What’s so special about the Michaud Ranch and the Chalone Appellation Or Why do I continue this crazy commute?

by Michael Michaud

I was taken with this place the moment I saw it back in 1979. It was wild, unspoiled; it said HOME. I was a redwood forest person at heart, having lived in several Marin communities and having taken many wonderful day hikes on Mount Tamalpais. This little 10-acre parcel and a shack were located in the midst of a Chapparal wilderness adjacent to the Pinnacles National Monument. Tall chamise bushes, ceanothus, buckbrush, coast live oaks and deciduous blue oaks along with hundreds of different wild flowers are the main representatives of the plant world. Instead of redwoods and ferns, the area was more akin to the brushland ecology of Griffith Park, which bordered my backyard as a child, growing up in the Hollywood Hills. I spent many happy days hiking there as a kid.

From the quaintly decrepit cabin (that Carol hopes will be struck by lightning so we can build a new one) you can see few structures and hear few sounds. It is only the sound of birds, animals and the breeze in the trees and bushes that keep you company. At this 1500’ elevation in the Gabilan Mountains, the air is clear and fresh from nearby Monterey Bay. Water is scarce, the sunlight is intense, the wildlife is plentiful. From hummingbirds and roadrunners to Golden eagles and wild turkeys, horned toads and rattlesnakes to bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes and wild boar.

For me the most amazing aspect of this place is its peace and serenity.

Formed some 28 million years ago, the Pinnacles, sitting astride the San Andreas Fault, dominate the eastern skyline. Earthquakes are a common occurrence (we’re about 40 miles north of Parkfield, earthquake capital of California) and it’s so quiet that you can hear them before, during and after they rumble through. This is a land of extremes, daily temperature fluctuations of 60°F in a day, 100°F (17°F-117°F) in a year. Dessicating, low summer humidity of 20- 30% gives way to night fogs. Annual rainfall averages only 8- 10,”  but occasionally  “wet” winters with slightly more than 20″ turn the baby powder dry soil into treacherous tractor eating swamps disguised as solid ground by a meager 1-2″ crust of ground cover.

Incredible sunsets are an almost daily event and the nighttime sky is filled with the Milky Way and so many stars that constellations are challenging to find. Our son Jamie is learning to identify the constellations here. He is amazed at how much more visible the stars are here than in the Bay area.

The soil here, which imparts a wonderful mineral quality to the wine, is made from the decomposition of its granite foundation and limestone left from its many million year underwater trip from Hawaii. It is seasoned with odd minerals and rocks, which spewed out from Mount Chalone, when it erupted millions of years ago.

All these things combine to make this rare place of fewer than one inhabitant per 10 square miles, two hours south from our Woodside home, a special place to grow grapes and make wine. The wines are full of character and elegant with layers of flavors and characteristics truly reminiscent of Burgundy. Indeed this small appellation has a grape growing history that goes back over a hundred years. Because of the golden color of the hills in summer and fall and the wonderful and unique wines that come from this appellation, it could be called California’s “Cote D’Or”.

This is an incredibly difficult place in which to operate. When we first bought the ranch, there were no electricity, phones or other infrastructure upon which we all depend, until we built our own. Daily electricity outages were commonplace. The Post Office declined repeated requests to deliver the mail. The phone line , which I hung on a barbed wire fence in 1986, consisted of a wire with about a hundred splices  and is a mile and a half long. It went out at least once every couple of months.  I got to choose between a radiotelephone with a three minute limit (“50-04 you’re way over your limit,” the Parrot lady (night operator) used to say) and a public telephone hung on the wall of the ranger station at the Pinnacles. On the one hand everyone in the Salinas Valley was privy to your conversation. On the other, your car might get hijacked by a band of raccoons while you’re standing in the rain talking on the only phone for 15 or 20 miles. Supplies have to be hauled from Soledad, 12 miles away, Salinas, 30 miles or the Bay area.

But it’s all been worth it. Each year’s new crop, begins as buds break, thrives under daily care and is harvested in the fall. It takes with it a memory of the place and the seasons it grew in. These memories become the vintage variations in flavor. We hope that we can share a little of this with you.