The wine industry in the Sierra Nevada foothills likely wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for Chuck Hovey.
Hovey’s award-winning winemaking skills elevated the burgeoning scene in Calaveras County during the 1980s. Decades later, he helped establish several vineyards and wineries in Tuolumne County that have grown into successful businesses for their owners.
At 5:54 p.m. on Tuesday, Hovey died peacefully at Skyline Place in Sonora surrounded by his son, Kyle, and ex-wife, Jan. He was 64.
“We’re always going to have his fingerprint on the area,” said Cody LaPertche, Hovey’s protege and head winemaker for Gianelli Vineyards in Jamestown.
Hovey is well regarded as the former longtime winemaker of Stevenot Winery in Murphys and for introducing Spanish grape varietals that weren’t typically grown in the foothills, such as tempranillo, graciano, garnacha and verdelho.
Hundreds of awards have been bestowed on wines made by Hovey over the years.
The biggest award Hovey received in his career was a gold medal for his 2009 tempranillo at the Tempranillos al Mundo international wine competition in New York, one of only two wines from the United States that earned the distinction.
Hovey’s legendary winemaking career mostly came to an end when he suffered a massive stroke in 2015 that paralyzed the left side of his body.
Doctors at UC Davis Medical Center told his family at the time that it was the most massive stroke they had ever seen anyone survive.
LaPertche said the stroke came at a time when Hovey’s life was at a high point. He had just completed a seven-day, 545 bicycle ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles a week earlier and was seeing his own wine label that he started in 2007 begin to take off.
“Right when he had the stroke he was in this period of reinventing himself and just enjoying life,” LaPertche said.
Hovey struggled to come to grips with his new normal at first, LaPertche said. He required a wheelchair and additional assistance to get around due to the paralysis in the left side of his body.
LaPertche said Hovey started to get out more over the past year and do the things who used to love, like going out to eat with friends and visiting wineries.
“Everytime he would call you, you couldn’t help but feel a little bit flattered,” LaPertche said.
Hovey took LaPertche under his wing while working as the head winemaker for Gianelli Vineyards, which he helped launch in 2007 with Ron and Lorie Gianelli.
Ron Gianelli died in October after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
LaPertche, 27, said he started out bottling at the Gianelli’s winery in 2012 as a side job until Hovey made him his full-time assistant.
“He was extremely humble, very anti-pretentious, and super patient,” LaPertche said.
Hovey’s enthusiasm for his job never waned after more than 30 years in the business.
LaPertche remembers the veteran winemaker gazing into a barrel of swirling grape juice after they had just crushed about nine tons of chardonnay and saying, “Man, I love this job.”
“He would describe wine as mysterious and truly had a passion for it,” LaPertche said. “It’s just infectious when you meet someone that passionate about it. That’s what hooked me onto it.”
Hovey grew up in Saratoga and previously didn’t have an interest in winemaking, according to his family.
The first job Hovey got in the industry was for J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines in San Jose, where he started out bottling and doing other odd jobs.
A friend later introduced Hovey to Barden Stevenot, who had recently founded his namesake winery in Murphys.
Hovey was hired by Stevenot to be his assistant winemaker and the two worked closely together to turn Stevenot Winery into one of the premier wineries in the area.
Family and friends say Hovey viewed Stevenot, who died in October 2017, as more of a father to him than his own.
Tom Bender, a local wine expert who’s taught a class on the subject at Columbia College for 30 years, said there were only about a half dozen wineries or less in Calaveras County when Hovey arrived.
Bender said there are now 25 or more throughout the county.
“He was instrumental in getting Calaveras on the map,” Bender said. “Everybody else saw what he was doing and then it exploded about 15 years ago.”
Hovey was left wondering what to do with his future after Stevenot sold the winery in 2007, before he went to work for the Gianellis.
Kyle Hovey said his father was grateful to the Gianellis because they allowed him to use their equipment to launch his own brand while he worked on their wines.
“It was a pipe dream at first but he turned it into a reality,” Kyle Hovey said. “He took a lot of risks and was really successful.”
In addition, Hovey also found time to help others in the process of launching their own wine labels.
Leslie Hurst, owner of Hurst Ranch in Jamestown, said Hovey freely gave her advice as she was first planting her vineyards that have grown into the successful Hurst Ranch Reds line of wines.
“He never tried to hoard information,” she said. “When I asked how to make my wine better, he freely gave it.”
A group of nine people took over Hovey Winery, which has a tasting room on Main Street in Murphys, after he had the stroke.
One of the investors was Brian Klassen, a friend of Chuck Hovey’s for more than 20 years who acted as his caregiver toward the end of his life.
The other investors, who call themselves “Team Hovey,” are Susan Lyneis Sirias and her husband, Peter Maurer, Laura and Rick Lowell, Jim and Yvonne Heryford, and Mark and Sharon Nelson.
“We are determined to keep Hovey wines going and our plans have always been to continue on,” Klassen said.
Kyle Hovey said his father was very appreciative toward the group for keeping it going and helped out however he could until his final days.
The medical expenses Chuck Hovey incurred following the stroke eventually became so much that he was forced to sell his longtime home in Murphys and moved into the Foothill Village assisted-living home in Angels Camp.
“The last four years have been very difficult, and we are grateful he is at peace,” said Jan Hovey. “We’re grateful he’s not suffering anymore.”
Chuck Hovey is also survived by his sister, Ann Hovey.
The family has not yet made plans for memorial services, but Kyle Hovey said they will be open to the public when they do.
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.