Clos LaChance Winery
Bill and Brenda Murphy chose the multi-faceted hummingbird as the key symbol for their attractive label
The old axiom that there’s a story for every winery and a winery for every story can be estimably appreciated; particularly regarding the emergence of Clos LaChance as one of the Santa Cruz Mountains most highly respected wineries.
It’s also quite remarkable that Clos LaChance’s owners, Bill and Brenda Murphy chose the multi-faceted hummingbird as the key symbol for their attractive label. Bill Murphy considers the aggressive and entertaining bird a savior in the vineyards by chasing other birds that seek to do damage to the vines. As far as the winery name, “clos” means place in French and LaChance was Brenda’s maiden name. Its selection heralded the couple’s exciting foray into the wine business more than thirteen years ago.
At the time, Bill was an executive with Hewlett-Packard and was living in the history-laden fertile slopes of Saratoga, just West of San Jose. The business began simply enough with the planting of vines in the couple’s backyard as more of a hobby than a business. Bill was prudently aware of the former time when Santa Clara Valley was renowned for its excellent fruit and grapes. He further summarized that many Santa Clara (now called Silicon) Valley homeowners with moderate sized estates were faced with the potential of growing grapes under conditions similar to his own.
Today, Bill Murphy is the Chairman and CEO of his own operation as well as more than twenty-five other estates (from ½ acre to 10 acres). Through a sub-company formed by Murphy, they partially supply Clos LaChance with fruit for their wines. A neat beginning, but there’s even more substance to the Clos LaChance story.
Blessed with steady success and an ongoing demand for their wines, Clos LaChance set out some four years ago to find a spot to locate a winery that would meet their needs. Through a chance meeting, the Murphys were introduced to the developers of Corde Valle Golf Club, a unique (no homes) 1,700-acre development in Lion’s Gate Valley that was seeking agricultural involvement to meet its usage requirements. Next, a deal was struck to locate the winery on the property.
In 1999, eighty-five acres was planted near the sixth green that gives the area the look of Chardonnay Golf Course in Napa or Wente’s beautiful golf environment in Livermore. More plantings are expected in the near future with additional acreage available if Clos LaChance continues its growth.
The 25,000 square foot winery is nearing completion (summer of 2001) and is completely state of the art with planned capacity for 50,000 cases. The views from the patio and tasting room, situated on a knoll benevolently provided by nature, are unparalleled and breathtaking, and conjure up the ideal relationship utilizing the golf/wine theme. The site, available for use at the end of 2001, also presents a much-needed corporate setting for numerous high tech companies looking for a place to unwind and host uninterrupted meetings and gatherings.
“It’s like a dream come true,” remarks Brenda Murphy, who works full time at the winery as its President. “When we started, our goal was to make it into a family wine business, something multi-generational that we could share with our children. Our daughter Cheryl now handles our marketing so our dream is complete.”
Clos LaChance will produce about 15,000 cases in 2001, and will expand its production as their estate vines reach fruition. The Murphys are also excited about Jeff Ritchey, their young Winemaker who actually sought them out. Ritchey is a native of nearby Cupertino who opted for the bucolic charm of Santa Clara Valley rather than the prominence of Napa or Sonoma.
“Jeff is young, highly energetic and very thorough,” added Brenda Murphy. “He had many opportunities up north but chose to cast his lot with us. He has a tremendous palate and is truly a hands on Winemaker.”
Bill Murphy - Winery Owner & 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 LaChance winery after the classic Bordeaux châteaux of France.
‘We wanted to be able to control our destiny,” he explained. ‘The Bordeaux château 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 LaChance. 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.”