Cloninger Cellars Winery
Loren Cloninger grew up in an area of the Salinas Valley in Central California that was dotted with dairy farms and vegetable growers. His family had farmed the area around Gonzales since his great grandfather had emigrated from an area in Switzerland near the Italian border in the latter part of the 19th Century.
Similar families of Swiss-Italian ancestry inhabited the area and a small colony of dairymen/farmers carved out a respectable living in the rich soils and sloping bench lands of the Santa Lucia Highlands. In 1895, Cloninger’s grandfather, Enos Pedrazzi was born in a setting about one mile from what is today’s Cloninger Cellars Winery.
It was Enos Pedrazzi and his wife Nina that first interested young Loren Cloninger in wine.
“One of my grandfather’s brothers made some wine around our house and my grandmother used to take a circular route two or three times a week,” Cloninger recalled. “She would visit all her friends who were also Europeans in the neighborhood at the various dairies and farms. I was still quite young but she would drag me along. Most of the time we were greeted in the European tradition with bread, salami and cheese. Of course, there was always some homemade wine that we either brought or were offered, and I was allowed a few sips. I guess it was pretty good because it certainly affected my later life.”
Cloninger settled into his family’s vegetable growing business until he began to notice the influx of grape vines that started to dot the Santa Lucia Highlands
during the late 1970s and early 1980s. His own passion for wine had rekindled since his youthful experiences and in 1988 he decided to open a winery operation named Cloninger Cellars. He entered the venture with a pair of local growers, Joe and Phil Boskovich, and began doing business.
The entity’s first release was a mere 800 cases of 1988 Chardonnay. One of the first competitions entered was the prestigious Orange County Fair and Cloninger’s initial chardonnay was awarded a Gold Medal by the mostly winemakers judging panel. Cloninger Cellars was off to the races!
After another small production year in 1989, it was decided that the winery begin planting its own vineyards and a sizeable 70-acre plot was purchased. In the beginning a total of ten acres were planted in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Each succeeding year another ten or fifteen acres were planted until the final vines were set in 1996.
“The Salinas Valley and the Santa Lucia Highlands to be more specific,” Cloninger remarked, “is an almost perfect location for grapes. The combination of winds, soils and maritime influences is spectacular for certain varietals. Both the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay flourish in this type of setting.”
Immediately after the conclusion of planting, Cloninger Cellars opened its new tasting room and began offering its wines to the entire world. Annual case production has peaked at around 3,000 cases and Loren Cloninger intends to remain at that level for the foreseeable future.
“This is not the time to be expanding in the wine business,” he offered. “It is best to sit tight at this point. There is a lot of wine and a large amount of grapes available and the wineries that are prudent now will be around later.”
Loren Cloninger is most excited over the prospect of a joint venture vineyard planting with Gary Pisoni, a grower he labels “the hottest Pinot Noir grower in the State of California.” Also included in the new venture is grower Robert Sillacci who also carries a rising reputation as a top Pinot Noir grower. The first vines were planted last year and expectations are high that the plot will one day produce vineyards on a par with any in the state.
At this time Loren Cloninger is content to keep his namesake winery small, only four employees plus a number of seasonal laborers.
“Small is good for now and small allows us to completely control our quality, a basic requirement since I first started Cloninger,” he added. There’s something to be said for such a philosophy in this age of expanded wineries and state of the art facilities. As a Gold Series selection, we are betting that Loren Cloninger is dead right about his winery and his incredible wines.
His lifelong passion for wine and excellent business sense simply couldn’t allow him to be wrong.