February 2, 2016 – Born near Newcastle in England, Tony Craig always wanted to be a Shakespearean actor. The stage was his goal, not the cellar. But, circumstances interfered in a most unusual way, and, looking for real paying work between acting gigs, he found himself pushing a broom in the barrel room at David Bruce Winery, rather than playing Hamlet before a sold out crowd.
That was back in 1991. He remembers his first day as vividly as he remembers the last. “It was January 7, 1991,” recalls Craig, of his starting day at David Bruce Winery, high in the Santa Cruz Mountains. In his own version of rags to riches, perhaps with many more of the former than the latter, he worked his way up through the ranks, relying on his perceptive palate to become part of the winemaking team, and eventually, head winemaker.
During his tenure, David Bruce wines went from marginal to magnificent, and many of Craig’s talented teammates went on to make their mark on other endeavors. (Jake Kaufman became winemaker at Muccigrosso, Eric Glomksi gained international fame at Arizona Stronghold and Page Springs Cellars and Greg Stokes moved to Amador to found Ursa Cellars.)
“It was an amazing experience,” he recalls. “We were making wines from 50 vineyards from Mendocino to Bien Nacido. We made Pinot from every vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands before Pisoni!”
But the halcyon days at David Bruce came to a rapid, and regrettable end. Craig’s last day, was June 1, 2003, two weeks before bottling. “Things were going awry at David Bruce. I started thinking I should do something for myself. I started buying Tondre for my own program,” he says.
At the same time, Craig went right to work at Savannah-Chanelle, where he has been winemaker ever since. He’s also been crafting wines for Silver Mountain, Tondre, Muns Vineyard and his own brand, Sonnet.
Fast forward to 2016, and suddenly, after 25 years, he is, as he says, “practically an overnight success!” Craig just won the high honor and rare distinction of being named Red Sweepstake Winner or Best Red of Show from among 7,164 entries at the 2016 San Francisco Chronicle Competition for his 2013 Sonnet Cellars Tondre Grapefields Pinot Noir.
As fate would have it, one of the vineyards he worked with at David Bruce was Tondre Grapefields, a Monterey County vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands that came about as a result of a David Bruce planting contract in the late 1990s. “It was a small 10-acre plot at first. Now, it’s over 100,” says Craig. “The first vintage was 2000, I think, and I couldn’t believe how extraordinary the fruit was. It was the most gloriously aromatic Pinot I’d ever made!”
Part of this is due to the innate earthiness of the Pommard clone planted there. “I gravitate towards Pommard,” Craig admits.
He describes Tondre Grapefields as being in the sweet spot of the SLH AVA: it has lots of bright red fruit and plenty of forest floor for complexity. “Too far north, and it’s too cold, and you lose the fruit. Too far south, and it’s all tutti frutti.”
Working with the Allarid’s over the years has been a total pleasure. He’s worked with many growers and they don’t all “get it” like the late Tondre Allarid, and his son, Joe. Craig says, “Joe totally understands farming. He gets it right. He gets it done. I make suggestions and it is taken care of. Joe understands that if he does the right thing, the results will come.”
He must be doing something right, as Allarid has a waiting list for his fruit. One can assume the list will get a little bit longer, given the results from this year’s Chronicle Competition.
As a self-avowed Pinot devotee, Craig revels in the chance to make Pinot from a new vineyard. He will be releasing a brand new 2014 Pinot from Black Ridge Vineyard, above the Lexington Reservoir, later this year. Since 2014, it has been managed by longtime Testarossa winemaker, Bill Brosseau, and Craig is stoked about the quality.
Wines under Craig’s label, Sonnet, can be purchased locally at Safeway and Whole Foods, as well as smaller wine shops. They can also be purchased from the Sonnet Cellars website.
You can taste the 2013 Sonnet from Tondre Grapefields at the San Francisco Chronicle Gold medal tasting at Fort Mason on Saturday, February 13. Be sure to stop by and congratulate Tony Craig on his “overnight success.”