IntoWine recently caught up with Crew Wine Company founders, John and Lane Giguiere to discuss their venture into winemaking:

In 1983 you entered the wine business as founders of R.H. Phillips, grew that business into an empire with such noted brands as Toasted Head and EXP, went public in 1995 and eventually sold to Vincor International in 2000. On the surface it would seem you have nothing left to accomplish in the wine business. What are you doing differently with Crew Wine Company?

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When we started R.H. Philips, some people in the wine industry were skeptical that quality grapes could be grown in the Dunnigan Hills. We not only proved that they could, we went on to prove that the appellation could produce premium quality wines at an affordable price. After we sold our company, we realized that there was so much more we wanted to do. We really wanted to raise the bar on quality both in the vineyard and at the winery and the sale offered us a “do over”.  This time around, we put so much more into the vineyards from enhancing the soil profile, selecting better clones to plant, to improving the irrigation and trellising techniques. At the winery, we are always tweaking our blends and experimenting with new ways to improve quality. The economics haven’t changed, however; we still need to keep costs down to offer consumers a real value. It’s that tension of constantly striving to produce better wines while keeping costs in check that is the challenge, the game, the thing that drives us daily.

You have four labels under the Crew Wine Company umbrella:
Matchbook - Focusing on Dunnigan Hills Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Syrah, and Malbec. 
Mossback - Focusing on Russian River Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and a Chalk Hill Cabernet Sauvignon. 
Chasing Venus - Focusing on New Zealand and Russian River Sauvignon Blanc
Sawbuck - Focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Malbec from Mendocino and Yolo Counties.

We like having multiple brands with distinct personalities rather than one brand with a lot of different wines. It’s a more focused approach and we have a lot fun marketing all the different, unique labels.

For Matchbook, what attracted you to the Dunnigan Hills AVA?

This area is home; it’s where our roots are. The Dunnigan Hills is an AVA that we created in 1993 and we have a personal stake in improving the quality of the appellation. The soil in the Dunnigan Hills is rocky and steep with good drainage.  The daytime temperatures are warm, no doubt about it, but we get cooling breezes at night from the Delta to the south of us and the differential between the daytime highs and nighttime lows can be as much as 40 degrees in the summer allowing for concentrated fruit.  We have spent 33 years perfecting warm-weather viticulture. We know how to farm these hills and we are really good at it. When our tenure ended at R.H. Phillips we just couldn’t imagine walking away from all that hard-earned knowledge.

Tempranillo is not a typical California wine grape. I think it's only grown on about 1000 acres in all of California. What inspired you to start producing it? 

We have an affinity for offbeat varietals and Tempranillo is the perfect fit for the Dunnigan Hills. We had a test vineyard at RH Phillips, played around with it and had decent results with a generic clone, the only clone available to us at the time. We thought if we could plant some really good clones, we could make a really interesting wine. It was serendipitous that a new clone from the Ribera del Duero region in Spain was available when we planted our new vineyard in 2002. We’ve spent some time in Spain and our climate and soil types are similar to the Toro region; hot and arid. In 2012, we planted 15 acres of two new clones of Tempranillo, one from the Rioja region and one called Tinta de Toro. We will harvest the first small crop from the new vineyards this year and experiment with blending the three clones. We expect the wine to have even more complexity and distinctive varietal flavors than in the past.  

Malbec is most commonly associated with Argentina, and to a lesser extent France where it is known as Cahors. In California Malbec it is most often grown as a blending grape. What prompted you to produce it as a single varietal wine?

The category is developed enough that people recognize the varietal and a lot of consumers seem willing to branch out beyond Argentina. Malbec is a good grape for our climatic region; the chemistry is always well balanced and the wine is true to the varietal characteristics of dark fruit and soft tannins.  This year will be the first harvest of 15 acres of a new clone that we think will give our Malbec deeper flavors and more intense structure.  We like that California Malbec offers the consumer an alternative red wine.

You have a new wine that is generating considerable buzz, a Matchbook Chardonnay called the Arsonist. Why you are excited about it?  

The Dunnigan Hills is a really good growing region for Chardonnay and The Arsonist offers a different style than we have produced in the past. We know that consumers are drawn to the lush California style, but don’t necessarily want to be knocked over the head with butter and oak or pay a high price.  The Arsonist is a lush, rich Chardonnay without being heavy handed. It’s exciting to be able to select the best clones in the vineyard, design barrels specifically for our Chardonnay and take our lees stirring regime to the limit. To be able to offer all that at a value is even more exciting. This is really our Matchbook Reserve Chardonnay, but of course we wanted to have an edgier name. There seems to be a pattern here with Toasted Head, Matchbook, The Arsonist.

Your four labels all focus on California wine except for Chasing Venus, which veers sharply away from California into New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. What is the attraction to making New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc?

Sauvignon Blanc was the first wine we produced at RH Phillips. We are Sauvignon Blanc lovers. The opportunity to produce a high-acid, racy Sauvignon Blanc came about through our connection with Kim and Erica Crawford; we were all part of Vincor in the early 2000’s.  New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is an exciting category of wine and when we were afforded the opportunity we just couldn’t pass it up.

If I could only try a single bottle of white and a single bottle of red from any vintage since Crew launched in 2005, which two would you recommend and why?

The 2012 Arsonist Chardonnay because it is a true showcase of the best of the Dunnigan Hills from our finest barrel lots. And our 2009 Matchbook Tinto Rey because all the blending elements of that vintage came together beautifully. We nailed it that year.

A common question we ask of winemakers in our IntoWine Interview Series is their thoughts on the rising alcohol levels, particularly in California wine. What are your thoughts on the subject? 

We don’t like it professionally and we hate it as consumers. All that high alcohol homogenizes the wine. The majority are out of balance and stripped of varietal character. We make a point of keeping our alcohol levels below 14% or just above if the vintage dictates. We pick at lower degree Brix because the varietal characteristics are clear and the wines are in balance. High alcohol wines perform well in a blind tasting because they stand out, but they are a chore to drink. 

If you were to add a new varietal or style to your portfolio, what would you produce next? 

We are working on a red blend right now based around Petit Verdot from our Dunnigan Hills vineyards. Petit Verdot is the best Bordeaux varietal for our area; it produces intense flavors and deep, dark color. We have blended it with Chalk Hill Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from the same appellation. It’s in barrel right now, will be bottled in December and released next spring as our 2012 Arsonist Red Blend.

Lastly, where can your wines be purchased?

All of our wines are available on our web site at CrewWines.com. Our wines are distributed nationally and can be found in fine wine shops and restaurants in almost every state. We would love to be more specific, but California Alcohol Beverage Control regulations prohibit us from advertising accounts that sell our wines. And we like to keep the ABC happy.