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Cline Cellars

Sonoma County region

Rhône Ranger Rides to Success

"The world doesn't need another Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon," says winemaker Fred Cline, somewhat kiddingly. Wine producers' love affair with these two varietals remain strong, however. If you want to make wines with the highest commercial appeal, you make Cabernet and Chardonnay. But a few wineries are riding to success touting a new breed of California wines modeled after France's Rhône Valley varietals such as Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre.

These vintners are affectionately known as the Rhône Rangers. And Fred Cline, owner of Cline Cellars, is perhaps the most acclaimed and well-known of this small group of emerging Rhône-style producers.

Our featured wines this month include two of Cline's celebrated wines, his 1989 Merlot and 1989 Mourvèdre (pronounced moo-ve-dra). Both are limited production, Gold Medal wines of distinct style and character. The Mourvèdre is particularly fascinating, for it is this wine that has helped popularize Rhône-style wines and put Cline Cellars on the map. Mourvèdre has it's origins in Spain and France, where it is the backbone of such great southern Rhône wines as Châteauneuf-du-pape. The clines control about 85% of California's Mourvèdre production, all of which is grown on 80-100 year old vines.

The Cline story begins a century ago when Fred cline's Italian ancestors came to California seeking New World wealth and opportunity. Fred's grandfather was Valeriano Jacuzzi, inventor of the pump/spa. Upon arriving in California, the family's first endeavor was in aviation design. The Jacuzzi brothers developed the first enclosed cockpit on an airplane. After one of the Jacuzzi brothers was killed in a test aboard the airplane, their energies shifted to the injector pump. It was this design invention that led to the world-renowned Jacuzzi whirlpool bath.

Eventually Valerian Jacuzzi and one of his brothers moved to Oakley, California, about 50 miles east of San Francisco, buying farms and planting vineyards. In the sandy soil along the San Joaquin River Delta they planted such Old World varietals as Zinfandel, Barbera, and a hearty red grapes called Mourvèdre. They did not intend to market their grapes commercially, rather they would produce just enough for their own personal consumption and that of their other family members still living in Berkeley.

Valeriano Jacuzzi and his wife raised eight children in Oakley, the fifth was destined to become Fred's mother. Fred's parents met while attending the University of California at Berkeley, and later moved to southern California. Fred spent his childhood summers on the Jacuzzi ranch in Oakley, learning farming and winemaking from his grandfather. When his grandfather died in 1973, Fred moved to Oakley to care for his grandmother and to run the family ranch.

In 1982, he purchased the defunct Firpo Winery in Oakley, the oldest in the region, and began to make wine commercially. The first few years were tough. By 1987 he was making just 1,400 cases a year and was heavily in debt. It didn't seem to matter how good his wine was, he had little or no exposure to get the word out. A big break came in 1988 when noted wine writer, Robert Parker Jr. reviewed his and other Rhône-style wines. The increased exposure led to other favorable reviews. The Wine Spectator called his Mourvèdre, "stunning." And Frank Prial, the New York Times wine writer, called these Rhône-style wines "California's most exciting new wines," adding, "they will be a major factor in wine drinking of the 90's." This kind of publicity led quickly to calls from distributors around the country. And suddenly Cline's business took off.

Today, both Cline's reputation and business are rapidly growing. Fred's brother Matt, now works at the winery as it's winemaker. The winery produces about 25,000 cases a year, with sights set at 30,000. Until 1989 the winery had no refrigeration system, the tanks were redwood, and the fermenters were open-topped redwood vats. Now all of that has changed.

For business and practical reasons, in 1989, Cline and his wine Nancy purchased 350 acres in the Carneros region of Sonoma Valley, where the climate is perfect for growing the Rhône varietals. The property was purchased from Haddon Salt - namesake of the H. Salt Fish and Chips restaurants. Salt had built horse stables and an indoor riding arena on the land. Cline turned those buildings into the new winemaking facilities. They have refurbished and moved into a historical 1850's farmhouse, which also serves as the winery's tasting room.

Gold Medal Wine Club is proud to bring you this opportunity to discover a rising new star of the wine world. Cline Cellars has become a consistent, superb wine producer of non-mainstream varietals. We hope you enjoy this month's selection of Cline's wines.

Featured Wines

Map of the area

Fred Cline - Proprietor

Picture of Fred Cline - Proprietor

Fred Cline is one of nine Cline children, born in Los Angeles, California in 1957. Cline's maternal grandfather was Valeriano Jacuzzi, inventor of the whirlpool pump, named for him. During the summers growing up, Fred helped out on his grandfather's ranch in Oakley, California. There he learned how to farm, helped with the grape harvests, and assisted Jacuzzi with his home winemaking hobby.

When he was 17, his Grandfather died and Fred moved to the ranch to tend the crops and to look after his Grandmother. There his interest in winemaking grew. Logically, he felt it was important to pursue a formal enological education. he enrolled at the University of California at Davis where he majored in agricultural science and management. While there, Fred took numerous courses on fermentation science and viticulture.

After graduation he managed a farm in the Oakley area which grew almonds, walnuts, and wine grapes. In 1982, he stumbled onto the defunct Firpo Winery in Oakley and decide to take the plunge into commercial winemaking. Using $12,000 obtained from the sale of the Jacuzzi company in 1979, he started Cline Cellars. the $12,000 did not last long, and he soon found himself very far into debt and struggling to get by each year. by 1988, he was ready to throw in the towel, when things suddenly started to click. His reputation for producing outstanding wine was being well regarded. A Japanese company had latched onto his wines and quickly bought 5,000 cases. A &70,000 family loan solved an immediate cash flow problem that would have otherwise been insurmountable. And Fred Cline has never looked back.

Today, he and his wife, Nancy, whom he married in 1986, live in Schellville with their four young children on the site of their new 350 acre vineyard and winery. Fred travels extensively these days, promoting his award-winning wines. His modern methods of winemaking allow him to produce greater quantities of wine, but he still incorporates the traditional techniques passed down to him by his grandfather. All of his grapes are organically grown - no pesticides, fertilizers or chemicals are used. "Our general approach is that we do very little to the grape...most of the influence is in the blending," Fred explains.

Contra Costa Region

Picture of Contra Costa Region

Cline Cellars of Oakley, California is the oldest operating winery in Contra Costa County. In fact, what was once the home of over 30 wineries, Cline Cellars is the only commercial winery selling outside of the country.

Winemaking began in Contra Costa County in the late 1800's, when Italian, Spanish and Portuguese immigrants planted grapes to make wine for their personal use. some grew into commercial wineries, and by the first quarter of this century, there were dozens of wineries situated around towns like Martinez, Concord, Walnut Creek, and Oakley.

Prohibition in 1920 put an end to most of the wineries, leaving only a few to produce wines for religious use. After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the remaining wineries eventually faded away. The children of the immigrants did not retain their parents taste in wine. Many had moved to the cities to see employment during the Depression. Also, phylloxera, the devastating plant louse, invaded the area and all but eliminated the remaining vines.

Scattered throughout the orchards and farm acreage however, you will still find some of the original vineyards that are 80-100 years old. These old vines have endured many hardships, but year after year the hardier grapes survived to eventually produce the fine wines of Cline Cellars.