Line Shack Winery Embraces San Antonio Valley's Unique Environment and Proves that Cabernet can prosper in even the most Unexpected of Settings.
This month’s Gold Series Selection, Line Shack Winery, began its existence as a modest family-owned and run startup business in 2003. The Balentines, Bob and Daphne, decided to execute a long time dream of operating a small commercial winery in an area of Monterey County that was sparsely populated and seemingly ideal for their new enterprise.
The couple relied on Bob’s long-term knowledge of the area and in particular, his furtive dream of one day making a distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon in an environment that seemed almost unsuited to the needs of the extensively hung red Bordeaux varietal. Insiders felt there were few locations in Monterey that offered sufficient heat for the Cabernet vines.
The project became known as the Line Shack Winery in honor of the first building in which the family’s wines were made, a neglected line shack at a high elevation in the northern part of Monterey County.
“A line shack, in the lore of the old west,” explained Bob Balentine, “referred to a small cabin where cowboys on horseback could take shelter from nature’s wrath. It was usually found out in the wilderness and often provided the only shelter the cowboys would have from the elements and the only place they could cook a reasonable meal. Our family acquired a small ranch in Chualar Canyon in 1989, and the only building on it was the cabin. The first time we saw the place, we knew it would be perfect for what we wanted to do.”
In 2004, the first harvest was crushed and the following year the first bottles of Line Shack Winery made their way onto the shelves and into the hands of the general public. A small total of about 750 cases were produced that year, a figure that has grown rapidly until it reached this year’s total of around 7,500 cases.
“We intended to keep our operation quite small,” Balentine explained. “When we did the numbers, we figured it would take us about 2,500 cases to make a living. I was prepared to make the wine, go around and sell it and anything else that was needed. Even with the medals we started receiving, it was really a tough go. I had long term contracts for a large amount of grapes, and it was taking longer to get Line Shack established than we first thought.”
Then the world changed for the Balentines. Bob became aware of a large demand for bulk wine that provided him a neat profit for his high caliber grapes. He began to augment his winery’s income by selling off all his unused wine. Of course, he kept the juice he considered the best for his Line Shack Winery wines.
Numerous gold medals and consistent accolades later, found Line Shack an emerging winery that has set some remarkable goals for itself. In three to five years, Line Shack hopes to become a much larger winery, with total production around the 15,000 case level.
In order to accomplish that aim, the Balentines brought in an outside partner, Bob Leighton, who has provided some financial help and also assists in the administrative aspects of the Line Shack operation.
Little else has changed at the winery, and Bob and Daphne continue to produce all the wines by themselves.
“It becomes quite a chore when we do the bottling, but Daphne is right there with me on every step,” confided Balentine. “She does a good deal of the topping and barrel maintenance and I really respect her palate when it becomes time to test the blends. Whenever someone asks, I am proud to say Line Shack really is a family operation.”
While Line Shack has no formal tasting room, it can be found in sixteen states. The family’s original line shack cabin is still utilized for picnics, outings and VIP entertainment.
Bob Balentine appears content with Line Shack Winery’s emergent status. Asked if he had expected Line Shack’s sudden popularity and level of achievement, he replied with the following.
“Was I prepared for all this? Well, yes and no. I certainly had high expectations when we started and I would have been very disappointed if we had failed. As far as the growth and the awards, I feel it is great validation for our efforts. We are still pioneers in the business, particularly with our Cabernet Sauvignon, and there is still much work ahead if we are to achieve our goals.”
Winemaker Bob Balentine
Owner/winemaker Bob Balentine is self-taught with more than twenty years experience under his belt. He draws from his long familiarity in the field of agronomy and, in particular, of his expertise in knowing and recognizing microclimates that affect the eventual outcome of grapes to such a great degree.
Bob Balentine is 46 and originally from Salinas (of John Steinbeck fame) in Northern Monterey County. He attended prestigious Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo where he majored in Agronomy.
Upon graduating, he entered the bag salad industry where he then encountered an Italian named Lucio Gomiero, who subsequently became the world’s radicchio (those little red pieces in everyone’s salads) king. Gomiero also owned a pair of great Italian wineries, and was instrumental in developing Balentine’s interest in wine as well as a European-oriented palate.
‘We were roommates for a couple of years,” Balentine recalled. ‘Lucio would go back to Italy and would always return with a number of cases of his and other great European wines. I can honestly say that period is when I developed my taste for red wines, and Cabernet Sauvignon in particular.”
For the next two decades, Bob and his wife Daphne continued their interest in wines and made numerous trips up the coast to all of the main growing areas of California. In Napa and Sonoma, he revisited his beloved Cabernet Sauvignon.
‘Whenever I mentioned I was from Monterey, all the Cabernet growers would say that Monterey wasn’t good for growing Cabernet, so I started to think about it. I was familiar with practically every nook in the county and I began to believe the San Antonio Valley would be okay for the varietal.
I began some experimenting and bought grapes from different sources including a friend of mine named Johnny Gill. We crushed the grapes and made some barrels for our own use. I became more and more convinced that Cabernet would prosper in the San Antonio Valley if it were given a chance.”
And the rest is history, or so it is said. The pioneer Bob Balentine is now considered the seer Bob Balentine and his marvelous Cabernet Sauvignons from Line Shack Winery have become a huge success. There are now more than 600 acres of Cabernet planted in the newly created (2007) San Antonio Valley AVA and Bob has long-term contracts on about 25% of the grapes.
Bob has set his sights on raising the production of Line Shack Winery and has included a number of Rhône varietals to his winery’s portfolio. To him, the Rhône grapes are a natural extension of his cherished Cabernet Sauvignon.
‘I always liked the jammy quality of French Rhônes that I tasted for many years; they were generally very pleasing to the palate. When I saw the need to expand our operation, the first things I thought about were several Rhône wines. Both the Syrah and the Petit Sirah have done quite well for us in the competitions, which is not always the case when you expand your portfolio.”
With all the measured success, Bob Balentine has remained a man with his feet firmly on the ground. He considers himself a numbers guy when it comes to profitability and intends on making his winery even more cost effective in the future.
His flagship wine will always be Cabernet Sauvignon, and to it he owes his growing reputation as a skilled vintner, the most celebrated of titular recognition within the wine industry.
Not too bad for a guy with little formal training in winemaking, and a person who refused to accept just about everyone’s advice that Monterey County simply wasn’t the place to grow Cabernet Sauvignon.