Photo by Lindsay Masten

Chronic Cellars

You’ve got to love the guys at Chronic Cellars in Paso Robles. Here are two brothers, Jake and Josh Beckett, who grew up in the wine industry and launched their winery in 2008 on not much more than a hope and a prayer.

It was perhaps not an ideal time to begin a company that produces a discretionary product. The economy was in the tank, wine sales at local tasting rooms were tumbling, and unemployment lines around the country were growing. No matter. Jake and Josh mortgaged a house to come up with their initial operating capital, used fruit from their own vineyards plus some they bought from other vineyards in the area, and voilá! Chronic Cellars was born.

Photos by Lindsay Masten
Photos by Lindsay Masten

What the Beckett brothers lacked in cash they more than made up for with a wealth of experience in the wine industry. They grew up in Paso Robles, the sons of Doug and Nancy Beckett, founders of Peachy Canyon Winery. They worked in all aspects of the wine business, Jake on the sales and marketing side and Josh on the production side. They were as well prepared to start a winery, from an experience standpoint, as anyone could be. So it was better than even money that their venture would be successful.

Sure enough, six years later, in 2014, they sold the winery for an undisclosed price to Winery Exchange, a Northern California company based in Novato, which, according to the company’s website, is a “provider of beverage alcohol products and services.” The company has been recognized as one of the top 30 wine companies in the nation by Wine Business Monthly, and listed by a San Francisco business publication as one of the fastest growing companies in the Bay Area.

Moving forward, the entire staff was retained by the new owners. Smart move: Chronic Cellars’ success largely stems from targeting the fastest growing segment of the American wine market: millennials. The key?

First came the name. The brothers were trying to come up with a name for their fledgling winery, but without much luck. “One night during crush we were tossing goofy names out,” Jake said during a recent interview at the Chronic Cellars tasting room at 2020 Nacimiento Lake Drive in Paso Robles. They had used “chronic” as a description of likeable things, perhaps coining a new meaning. “We tossed ‘chronic’ out there, and it stuck,” he said.

Next, they had to come up with a label. They had always liked the artwork of their childhood friend Joe Kalionzes and asked him to design their label. The labels have the appearance of woodcuts, with themes featuring skulls and skeletons. They also have amusing names, such as Stone Fox, a white Rhone blend of near equal amounts Grenache Blanc, Viognier, and Picpoul sporting a woman’s profile; Sofa King Bueno, a colloquial description; Robyn Cradles, Petite Sirah with Syrah and Zinfandel thrown into the mix, which features a buxom woman palling around with two skeletons; and Dead Nuts, a Zinfandel, Tempranillo, and Petite Sirah blend featuring a mustachioed, derby-tipping skeleton.

Joe Kalionzes designs the edgy labels and graphics. They have the appearance of woodcuts, with themes featuring skulls and skeletons. Photo by Dina Mande
Joe Kalionzes designs the edgy labels and graphics. They have the appearance of woodcuts, with themes featuring skulls and skeletons. Photo by Dina Mande

Rather than the clean, classic wine label that appeals to baby boomers, the biggest segment of the American wine market, Chronic Cellars’ label is bold, edgy, contemporary, pushing the envelope, and appealing to the market’s fastest growing segment.

And they’re making their way to Chronic Cellars’ in droves. Stop by the tasting room some weekend and you’ll find it jammed with young wine drinkers. “It’s crazy,” said tasting room manager Angela White. “Our labels grab them, but our juice keeps ‘em coming back.”

And that’s the thing. The labels may be cool and trendy, but the wine is top quality. You’d expect that considering that Josh made wines for several years at Peachy Canyon, while Jake handled the marketing.

While Peachy Canyon began as a Zinfandel specialist (its portfolio has since branched out), Chronic Cellars’ wines are all blends. While some of the wines meet the 75-percent legal requirement for varietal designation—Robyn Cradles is 76 percent Petite Sirah, Suite Petite is 87 percent Petite Sirah, and Mr. Nibbles is 76 percent Zinfandel—all are blends.

Over the years I’ve come to recognize the wisdom in the old adage that a blended wine is greater than the sum of its parts. No better example of that is the Sofa King Bueno. It’s a blend of 47 percent Petite Sirah, 45 percent Syrah, 5 percent Grenache, and 3 percent Mourvedre, and is so… so… frenetically good. The flavors are complex, bright with a focus on the fruit. At $22 suggested retail, it’s a steal. If the labels turn you off, the wine will certainly turn you on.

Another excellent example is Dead Nuts. A blend of 64 percent Zinfandel, 21 percent Tempranillo, and 15 percent Petite Sirah, this one reminds me of Especial, one of Peachy Canyon’s long ago offerings. Especial was Peachy Canyon’s reserve, a classic Zinfandel made, as I recall, from the Dusi Vineyard. I haven’t seen the wine for some years, and the last offering I could find online was from the 2000 vintage. It was a special wine. Dead Nuts has a Zinfandel nose and the added complexity provided by the Spanish varietal Tempranillo and the Petite Sirah. Delicious! And just $26.

The most expensive wines Chronic offers are El Perfecto, a 50-50 blend of Zinfandel and Tempranillo, and Robyn Cradles. Both are listed at $40. The El Perfecto offers a contrast to the fruit forward Sofa King Bueno and Suite Petite. It’s soft and elegant with a long finish. It’s a wine you’d want to lay down for a couple-three years.

Chronic Cellars has come a long way in a short time, from the first year when Jake and his wife, Dawn, the winery’s general manager, applied the labels by hand. Today, it produces 20,000 cases and, as Jake said, “has one of the most successful tasting rooms in the area.”

It’s a great example of what two guys with a dream, a concept, and a thorough knowledge of the industry can do. It’s a chronic success story.

CHEERS!

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