By the time they were ready to launch their own label, brothers Josh and Jake Beckett were intimately familiar with the thrills and spills of the wine industry.
Their dad, Doug Beckett, founded Peachy Canyon Winery in 1988 when they were just kids, and, despite earnest attempts to avoid the family business, both boys became integral cogs in that Zinfandel-producing machine shortly following their college days.
They enjoyed the work, but learned quickly—mostly from Jake’s role in national sales for Peachy Canyon—that convincing retailers and restaurants to buy your wine can be a grind. Worst of all, selling wine requires tons of travel, and neither wanted to be on the road endlessly as they began families of their own.
“That’s when my brother and I started thinking about trying to create something that had the potential to sell itself, something that would just pop off the shelf,” says Jake. “How do we get people to buy it without having to hand-sell every bottle?”
This was back in 2004, and luckily for them, not much had changed in wine marketing over the past half-century or so.
“People are so confused when they walk into a store,” says Josh. “They’re inundated with labels, and the majority look the same. How could we differentiate ourselves?”
“I didn’t want to make a cheap wine with a cool label.”
One day, while on the crushpad, Josh blurted out the name Chronic Cellars. “My ears were ringing,” says Jake. “That has potential—at least it had great double entendres.”
The obvious one, at least in California, is to marijuana, but the brothers have wisely never exploited that avenue, which might trigger the federal government to re-examine the approved name. Instead, says Jake, “We’re all about using ‘chronic’ as an adjective to describe products of high quality—it just means really good wine.”
The next step was a label. They turned to a childhood friend, Joe Kalionzes, who came up with a Day of the Dead theme laden with skeletons and primary colors. In short, it was different than every other bottle on the shelves.
“There was nothing like this, other than the really awesome microbrews that were popping up at the time,” says Jake. “Those guys were really letting their hair down as far as the marketing, but the beers in the bottle were great.”
And that was perhaps their most critical move of all: ensuring that the wine inside the artsy bottle was of serious quality.
“I didn’t want to make a cheap wine with a cool label,” says Josh. “I wanted to be able to stand up next to our colleagues and peers in Paso and be confident that we were putting our best foot forward and not doing bulk, gimmicky stuff.”
Josh also began experimenting with nontraditional blends—Tempranillo with Malbec and Petit Verdot, for instance, or Zinfandel with Cabernet Sauvignon—further breaking down barriers that have ruled the wine business for centuries.
They tested the market in 2006 with Petite Sirah that their dad loaned them.
To their collective delight, the stuff did sell itself. Even better for the greater industry, their Paso Robles tasting room became a go-to spot for newcomers to wine.
“Every week we get people coming in who have never had wine, but they’re not intimated by us,” says Josh, who fondly recalls receiving a hug a few years back from regional pioneer John Alban for introducing so many new people to wine. “They feel they can be accepted by the brand.”
The popularity of those first 1,500 cases fueled steady growth to about 17,000 cases by 2014 and more than a dozen bottlings, which range from about $15–40. That allows newbies to expand their palates into more sophisticated bottlings, all within the creative comfort of the Chronic Cellars fold.
“Now that they are into wine, they want to take it up a notch, and they see the difference,” says Josh.
In 2014, the brothers realized the brand’s growth potential, but didn’t have the financial resources to fuel it. So they sold Chronic Cellars to The Winery Exchange, which manages and sells alcohol brands around the world, for an undisclosed sum. But they remain intimately involved with every aspect of the label, now producing more than 35,000 cases, for as long as they can.
“We’ll be here at least three more years, but if things keep going the way they’re going, much longer,” says Josh. “They really appreciate and enjoy what we do.”
As does the wine-buying public, even if they are often surprised to find decent juice living inside such a colorful package.
“They tell us all the time, ‘I bought it and I didn’t think it would be good—I was gonna stick a candle in it,’ ” says Josh. Adds Jake, “People like the imagery, but they like the juice, too. We’ve never lost sight of that.”