As tempting as it was to lace this piece with obscure Snoop lyrics, the popular intoxicant that gave inspiration to Chronic Cellars memorably psychedelic branding was actually… craft beer.
“When starting Chronic, we wanted to deliver wine to a new audience,” co-founder Jake Beckett told me recently via phone. “We had this thought that the wine industry wasn’t reaching out to everyone. Maybe not consciously, but that a lot of people, especially young people, just can’t relate to the old-style labels. We saw what microbrews were doing with these cool marketing packages, that just sell themselves off the shelves, and thought that could be an opportunity for us.”
It is actually fascinating how different the two industries are when it comes to labels and marketing. In the beer space, fun, cool names and labels are, well, cool, even with geeks. In the wine industry, however, “critter wine” has a certain negative implication, at least with those of us who appreciate what’s inside the bottle too. If you’re naming the wine something clever, or putting a lot into the label design, we say, what are you trying to hide?
“That’s the thing with beer,” Jake continued. “once you get it home and discover what is in the bottle, the gimmick often pays off. We knew we couldn’t just have a label – which is why I’m glad my brother made wine at Peachy Canyon [The Beckett family winery] for 13 years before we started, and appreciates approachable, balanced wines.”
Despite a seemingly lucid take on the whole thing, Beckett doesn’t stray too far from the vibe of someone who would name his business Chronic Cellars. “It’s not like we sat down and hashed out a plan. We’re just not that kind of winery. I mean, we realized that we wanted to avoid the critter thing, but otherwise it just kinda, you know, happened,” he says in the casual way only a California dude can.
So how does a small little winery from Paso Robles end up blazing trails in PA? Well, back when Jake was still working for his dad at Peachy Canyon (maybe you scored some of their killer Westside Zin on Chairman’s Selection a few years back), he sparked up a friendship with Joe Barsotti, a sales rep at Winebow. Fast-forward a few years, both Jake and Joe are on their own, running smaller businesses, the two reconnect, and we reap the benefits. “A lot of people don’t know how to work with PA, so it’s rare that you go in early on,” Jake said. “But we already had a friendship with Joe (now with Barsotti Wines), so it made sense to do something.”
The most common Chronic found on PLCB shelves (that is, until state residents recognize the cash cow they’re sitting on in the form of a pre-fab distribution system for the real thing) is Sofa King Bueno 2011 ($24.99), a Syrah-based blend that serves as a sort of flagship for the brand. I poured it alongside an older Cote Rotie – curious to see how it would hold up – and was pleasantly surprised. Though obviously very different in style and age, both wines showed as high-grade, balanced and food-friendly. The Chronic was more fruit-forward, of course, with hearty whiffs of baked spice and vanilla, as well as touches of herb and resin, but it played well with food and remained harmonious, evolving nicely as it opened.
Chronic’s Purple Paradise ($35.99 / 1.5L), a mostly-Zinfandel blend featuring various other Rhone grapes that’s available online via the PLCB as well as in several Pittsburgh-area restaurants, is more straightforward than the SKB, a cheery, friendly drinking bud. Starting out with a blast of fresh purple fruit, it also features notes of toffee, spice, grass and even a hint of ash that imparts funky soul. It’s a kine choice for summer BBQs, especially in that 1.5L package.
Though the bubbly Spritz & Giggles was a bit of a buzzkill, in the end Chronic Cellars seems to have the goods to back up the label, which perhaps proves that wine can indeed be both fun and serious at the same time. Now, can we get a moment of silence…