for some time in the corporate world, following their respective stints at ivy-covered business schools on the east coast, the Brintons moved to California and bought their property in Sonoma in 1984.  It was a return to the Golden State for both of them.  Gerry, though an Iowan by birth, had lived here many years prior, while Bill himself had been born and raised in the area.  The experience was a new one, however, for the recent additions to the family and impetus for ultimately leaving city life behind: their two toddlers.  Once their two sons had become old enough, the seed of a wine dream that had been planted years prior finally began to sprout.]

BB: The dream really started about doing something in the wine business when we first moved up here.  But we weren't really ready to do it while the kids were still young because, you know, family comes first.  We let them get though college before we got into the wine business.  In the meantime, we actually had a beverage company that was headquartered down in Brisbane; it was a fresh juice and nutritional drink company.  But we couldn't really do both at the same time (we had had it since 1993), so we sold it in 2000 to Naked Juice in Los Angeles, and then moved up here [to Sonoma].  By that time, with our kids away at college and having sold the [drink] business, were were free of a lot of our entanglements and we were then able to focus on making wine.  We had planted [Chardonnay] grapes on our property in '92, and had our first harvest there in '95.  But I just wasn't happy with the quality of the Chardonnay that we were getting from our vineyard there, so I budded over to Merlot.  But then I still wasn't happy with the Merlot, so I took it all out and cleared the area of the vineyard, and we've since decided to put a solar farm in there!  {laughter} This is only a little parcel…

GB: … It's only a one-acre vineyard; it's not a big deal!

BB: So we want to get off the [power] grid.  We'll use the vineyard for helping to save money on our electrical bills!  We also realize that we're not farmers.  Even though we have a farming background from our families, from our roots, we like to let the best people do their thing for us, and we like to partner with different vineyards — people like the Sangiacomos, people over in Napa, the Stagecoach, the Krupp family; we had some relationships with Hyde, with Dutton, with lots of different and really well-known growers.

Charles Creek's PatolitasGB: And the other thing is when you have a winery that relies on your estate grown fruit, from year to year, sometimes mother nature doesn't do this year or next year what it did two years ago that was so wonderful.  So, we're not wedded to that sole sourcing that some wineries are; we have the flexibility to decide that we're going to use more of this and less of that, or whatever, because of the way that we blend them…

BB: … that's another reason I don't like owning vineyards, is because you're locked in.  No matter what Mother Nature deals you, you have to take it.  The way we are, we source from multiple locations and marketplaces, we source from vineyards that we do business with as well as the bulk market, which literally has a thousand suppliers and you have choices that the [estate producer] doesn't have.

NM: So, basically, your business model is to select specific vineyards and strike up relationships with their respective growers; then from there, decide on what it is that you'd like to create.

GB: Yes… being in the wine business is expensive.  If you come in with a lot of money and you buy a bunch of land and plant grapes and built a big castle-like vineyard facility, you're talking seven figures, several times over.  And that doesn't put much in the bottle at that point.  So, our philosophy is: spend the money with the growers who know what they're doing, to purchase their fruit or their juice, whichever is appropriate, and put that investment to what's inside the bottle.  And, so we don't own the facility where the wine is made; it's made at the Sonoma Wine Company, which is out there in Graton, and which several smaller and a few large producers use, as well.  We own our own barrels out there, for fermenting our wine, and we keep our inventory on site.  Then we just use the amount of capital fixed investment that we need to, to support what's going on from year to year — rather than have this huge overhead that most wineries do.  And that's how we're able to end up with a wine like Muy Bonito, at $22 a bottle — because we don't have that enormous overhead to support.

BB: We have a couple of vineyards with higher-priced grapes — and when you get up around $4k to $5k per ton, you can get good grapes.  But it's hard to deliver a good price to the consumer with that.

NM: I like that.  Regardless of how it's done, if a producer can focus on making a quality product of character and unique expression, but also make it accessible and something that's not going to be purchased purely for its cachet, and by the tiny demographic who regularly buy wines that cost $60, $75, $100 — then they've succeeded.  I think that most of the people who are wanting quality are willing to spend a little bit more, but there's a limit to that.  In general, especially in the more established and renowned regions, we're seeing a deadening and insensitivity to astronomical prices among Northern California wines.  There's been a huge loss in perspective!

BB: You hit the nail on the head there with the value proposition.  I think every good brand or product has to have some kind of proposition that they give to the consumer.  Ours is that we're wanting to deliver a great wine at a great price.  You're not going to taste the wine that's too expensive or is not of a very high quality.  Plus, it's important to have outside confirmation as to the quality of the product: we enter our wines in lots of different contests and we like to get as many different reviews of the wines as we possibly can.  Because they're good.  And we feel as though this demonstrates to consumers that they really are good wines, because [the reviewers] have said so — not just the owner shaking the tree!

"I think every good brand or product has to have some kind of proposition that they give to the consumer. Ours is that we're wanting to deliver a great wine at a great price."

NM: The interesting thing is — I've always felt this, but am hearing it progressively more, lately in the international wine media — there's an increasing realization that there exists a hole in the continuum of price and quality in California.  There's a huge gap.  There isn't a whole lot of wines of quality in the range of $15 to $25, maybe even up to $30.  But that's exactly what I feel your wines are doing; you're contributing to filling that gap.

BB: That's our target; that's our sweet spot right there.  We do have some wines that are more expensive — some $39 Cabernets and $39 Chardonnay, plus a $55 Stagecoach — but far and away, most of our wines are in that sweet spot you just mentioned.  I think that's where we want to be.

Charles Creek's SonrisaNM: I'm guessing it's also important to have a range, because when people come into your tasting room, sometimes they're not going to want to plop down $40, but they'll be willing to walk away with something that's $15, $20.

BB: That's been our philosophy right from the very beginning.  Once again, it gets back to the value proposition that we try to deliver to the consumer.  That's exactly what we try to do… and continue to make wines at that price point.

[It was clear to me, throughout our discussion, that Bill and Gerry take a great deal of pride in continuing to succeed in their vision of bringing to the market wines that demonstrate a level of quality and craftmanship far surpassing their retail value.  Nevertheless, they were consistent in crediting the technical talent responsible for helping them precisely translate that vision into a reality: their winemaker, Kerry Damskey.]

NM: I'm always fascinated about the dynamics between a winemaker and a winery's proprietor, especially if, as in your case, the winemaker, who has a great deal of knowledge and experience, doesn't really have the last say but ultimately defers to the owner who is intimately involved in the winemaking process.  Tell me a little more about your relationship with your winemaker.  How does it work in general and how closely do you work with him?

GB: Let me give you my take on it, and then Bill can talk about it because he really works with Kerry most closely.  Our relationship with Kerry has been there since the beginning, when we first released the Patolitas 2001, which was really our first commercial release.  We've worked with him continuously over these years, so that now the phone calls and cell-phone messages come in the middle of night or early in the morning; he's almost like a cousin in the relationship he has with Bill — it's very open, very honest, and it's terrific.  And Bill has a great palate that has developed over the years.  Growing up in San Francisco, [his family] probably had wine on their table at dinner a lot more than we did in Iowa, where it was really not part of the deal.

BB: My dad liked Bordeaux and white Burgundy, so I was a lucky man!

GB: So he learned to taste those very early in his life.  And then with the juice company that he mentioned we'd had, Bill did a lot of work with the food technology people designing some of those blends of fruit drinks.  It has a lot of similar aspects to wine.

BB: When you make a product, whether it's a fruit juice or a wine, I think you should make it for the palate, using the different aspects of taste and feel — the first attack on the [taste] buds, the mid-range, the mouthfeel, the after-effect, the ability of the wine to linger in your mouth and give a pleasant sensation.  There are many, many factors at play.  And that's what we try to work with, and why the bulk market can sometimes help us fill in if we have, like, a hole in the wine.  Almost every grape has some hole; there's always some little thing that's not perfect.  If they were always perfect, every wine would get a [score of] 100.  But they don't.

GB: Another interesting aspect of it is that Kerry, our winemaker, is a consultant to us; he's not our own winemaker whom we keep locked up the cellar.  And the benefit is that he's out there consulting for other wineries, as well, tasting other things, exposed to other things.  His knowledge base grows continually, not just based on what we end up doing in our little corner of the world…

NM: … So he's really expanding his point of reference and not becoming overly insular.

"When you make a product, whether it's a fruit juice or a wine, I think you should make it for the palate, using the different aspects of taste and feel."

GB: … Exactly!

BB: And he brings all that real-world experience to us, which we think is really valuable.

GB: It makes him be very busy at times, and even frantic.  But, on the other hand, I think the pluses far outweigh that.  Because to have a winemaker full time on your staff is sort of silly at our size — we wouldn't be fully utilizing him.  The other thing that's interesting is that Bill works from the [more subjective] side of the palate and the flavor [profile].  Kerry works from both sides; the more technical and experienced side as well as the flavor side.  So it's a great combination of the two.

Charles Creek's La Vista CabernetBB: Kerry has a B.S. in Fermentation Science from [University of California,] Davis.  He got it in 1983.  He's very smart technically, and his nose is so much better than mine.  I mean, he'll go like this to a sample of wine I might suggest [pushing glass away with feigned disgust after barely smelling it], "Ew, we don't want this!"  And I'll say, "Well, I didn't think it was that bad!"  And then we'll taste it through and, sure enough, he'll be correct.  I have the taste side of it a little bit… he'll make comments or I'll make comments, and we've found a pretty good balance between the two of us, where we both contribute to the wine.  But I'll certainly never say that I make the wine.  He makes the wine!  I could never do what he does without him, or someone like him…

GB: … [Turning to Bill] But I think Charles Creek wouldn't be what it is without you.  So, it's a wonderful combination of the two pieces.  But it's great to have someone who's knowledge is continually expanding, rather than being very narrowly focused all the time.  Because with what the public is after, what grapes are growing (you've got global warming changing what's happening with vineyards), and you've got people changing with what their tastes are — why not have [a winemaker] who's growing with all that.  If you've got someone you've got to pull out of the cellar to look at the world, that becomes another challenge for you.  This way, we've got someone out there in the world.  He even makes wine in India, for crying out loud; he's got a client over there.

BB: The lion's share of the contributions do come from Kerry.  I couldn't do anything without this guy.  With his technical experience, his trade, and his real-world experience, he brings so much to the table.

[Their winemaker isn't the only one to whom the Brintons feel a debt of gratitude.  Throughout our discussion, I got a strong sense that the proprietors of Charles Creek never lose sight of the value of their sales staff not only as evangelists for the brand, but as spokespeople for wine in general.  I took this opportunity to solicit the opinion and feedback of Darci Feigel, who had been present from the beginning of the conversation.]

GB: We get a lot of great feedback from our pals in the tasting room.  They'll say, "We need something like this" or "This just isn't going anywhere."

BB: I call the tasting room our laboratory, our tasting laboratory.  Because there we get firsthand information, like in a focus group.  I enjoy going in occasionally and asking people what they think, and getting their feedback.  It's great!  It's like having a free focus group.  We used to have to pay [money] for little groups like that [at the juice company].

NM: So, Darci, what two or three things, in your experience in the tasting room, would you say have really stood out for you, time and time again, that have made things really interesting or noteworthy or whatever.  I mean, it's an experience in and of itself to work in a tasting room because you're interfacing with people with quite a range of geographical origin, of experience, of culture.

DF: When I came from a really big, busy winery to this nice, small family winery, I felt like, "Ahhh, I can relax and talk to people a little more now."  So, it changes [the dynamic].  It gives the opportunity to convert people.  They might come in and say, "I only want to try reds."  And I'll say, "No, but you really need to try this; [trust me] because I'm not a white wine drinker either."  And I'll get them to try the Patolitas, which is such a nice, middle-of-the-road [wine], not heavy in either direction.  And they'll say, "Wow, that really is good!" — and then buy their first bottle of white wine!  We have a rosé that does the same thing for people: they'll refuse to try rosé, and I'll say, "Dump it out if you don't like it, but taste it."  Then they end up loving it!

"I call the tasting room our tasting laboratory. Because there we get firsthand information, like in a focus group."

And another thing is the price points on the wines; they're amazed that it's a small, family-owned winery and yet the wines are still reasonable.  We [make efforts to] get the ratings, because people hear the ratings and think, "Wow, it got that many points?  It's going to be expensive!"  And then they'll look at the list and find that it's not.  Because they only think of ratings, a lot of people who don't know or understand.  Also, they're used to thinking of wines [in a certain way], like Cabernet is going to be too big and heavy.  Yet they'll taste ours and — though they will lay down for six or eight years down the road — they can still drink them now and they love those, too.  So, those kinds of things, those aspects, are the interesting things that I'm getting from people as they come into the tasting room.

DF: (con'd) We're so small and not so widely distributed across the United States, which is important to point out when folks come in and don't care to try the wines.  They'll say "Oh, we've been tasting wine all day."  And I'll say, "But you won't find us, so you really should at least try something."  And I'll pick one of the wines that I know they're going to like.  So, that's nice too, to be able to do that with people.

[Of course, none of that cajoling was necessary for me, as I was all too happy to taste wines beyond those with which I was already familiar from prior tasting events.  As they had been poured around the table during our lunchtime conversation, I took the opportunity to try a few of the current releases.]

  • 2007 En Casa Pinot Grigio: 90% Pinot Gris (Contra Costa), 10% White Riesling (Sonoma County) [lush with white flower aromas and white peach flavors, all the more seductive with the addition of the highly aromatic Riesling; $17]
  • 2006 Las Patolitas: Chardonnay, 56% Sonoma Valley, 44% Russian River Valley [beautifully balanced in its expression of bright yellow fruit and round creaminess; $25]
  • 2004 Muy Bonito: Blend of Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache [delightful with its soft and vibrant red fruit and a mildly spicy finish; $22]
  • 2004 Las Pasiones: Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley) [alluring in its soft texture, rich dark berry fruit, and bright acidity, $39]
  • 2004 La Vista: Cabernet Sauvignon (Stagecoach Vineyard, Napa) [sublime in its power, concentration, depth, complexity, and length — on par with many higher-priced single-vineyard Napa Cabernets; $55]
  • 2004 La Sonrisa del Tecolote: Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford) [sensational in its quintessential Napa-qualities of rich black currant, bramble, and dusty earth; $30] Meaning "The Smile of the Owl," Bill says of their flagship product: "Owl was my grandmother's nickname.  Whenever she would come into a room or be at the dinner table and smile, she would just light up the place.  So this is a tribute to her.  She died in 1976 but her memory definitely lives on."

That which also lives on in one's memory is the quality of Charles Creek wines as a whole, as well as their testament to the Brintons' dedication towards making that quality accessible and approachable.  To learn more about these wines and how to get them, visit Charles Creek Vineyard online. v