davies wakefield | wine uncorked | may 2016
When I heard about the death of Robin Williams in 2014, I remembered that he owned a significant property of 653 acres on Mount Veeder in Napa Valley. When I heard that the owners of the Bordeaux property Pontet-Canet had purchased the property, I was further intrigued by the question of why this prestigious French winery had purchased an American vineyard. I found out that the relationship between our country's wine producers and France has been an ongoing affair since the 1850s. If you are a fan of the French methods of producing elegant wines, I'll expand on the wines that are available now; grown in the US and made by French vintners.
The story begins in Santa Clara California in the middle of the 19th century. Santa Clara, which, today, is ground zero for the tech industry, was once a booming agricultural area supplying San Francisco with its groceries. In 1854, Charles LeFranc and Paul Masson from Burgundy started making wine there. Later Pierre Pellier planted vinifera cuttings that he had brought from France in 1881. His daughter Henrietta married Pierre Mirassou, which resulted in the oldest wine dynasty in California; still in business after six generations.
In 1900, Georges de la Tour founded Beaulieu Vineyards in Napa Valley and brought an elfin (4' 11”) White Russian named Andre Tchelistcheff who brought the idea of continuous improvement in the vineyard and revolutionized the American wine industry. His influence extends to all of the prestigious wineries in Napa Valley today like Heitz, Mondavi, Field Stone and Sequoia Grove. He also had a giant presence in the State of Washington getting Chateau St. Michelle to start growing Cabernet Sauvignon.
This was what I call the first wave of migration of European vintners. We are now in the process of a second wave as the effects of population growth and the bureaucracy of the European Union force the European wineries to look west in order to grow their businesses.
The first company to look at California in the second wave was the high-end Champagne producer Moet-Hennessy which is part of the luxury goods manufacturer LVMH which also makes Louis Vuitton luggage and Tag Heuer watches. The company purchased over 1,100 acres in Napa and Sonoma counties in 1973 and established Domaine Chandon to produce sparkling wine using the traditional French methode champenoise. They also own Newton Vineyards, which produces wonderful Bordeaux blend red wine.
In 1995 Christian Moueix, the owner of the ultra-premium Chateau Petrus, purchased the 124 acres of the Napanook winery in Yountville that dates back to the 1830s and the founder of Inglenook winery John Daniel. Moueix created his version of Petrus called Dominus. I have tasted his first efforts several times including the wonderful 2004. These wines, while still a bargain compared to Petrus, are too rich for my pocketbook but there are a couple of wine shops that carry his wines. If you can afford about $200 a bottle you will be outrageously impressed. For me, as a value investor and wine drinker, I've got other options later.
The St. Supery Winery is owned by the Skalli family (third generation French winemakers originally from Algeria). They purchased the land in Napa and Rutherford in the 1980s and opened the winery in 1989. Their Sauvignon Blanc is a bargain at about $15 bucks and is great with grilled seafood like scallops or shrimp. Their St. Elu Cabernet is a bargain at about $50 and will stand up to the Dominus. The Skalli's recently sold the property to Chanel, the French fragrance house, in 2015 to continue the oversight by French winemakers.
Marketta and Jean-Noel Fourmeaux, the owners of Chateau Potelle, came to California in 1980 as wine tasters for the French government. They liked the environment so well that they returned to France, packed up the family and returned to purchase 200 plus acres on Mount Veeder in Napa Valley.
More recently, Burgundy's largest producer, Jean Claude Boisset has been buying up properties at a feverish pace; Raymond vineyards in 2009, Buena Vista in 2011, Deloach in 2003 and Lockwood in 2013. All of these wineries were great on their own merits. Cecil Deloach made some of the best Sirah when he was running the place. Buena Vista was founded in 1857 by the pioneering Agoston Haraszthy and is near the historic Hanzell winery in Sonoma. I've had some wonderful Chardonnays from this winery during my time, but the acquisition by Boisset indicates the value of this particular plot of land to the task of making great wine. On the Lockwood website, there is an active simulation of the flow of cool air from the Pacific Ocean that shows how Lockwood is able to get the cool climate Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that express the Monterrey terroir. Additionally, Jean Claude has another acquisition that has hooked him up with one of the most powerful wine families in California; he married Gina Gallo. The Gallo family, once famous for their Thunderbird wine which was the product of choice in skid rows around the country, (What's the word? Thunderbird! What's the reason? Grapes in season!) decided to go upscale years ago and Gina is leading the way.
In Oregon, the famous Drouhin family from Burgundy started up a new world operation in the Willamette Valley that produces Pinot and Chardonnay that are amazing wines. Try the barrel select Laurene Pinot if you can find it.
Another young man from a prominent French Champagne family, Christopher Baron has recently started up a winery in Washington that is situated on a plot of land that mimics the terroir of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The land is covered with cobblestones that absorb the heat of the day releasing it during the cool nights. The Cayuse winery is producing, according to Hugh Johnson of Decanter Magazine, “spellbinding Syrah.” In order to taste the wines, you'll have to get on their mailing list, though.
So why did these families move west to California, Oregon and Washington from the great vineyards of Europe? It is an intriguing question considering that some of the 750 ml bottles of Burgundy from places like La Tache, Chambertain, Richebourg and Romanee sell for thousands of dollars. I think the answer lies in the structure of the European Union (EU). The EU bureaucrats in Brussels (the European equivalent to our federal government in Washington DC) wanted to protect the trademark products that originated in their countries. They wanted to protect such iconic products as Parmesan Cheese, Champagne, Burgundy and other products made throughout the EU. So for example, if you started up a winery and wanted to label the sparkling wine as Champagne, you would be sued by the EU. Well, the bureaucrats took the idea one further step by dictating to wineries in these prestigious locations the types of grapes that can be grown and the areas that certain varieties can be grown in, ironically, this was a step similar to the ones taken in medieval Europe when the monasteries controlled the wineries and dictated these same rules. The current rules make it extremely difficult to experiment with different blends, new grape varieties and vinification methods. In this case, the EU's loss is our gain. If you like wines that are not overly alcoholic and pair well with food try some of these wines; they are distinctly different from others in the category.