Tiny but mighty
Boutique winery Straw House Cellars creates bold flavors
Tom Chase surveyed his property on a recent warm morning, describing the varietals grown at Straw House Cellars, his winery in the rolling hills of Butte Valley.
“’Boutique’ is the key word. Actually, if there’s something smaller than boutique, then that’s what we are,” he said wryly.
Indeed, Chase’s operation is small. He grows three red varietals, all heat-loving grapes— grenache noir, mourvèdre and tempranillo—on about 2 1/2 of the 6 acres surrounding the straw-bale home and cellar for which the winery is named. Chase, a professional carpenter for 40 years who designed and built the setup, today gives his full attention to winemaking.
Chase explained that the heat and the mineral-rich environment—basalt rock with shallow topsoil—stresses the vines and gives the wine its complexity. He bent over to inspect some of the tempranillos, an early harvest Spanish grape, pulling some dried leaves off a branch. The crop should be ready for harvesting in the first few weeks of August. The other varietals ripen a bit later.
“The tendrils are all drawn up,” he pointed out. “All the energy is going to the fruit.”
Chase is friendly and unpretentious, and while he seems relaxed, the fact is, his journey into the wine business has been quite a ride, one that keeps him on his toes. On this particular morning, Chase was dealing with a minor emergency: The air- conditioning unit cooling the cellar was on the fritz. The spike in temperature shattered a jug of wine used to top off the oak barrels in which his creations age. On top of that, he and his wife were preparing to leave town for a few days. He was clearly a little nervous about being away from the operation.
Thing is, Chase is pretty much a one-man show: In addition to being the grower and winemaker, he’s also the winery’s salesman and delivery driver. “My line is, ‘I’m a carpenter, not a marketer,’” he said. “To get out and market—the sales—is a new thing for me, but since we live in such a great place, they’ve embraced us pretty well.”
Straw House typically sells out of the 300 cases Chase produces each year. The tempranillo is found on the wine lists of local restaurants and the shelves of independent grocers, such as S&S Organic Produce and Chico Natural Foods. (The mourvèdre needs more bottling time and the grenache, the youngest vines, has yet to be bottled.)
Chase recalled the first batch of wine he fermented in his kitchen back in 2005. He downplayed the fact that, technically, he’s been a winemaker for over a decade. He referred to his efforts as “dabbling,” noting that he’s been bonded and licensed to sell for only about six years. But the humble Chase is doing something right. His bold tempranillo is quite popular, and though Straw House is small and distributed only locally, the 2012 vintage took home a bronze metal in the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition last year.
Chase credits his wife, Beth, with introducing him to wine many years ago. “When I met her, I was a Budweiser and Sierra Nevada kind of guy,” he said. “And she’s created a monster. That’s what she says.”