Juan Alonso peers into a dim, semi-subterranean space beneath his restaurant Le Chêne. The ground is a mix of gravel and dirt, the ceiling is low enough to require sloped shoulders, and the walls are teetering with wooden shelves and dusty wine bottles. Still visible on faded labels are dates and decades more familiar to an oldies rock station than in today’s modern, youthful wine movement.
There are aging vintages of Opus One, rare 1989 bottles of Château Cheval Blanc St. Émilion, and countless other treasures tucked into boxes that occasionally date back to the 1960s. Alonso squints, his felt hat folding up against the top of the doorway. It’s not that he’s losing his eyesight; there simply is no discernible end to the space he’s trying to see — and this is only one of three wine cellars on Le Chêne’s property. Over the decades, Alonso has amassed a motherlode of wine out in the golden canyons beyond Santa Clarita, and he’s practically giving it away.
“The only way to become a connoisseur is to drink, so I bought and I bought,” says the ever-curious Alonso, sitting inside the white tablecloth dining room of his 43-year-old roadside French restaurant. Born in Spain and raised in the kitchens of France, Alonso has spent more than half of his life in this stone building that dates back to 1917, selling French classics and sipping fine wine. “Sometimes I just buy because I want to try it, and then I put it on the list. People say ‘Oh what a collection you have’. It’s not a collection, it’s just inventory.”
Collapsed into a menu, that inventory spans 32 pages of some of the most well-respected wine labels that money can buy, domestically or internationally. And you can forget about markups. Just two examples: A 1997 Turley Wine Zinfandel lists for $130, roughly $5 above current retail prices, while a 1988 Domaine François Lamarche Echézeaux Grand Cru lists for $220, a more than 50 percent discount from the retail price listed on Wine-Searcher. It’s all available to drink any night of the week, down a dusty road in the shadows of Vasquez Rocks. But just know that if you’re looking for that one particular bottle, Alonso himself may need to go down to the cellar to poke around for a bit.
“Sometimes we don’t put things on the list for a year, or four or five, because they get lost. It might take me a minute, but I’ll find it,” he says, chuckling.
If Alonso has quietly curated what is likely the most affordable and deep wine cellar anywhere in Southern California, it hasn’t been because of pride or ego. For decades he has been a man with a half-empty glass, ready for a new pour, another adventure. It was a woman and a real estate venture in the 1970s that first drew Alonso up to the Santa Clarita Valley and away from the kitchen at La Serre, then one of the most prestigious French restaurants in Los Angeles.
By 1980 he had founded Le Chêne (French for “the oak”) inside of a decades-old roadside haunt that once served as a backdrop for 1971’s Duel, a made-for-TV movie that marked the beginning of Stephen Spielberg’s film career. He kept tasting and collecting his wines along the way. Today, the sprawling food menu still clings to those early French days, with options like trout almondine, shrimp Escoffier, calf liver, and a $52 filet mignon au poivre, served with bread and a soup or salad. “We don’t chase trends,” he says matter-of-factly, holding a bottle of wine that he made himself a decade ago.
In the 1990s, Alsono ventured into growing his own grapes and producing those wines (still sold at Le Chêne), though today he mostly sells his syrah, tempranillo, grenache, tannat, and mourvedre yields to producers like Angeleno Wine Company. He has begun, at 72, to consider what paring things down might look like for his wine cellar and his life. “My mom used to tell me: When you are young, you can, but you do not have. Now that I am old, I have, but I cannot,” he says.
Alonso isn’t a fool. He knows the value, roughly, of the thousands of bottles he has; it’s just that he’d rather enjoy his drinks with company, and these days his best companions can be found at Le Chêne. “I’m nobody, but I guess I’m somebody because of this place. I like people, and it’s a people business,” he says. And what will happen to Le Chêne and that 32-page wine list when Alonso’s own dance is done? Right now he doesn’t know, or isn’t saying.
“Should I have put my money in the stock market? Maybe I would have made more money, but I’ve had a good run,” he says. “In the restaurant business, you make pennies on the dollar, but as long as you pile them up slowly, you can make some money. I have my money in the wine cellars.” He seems happy enough with that.
After another sip, he slips back into a bit of familiar French: “Après moi, le déluge.”
Le Chêne is open for dinner daily and weekend brunch at 12625 Sierra Highway, Santa Clarita, CA 91390.