Santa Cruz Mountains AVA
One of California's best kept winery secrets
At the cool northern edge of the rugged Santa Cruz Mountains overlooking the San Francisco Bay, lies the tiny community of Woodside, California. This quaint rural town is home to one of California’s best kept winery secrets and this month’s featured Platinum Series winery—Cronin Vineyards. Owner and winemaker of his own 2,000-case-a-year winery, Duane Cronin has created quite a stir with wine writers and critics across the country with his 1994 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay. To those of you who may be familiar with Cronin wines, all the fuss over his latest release is not at all surprising. Noted wine publications such as Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wine and the Wine Advocate, along with Anthony Dias Blue’s columns in Bon Appetit, and many others, have made Cronin a familiar name among wine enthusiasts. In the widely published New Connoisseur’s Handbook of California Wines, authors Norm Roby and Charles Olken suggest, “If we had only one Chardonnay to choose, chances are we would select one of Cronin’s.” Wine reviewer Robert Parker Jr. wrote of Cronin’s Chardonnay, “luxurious, with super concentrated flavors, a judicious touch of oak, fabulous length, and the texture of the great Batard Montrachet from Niellon.”
“It has not been a easy 17 years,” sighs Duane Cronin, reflecting on the early years of trial and error with starting a small vineyard and winery. He laughs as he recounts an early disaster, “When I first planted my vineyard the rabbits quickly arrived to eat the low lying berries. Then the deer came and ate what the rabbits couldn’t reach. And adding insult to injury, the birds flew in soon after and finished what was left!”
Duane started his commercial winery operation in 1980 after several years of successful home winemaking. “Each year I made more wine than the year before until it was too much to give away or consume on my own. I guess you could say my hobby got out of hand.” The first year as a full-fledged winery he made 600 cases of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir, all produced on the lower level of his home which he licensed as the winery facility.
His winemaking skills were still in the early stages but the finished wines defied his lack of experience and showed great promise. He took courses on winemaking at U.C. Davis, read voraciously all the wine books he could get his hands on, and spent countless hours talking to veteran winemakers in both California and France. “I did a lot of experimenting in those days,” he says. “One year I made 10 different batches of wine all from the same group of grapes,” he adds. “To this day I still experiment with different methods and blends—you have to—winemaking is not just something you all of a sudden ‘figure out’ and that’s it. Every year there are different variables that come into play and you do the best you can.”
Duane purchases most of the grapes he uses but sometimes blends in a small amount from his own Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard. Chardonnay is what Cronin Vineyards has earned its reputation on, but Duane also produces an outstanding Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and a red Bordeaux blend he labels as “Concerto.” Normally he makes 2 to 3 different bottlings of Chardonnay, one from Santa Cruz Mountain grapes, another from Alexander Valley and also a Napa Valley version when the grapes are available. Because his operation is small Duane can have hands-on involvement at every stage of the winemaking process from harvesting the best grapes to filling and labeling each bottle. Cronin Vineyard wines are the epitome of hand-crafted.
More than half of his 2,000 case production each year is Chardonnay. Another 200 to 300 cases are made of each of the other varietals. “I also like to produce at least one new wine each year to keep things interesting and to offer exclusively to my “friends of the winery” who are on the mailing list. In fact, Duane invites Platinum Series members to call and place their name on his mailing list. As a “friend of the winery” you are invited to two open houses each year and you receive notices throughout the year of special events and current wine offerings. Call 415-851-1452.
Duane Cronin has created quite a stir with wine writers and critics across the country.
"My personal favorites are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir,” Duane concedes. "I guess you could say one of my goals is to make each of those wines in a style so complex that it would be difficult to describe the characteristics, way beyond the simplistic fruit or oak components, something more elusive, something virtually indescribable!” It's hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm as Duane exhibits his obvious passion for winemaking.
That passion may have been triggered at an unusually early age. Growing up in La Grange, Illinois Duane recalls his father serving wine when dinner guests were present but not very often otherwise. "I distinctly remember my Dad giving me a sip of wine when I was 5 years old and I absolutely loved it.” When he was a bit older, he also loved spending summers working on his uncle's farm. He grew fond of working outdoors and liked the idea of growing things. All three of these life experiences as a youngster came full circle many years later.
The real catalyst to his wine appreciation though was when Duane was a senior in high school. By happenstance he met a fellow avid sports car buff who owned the same rare "AC Bristol” sports car as he did. It turns out he was also a big fan of French wines and when the two got together to talk cars Duane often found himself enjoying fabulous French wines at his friend's family dinner table.
In 1964 Duane entered Iowa State University and graduated 4 years later with a degree in electrical engineering. Immediately out of college he was hired by IBM to work on a NASA related project they were tackling at the time. This IBM project took him to Washington DC where as a Mecca for European wine, the city's wide selection made it convenient for Duane to broaden his affection for fine wine.
In 1972, after 4 years in Washington DC he was granted a request to transfer to southern California. In order to facilitate the move within IBM though, Duane had to switch his career focus from engineering to computer programming. That intra-company career change eventually opened up an opportunity several years later for a transfer to Palo Alto in northern California. There he bought a 6-acre piece of property in nearby Woodside from where he could easily commute to the office but live in the country away from it all.
"When I moved to Woodside I really had no notion of making wine, let alone starting a winery,” Duane insists. It didn't take long though for the winemaking bug to bite once he realized how close he was to good sources of high quality grapes. "It took about 3 months for me to decide I wanted to make a go at making wine,” he says. He immediately started clearing his property to plant a small vineyard but meanwhile bought enough Zinfandel grapes from Caymus that year to make a barrel of wine (about 25 cases). The wine came out great and he was hooked.
In 1993 Duane left IBM to devote full time to the winery. Today he and his wife Nancy live on the original 6-acre property purchased in 1976. The winery remains small on purpose and is still operated out of his home. "If the opportunity presents itself I may look for a larger place to make more wine,” he says. But right now he's content with the way things are. He's having fun making highly acclaimed wine, spending quality time with his wife and 2 young boys, and making a little money to boot. What more could you ask for!