Clos du Val
The French have always had a strong influence on California’s wine industry, both in the first wave of immigration in the mid 1850’s, and in the “second wave” of the last 25 years. It first occurred in Santa Clara, but the real blossoming has been in Napa Valley.
French Antoine Delmas, Charles Lefranc and Pierre Pellier were early leaders in Santa Clara Valley’s wine business, and Burgundian Paul Masson started making wine there in 1854.
Pellier planted varietal grape cuttings he’d brought from his native France. In 1881, his daughter Henrietta married a neighboring vintner, Pierre Mirassou. The sixth generation of the Mirassous are the oldest dynasty in California still in the wine business. They sold the family name to the Gallos, but part have started Rochelle Winery in their old wineries in San Jose and Los Gatos.
Other prominent historic French wine figures were Georges de la Tour, who founded Beaulieu in 1900. He hired André Tchelistcheff, the biggest influence on winemaking in Napa Valley, in 1938. Tchelistcheff was Russian born, but French educated and brought fine winemaking practice to Napa Valley.
The action in the last 25 years has been particularly concentrated in Napa Valley, the prestigious heart of the American wine industry. There French corporations and individuals own many important wineries and vineyards, and France vintners and winemakers are also prominent in American firms.
In 1973, Domaine Chandon was the first sparkling wine producer outside Champagne to be established by a French firm using only the traditional method of producing sparkling wine.
That firm, Moët-Hennessy, began in 1743 as Moët et Chandon and has evolved into LVMH, a worldwide luxury goods company specializing in wines, spirits, fashion, leather goods, fragrances, cosmetics and selective retailing. Domaine Chandon’s first sparkling wine was released in 1976.
It was the first foreign company to producer high-quality sparkling wine using the traditional method of Champagne (Only Schramsberg among American companies was doing the same to produce premium sparkling wine; other American sparkling wine was then made using the bulk charmat process or even carbonated like Coca Cola – and some high volume wine still is.)
With its high quality wine, which exhibited typical California fresh fruit more than the yeasty undertones of Champagne, Chandon quickly rose to the leader in its category. Americans drink sparkling wine primarily for celebration, however, and Chandon and other sparkling wine makers have recently expanded into making premium still wines.
Domaine Chandon owns about 1100 acres of vineyards in Carneros, Mt. Veeder, Yountville, and Lakeville in Sonoma County, making it one of Napa Valley’s largest vineyard owners.
Its visitors center at the Yountville property houses a retail store, tasting salon and terrace, the superb étoile Restaurant at Domaine Chandon and the winery itself.
LVMH also owns Newton Vineyards, an acclaimed Napa producer of fine still wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon.
Another fine California sparkling wine producer is Domaine Carneros owned by Champagne Taittinger. In its Chateau-style winery, it produces a variety of excellent sparkling and still wines, and also offers tours and tasting, the latter on a patio overlooking vineyards. Many consider its La Rêve one of the industry’s best sparklers.
Mumm Cuvée Napa was started by French Champagne Mumm, then was acquired by Seagram, itself acquired by Diageo of England, which sold the operation to Allied-Domecq, another British Corporation. It's now owned by French Pernod-Ricard, reuniting Mumm Napa with French Champagne Mumm.
Mumm’s winery in Napa Valley has a casual sit-down tasting room with a deck overlooking Napa Valley. Here visitors can taste wines — or order glasses. The winery also boasts a respected gallery of photographic art, including a permanent exhibit of photography by famed Adam Ansel.
Dominus in Yountville is owned by Christian Moueix, proprietor of famed Chateau Pétrus in Bordeaux. It also makes a second label, Napanook, named after the venerable vineyard once owned by John Daniel of Inglenook.
Opus One is the pioneering joint venture between Robert Mondavi, founder of Robert Mondavi Winery, and the Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, proprietor of Chateau Mouton Rothschild. It produces the signature wine at its distinctive winery and tasting room on Highway 29 in Oakville near Mondavi.
The former Chalone Wine Group, once headquartered in Napa, was largely owned by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), which owns Chateau Lafite Rothschild, one of the best known and most acclaimed wineries in the world. The company was bought by Irish-English Diageo, however.
Beaucanon Napa Valley is owned by the de Coninck family of Bordeaux. It has a winery and vineyards near Silverado Resort.
St. Supéry Winery in Rutherford is owned by Robert Skalli, a third-generation French winemaker whose family came from Algeria. He is now one of Napa County’s biggest landowners, with vineyards both in the heart of the valley and in the remote Dollarhide Valley off Pope Valley, which is legally part of the Napa Valley appellation (American Viticultural Area).
St. Supéry has an excellent visitor center in Rutherford that offers educational tours as well as tasting of its wines. It may be the best such educational center in Napa Valley if not all of California.
Clos du Val, was started in 1972 by American John Goelet, a descendant of the distinguished Guestier family of Bordeaux, with winemaker Bernard Portet, who was raised in Bordeaux by a family in the wine business. Clos du Val is located in the famed Stags Leap District, and is known for producing elegant “French” style wines than typical Napa blockbusters. The winery welcomes visitors for tours and tasting.
Genevieve Janssens is director of winemaking for Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville. A Pied Noir from Algeria, she studied in France before coming to California to work first at Opus One, the joint venture between Mondavi and the Baroness Philippine de Rothschild.
Marketta and Jean-Noël Fourmeaux, the owners of Chateau Potelle came to California in 1980 as wine tasters for the French government. After six months however, they decided to stay. They returned to France, packed up their two daughters and moved to California in 1983. In 1988, they purchased 202 acres on Mount Veeder, where Marketta makes the highly regarded wines. They welcome visitors to taste and picnic at the mountain-top site.
Aubert de Villaine of Burgundy's Domaine de la Romanée-Conti has recently created a partnership with Larry Hyde, of Hyde Vineyards in Carneros, produce a Chardonnay and a Merlot-Cabernet blend. The venture is called HdV, for the Hyde and de Villaine families. De Villaine's wife, Pamela Fairbanks de Villaine, is Larry Hyde's first cousin. Both Hyde and Fairbanks descended from José de la Guerra, the son of a noble Spanish family that settled in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1810.
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