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Perry Creek Vineyards - Sierra Nevada Foothills


When Michael first set eyes on the property, the idea of a vineyard and winery immediately popped into his head.

Remember those Burma Shave billboards that were spread out along the roadside every few hundred feet that you couldn't resist reading? “Believe it or not, that's how I became aware of this area,” says winery owner Michael Chazen pointing towards his vineyard. “I drove by a series of signs along the highway that described this property, and it actually piqued my interest,” he says, sounding impressed that it caught his attention.

In June of 1989, Michael was driving to Reno, Nevada for a rodeo when he spotted those fateful signs. “The funny thing is, I normally fly to places when I go out of town. But for some reason I decided to drive that trip,” he recalls.

The site he stumbled upon encompasses 155 acres of beautiful, open, gentling rolling hills nestled among the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in California's Gold Country. When Michael first set eyes on the property, the idea of a vineyard and winery immediately popped into his head. “I wasn't looking for property to buy at all, let alone a vineyard!” he says a bit mystified. Following his instincts though, he pushed his idea along.

Expert opinions from geologists and viticulturists confirmed that growing conditions at the site were excellent for wine grapes. “We had to start completely from scratch,” Michael explains. The vineyard layout was drawn up, the land was graded and prepared, the irrigation was put in, the trellising—everything was new. “The most difficult part though was deciding what to plant,” he recalls. At an elevation of 2,400 feet, the vineyard is on a ridge-top above the Consumnes River. During the growing season the days are sunny and warm and the nights stay cooled by constant breezes from the valley below. The collective opinion was that the site is ideal for Zinfandel, and it was thought that the Bordeaux varietals Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc would do well also. After a few months of additional research the game plan was ready for execution.

Michael hired a vineyard manager and went to work putting in the first 20-acres of grapevines. Anxious to get going though, he purchased some Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from a neighboring winery and made his first commercial wine from the 1989 harvest. As the vines were still maturing in his vineyard, he released the Cabernet in 1991 and immediately followed with a small quantity of Chenin Blanc.

By the end of next year, Michael completed planting an additional 40 acres of various other varietals including Sangiovese, Syrah, Viognier and Muscat. “We knew that Rhone style wines were becoming more important in California and everything we knew and saw told us they would do well here,” he says. Call it an educated decision or call it instinct, but once again his decision was right on. The Rhone varietals have flourished amazingly well at Perry Creek Vineyards. Evidence of that phenomenon is the winery’s Coteau de Michel wine featured in this month’s Gold Series program.

In time for the 1993 harvest, Michael hired winemaker, Nancy Steel. Nancy was hired away from Mazzocco Winery where she was the winemaker for seven years. Prior to that she was with Stag's Leap and Lambert Bridge wineries. She has over 18 years of winemaking experience and is one of the few female winemakers in the business. “Her expertise has been an important factor in the success of our winery,” Michael points out.

In 1995, Perry Creek's first estate grown wines hit the market with immediate success. Incredibly, each of the four wines released—a Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot and Muscat, won Gold Medals at the competitions that year. The 2,500 cases produced were sold primarily at the winery tasting room. Some of that though was sold to local area wine shops and restaurants within El Dorado County. “We went out and literally started knocking on doors to start the distribution channel,” Michael recalls. “We concentrated our sales efforts locally at first, then kept expanding the circle as our production grew,” he explains. “Controlled growth and distribution has always been a major focus.”

Again, Michael’s approach was the right call. Sales have exploded tenfold since the debut of their first estate grown wines, and they’ve managed to keep production levels growing at the same pace. A major contributor to that growth may well be traced back to their signature Zinfandel wine they call ZinMan, also featured this month. Several years ago during a brainstorming session to redesign their label, a drawing of a whimsical, blue and yellow-starred dancing figure caught Michael's eye. His immediate thought was, 'That's ZinMan' “I knew instantly it was going to make a great looking label,” he remembers. Whether it's the label, the wine, or both, ZinMan has since become synonymous with Perry Creek Vineyards. Since the label change, ZinMan has catapulted to the top of the winery’s best seller list.

Shortly after, the labels for the entire product line were redesigned in a similar theme of whimsical figures and scenes. The new labels have impressed the wine industry too. The design has consistently won Gold Medals and Best of Shows at many of the prestigious wine competitions.

And if awards were given out for tasting rooms, Perry Creek would win a Gold Medal hands down. Their first-class layout not only includes a beautiful tasting room, gift shop and picnic area, but also has a one-of-a-kind vintage and classic automobile and motorcycle collection. And next door is a walk-in cigar humidor room featuring over 100 selections, many of which are hard-to-find in this country.

Perry Creek Vineyards is just beginning to hit its stride, both literally and figuratively. Production capacity is at 30,000 cases a year, a level which Michael figures he'll reach eventually but with no specific timetable in mind. Currently, a dozen different wines are in the winery's portfolio. ZinMan (TM) is the flagship wine, closely followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Made in smaller quantities but just as important are Michael’s personal favorites, Sangiovese, Viognier, and the half dozen or so Rhone style blends he has produced over the years. Each one of these Perry Creek wines is a fine example of the high caliber of grapes now being grown in the Sierra Foothills area. Collectively they represent the remarkable progress this small winery has made in a relatively short period of time.

From the very start, the success of Perry Creek Vineyards has been nothing short of phenomenal. Perry Creek Vineyards has shown year after year that high-quality wines don’t need to come with a high price tag. “Quality at a good price,” Michael says twice, sounding as if it was the company mantra. From site selection, to varietal choice, to high quality product and packaging, distribution and guest hospitality, Perry Creek Vineyards seemingly can do no wrong.



Michael Chazen

Michael Chazen never fathomed he would take his interest in wine beyond that of just an educated wine consumer. ‘I truly had no thought of ever owning a winery—it just sort of happened,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. His quick response to our question tells us he’s heard it asked many times before. Although there may be a slice of truth in his answer, we soon learn that things just don’t happen in Michael’s life—he makes things happen.

Michael was born and raised in the Bronx. Even as a teenager he envisioned being a successful businessman. ‘I enjoy the interactions of business,” Michael explains. Not so much the day-to-day details of running a business, but rather growing a business, the deal making, and the people aspect, the relationship building—in other words, the fun part! To that end he focused his college education on marketing, and graduated with a BBA in Marketing at the University of Toledo.

Out of college in 1964 and after a stint in the Coast Guard, Michael decided to pursue a career in the textile industry. ‘I have always been fascinated with the clothing business, it’s fun, it’s fast-paced and it’s a business that’s heavy on building relationships,” he clarifies. Through some personal networking he landed a job with a large manufacturer in New York that specialized in men’s and young men’s clothing. ‘I started out on the lowest of the low rungs of the ladder,” he says only half-kidding. But he hung in there and gradually climbed his way up. By the early 1970’s he was the East Coast Sales Manager and promoted to head up the merchandising and product design. This new position was based out of California and required that he travel extensively all over the globe. In his travels he discovered and enjoyed many fine wines throughout the world as well as in his new home state of California.

By 1982, Michael decided it was time to fly on his own, so he teamed up with a friend to form his own clothing manufacturing/importing company. Michael Gerald Ltd., as they named it, is a $50 million business, selling Hawaiian shirts, sweaters and other men’s apparel to department stores and big chain stores across the country. Michael has since stepped away from the day-to-day involvement of the business, opting instead to focus on the winery.

‘I learned a very valuable lesson before I started the winery,” says Michael. ‘Hire the best.” From winemaker extraordinaire, Nancy Steel, to seasoned Vineyard Manager Bill Bertram, and a dedicated, supportive staff; everyone has put in what it takes to make Perry Creek Vineyards a world class operation.

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