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Clos la Chance Winery - Santa Cruz Foothills


Backyard Beginnings Evolve into Huge Success Story

It would be easy to concede that Clos La Chance Winery was much more than a ‘chance’ happening. In fact, the evolution of the much-respected San Martin winery is the stuff legends are made of, particularly in the much-storied wine industry where many of the characters and entities sometimes seem larger than life.

Clos La Chance had its humble beginnings back in 1987 when owners Bill and Brenda Murphy grew tired of looking out the browned out back windows of their home. They were residents in the Santa Cruz foothills outside Saratoga, California and decided at the time to plant the acreage in grape vines, Chardonnay to be exact. They felt the vines would offer a degree of erosion control and would also add value to their property.

As the vines matured, they approached neighbors about the project and eventually planted over 50 acres in some thirty-three neighboring backyards. Among the participants were former figure skater Peggy Fleming and her husband who jumped at the chance of having their own backyard vineyard and making their own wine. The neighbors were paid in either wine or cash, and the shell of Clos La Chance was born into the wine industry. After months of discussion, the Murphys selected a hummingbird to occupy the prominent position on its new label.

In 1997, Clos La Chance entered the world of big boutique wineries. Bill Murphy had been introduced to the developer of the prestigious CordeValle resort located in San Martin, not far from Clos La Chance’s initial base of operations. CordeValle’s operating contract called for part of the land to be used for vineyards and Clos La Chance’s reputation as a backyard winery seemed to fit the resort to the proverbial ‘T’’.

An agreement was reached and Clos La Chance was relocated to its new facility at the incredibly festooned resort. For the record, the word Clos means ‘place of’ in French and La Chance was Brenda Murphy’s maiden name. It is ironic that the new location actually gave the winery its chance for success.

The addition of around 150 acres scattered throughout the resort grew Clos La Chance’s production capability significantly. These new vineyards were extremely high tech and combined both vinery and binary systems to make the vines and the winery more effective.

“I just didn’t have the luxury of having hundreds of years to perfect our winemaking like the French did,” remarked Murphy recently. “Therefore, we needed to make everything as efficient as humanly possible. Our vineyards and some of our systems might seem futuristic, but they give us the data we need to make really great wines.” Both critics and consumers alike are in agreement that Clos La Chance wine are something special and have heaped praise and medals on the winery since its very beginning. Clos La Chance now sells its wines in thirty states and exports to five different countries.

The winery is still a family affair, a fact that makes Bill Murphy proud. Wife Brenda continues to be involved as president and operations manager, and daughters Cheryl and Kristin are also involved. Cheryl heads the sales and marketing aspect of Clos La Chance and Kristin serves as events manager for the winery and its liaison with the CordeValle resort.

The production of Clos La Chance had grown to the 60,000 case level and Murphy expects it to remain at that level or rise slightly during the next few years. The winery’s emergence as a respected influence in the area has also given rise to a serious nature venture that Clos La Chance has championed. In harmony with the Hummingbird Society, Clos La Chance introduced last November, a Threatened Species Series, with proceeds going to aid severely threatened birds. The first release featured the Juan Fernandez Firecrown Hummingbird that is on the critically endangered list, where species are given only a 50% chance of existing after the next ten years.

“It was natural for us to do,” acknowledged Cheryl Murphy-Durzy. “Our symbol since the beginning was the hummingbird and we consider there to be a cultural significance in being identified with these wonderful birds. Being nectar collectors, they don’t eat grapes. As pollinators, they are an asset to the winery and finally, their territorial behavior drives other birds away from the vines.”

Without a doubt, Clos La Chance’s attitude and direction are remarkable. It’s a fact that their wines are also.



Bill Murphy - Winery Owner and Visionary

As with many high tech executives, Ivy League-trained (Tufts) Bill Murphy never expected to face the prospect of burn out in his chosen profession. As a high earner and featured executive for high tech giant Hewlett Packard during the incredible development of the 1970’s and 80’s, Murphy was even credited with coining the name ‘laser jet’ for a new era of printers for the company. When he and his wife Brenda decided to plant an undesirable part of their backyard with grape vines, Murphy would have bet that the experience was nothing more than an attempt to make ‘better use of our property and have a little fun with it.” The fact that industry icons Ridge Vineyards and Mt. Eden were next door neighbors didn’t hurt and when his neighbors heard about what he was doing, they also wanted vineyards planted on their own property.

‘The backyard vineyard concept sort of grew on its own,” Murphy, now 61, added with a smile. ‘We turned our backyards into these beautiful viable vineyards. I guess it was up to me to figure out how to put them all together and make it all work.” From the onset, Murphy decided to model his Clos La Chance winery after the classic Bordeaux chateaux of France.

‘We wanted to be able to control our destiny,” he explained. ‘The Bordeaux chateau do practically all of their own growing and bottling, and that method leaves little to chance. It is one of the most important factors in building a really solid brand, the ultimate aim of every winery owner.” The process of leaving an incredibly secure job with a super, industry leading company such as Hewlett Packard wasn’t all that easy and took some getting used to according to Murphy.

‘Let me give you an example, ‘ he recalled. ‘At HP, you flew to your appointments on either a corporate jet or chartered jet of some sort. When you arrived at the airport, there was always someone there to meet you. When we started the winery, we flew commercially and no one ever met us. Some executives forget that it is the position they hold that attracts so much attention rather than the person. They confuse the job they have with who they are. You become very humble very quickly when you decide to set out on your own.” Murphy sees no shortage of challenges ahead for Clos La Chance. He pointed to the long-term economic success of the winery from a business standpoint as his main goal.

‘We are always, first and foremost, building our brand. To do that we must have consistent quality from our estate fruit that is the prerequisite for really great wines. Next, the winery must be multi-generational. Every great winery operation, both in California and in Europe that I am familiar with, is multi-generational and steeped in tradition. That’s definitely one of my aims.” Murphy has also brought his high tech expertise with him from Hewlett Packard. He employs state-of-the-art monitoring devices in the vineyards that feed data into a field computer that measure everything from humidity to wind speed and issues warnings whenever something occurs out of the ordinary. Many modern growers call the use of such systems ‘sophisticated farming,’ and consider their usage as nothing out of the ordinary.

‘In my former business, there was an adage that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. I learned to measure as many variables as I could. Then, I also learned to manage these variables as much as possible. It’s much the same in the wine business, only, this time, it’s my money that is at risk.” Murphy recently inquired about installing solar panels at the winery and was chagrined when the representative asked him why he wanted to install the panels. It seemed odd to Murphy that the person selling the panels would wonder about saving money and helping the environment.

In many ways, Bill Murphy is a most comfortable man that is firmly established in an uplifting business that is currently reaching its business potential. His family who all work with him in his venture surrounds him. His three-yea-old grandson, A.J, has already shown fondness for wine in very slight dosages.

‘We have already applied for an early admission for AJ to UC —Davis,” Murphy smiled. ‘You know, it is never too early to start.”

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