French influence in California/Pacific Northwest’s wine business

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 few decades. They’ve also been active in the Pacific Northwest.

Text contributed by Paul Franson (updated in april 2018)

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 with Steven Kent Mirassou with La Rochelle and Steven Kent wines, though they sold the family brand to Gallo.

Though Santa Clara County was an early center for wine, it faded from glory and is now more famed as Silicon Valley.

Other prominent historic French wine figures include 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 few decades has been particularly concentrated in Napa Valley, the heart of the American wine industry. There French corporation and individuals own many important wineries and vineyards, and France vintners and winemakers have become prominent in Napa Valley, too.

A sparkling revival

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 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 produce high-quality sparkling wine using the traditional method of Champagne (Only Schramsberg among American companies was producing premium sparkling wine that way.) 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 expanded into making premium still wines.

Domaine Chandon own about 1,100 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, a four-star dining room, The Restaurant at Domaine Chandon and the winery. It is the only winery in Napa Valley with a restaurant.

LVMH also owns Newton Vineyards, a St. Helena producer of fine wines.

Another fine California sparkling wine producer is Domaine Carneros owned by Champagne Taittinger. In its chateau-style winery, it produces a variety of sparkling and still wines, and also offers tours and tasting, the latter on a patio overlooking vineyards.

Mumm Cuvée Napa was started by French Champagne Mumm, then was acquired by Seagram, itself acquired by Diageo of England, which recently sold the operation to Allied-Domecq, another British Corporation. Mumm Napa is now owned by Pernod Pickard, which also owns Champagne Mumm.

Still wines take their place

Clos du Val in the Stags Leap District 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. Portet has retired.

Marketta and Jean-Noël Fourmeaux, started Chateau Potelle in 1980 after visiting Napa Valley 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 made the highly regarded wines. They divorced, and sold the property to Jackson Family Wines, but both remain in the wine business, Jean-Noël with the VGS Portelle brand, and Marketta with a small winery in Napa called Handcrafted by Marketta. Jeal Noël opened a tasting house and garden in St. Helena in April 2013.

One of the most prestigious French-owned Napa Valley wineries is Dominus in Yountville 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. Moueix was a partner in buying Napanook in 1982 and became sole proprietor in 1995. In 2008, Moueix bought 40-acre Schmidt Ranch in Oakville from Clark Swanson along the southern edge of Oakville in Mayacamas bench land. He renamed the property Ulysses Vineyard and released the first vintage of Ulysses wine from the 2012 vintage.

Opus One is the pioneering joint venture between the late Robert Mondavi, founder of Robert Mondavi Winery, and the Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, proprietor of Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Created in 1982, it produces the signature wine at its distinctive winery and tasting room on Highway 29 in Oakville. The winery is now half owned by Constellation Brands, which bought Mondavi.

Chalone Wine Group was controlled by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) but is now part of Treasury Wine Estates of Australia.

Beaucanon Napa Valley, owned by the de Coninck family of Bordeaux, since 1986 sold its prominent winery and small vineyard on Highway 29 in Rutherford to the Chalone Wine Group, which was acquired by Diageo, then Treasury. The company kept its vineyards off Monticello Road near Napa and built a winery for the brand there.

Aubert de Villaine of Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti created a partnership in 2000 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.

Leading Burgundian vintner Jean-Charles Boisset, Boisset bought Lyeth Estate in Sonoma in 1991, DeLoach Vineyards in California’s Russian River Valley in 2003, followed by Raymond Vineyards in Napa Valley in 2009 and historic Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma and Lockwood in Monterey County in 2011. He started JCB in California, which includes JCB Tasting Salons in Yountville and in San Francisco at the Ritz-Carlton, as well as Atelier, a gourmet shop in Yountville, with a brewery planned..
The flamboyant marketing-savvy Frenchman married Gina Gallo and they have twin daughters. They bought the knoll-top home of the late Robert Mondavi and Margrit Biever Mondavi.

Other recent French purchases

In 2012, Gonzague and Claire Lurton of Bordeaux, bought 45-acre Chateau Felice in the Chalk Hill district of Sonoma County just east of Healdsburg and renamed it Trinité Estate. They also own Chateau Durfort-Vivens, Chateau Ferrier and Chateau La Gurgue of Margaux, Chateau Haut Bages Libéral of Pauillac and Chateau Domeyne of Saint Estephe.

Araujo Estate Wines, the cult producer of wines from its Eisele Vineyard in Napa Valley’s Calistoga, was bought by France’s Pinault family in 2013 through its holding the Artémis Group, parent company of Château Latour in Bordeaux, Domaine d’Eugénie in Burgundy and Château Grillet in the Rhône Valley. The purchase includes the 38-acre Biodynamic and organically farmed Eisele Vineyard, the winery and cave complex, the Araujo Estate brand and existing inventory. The purchase price was not disclosed.

In 2015, luxury goods producer Chanel bought Rutherford’s St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery, which owns 1,500 acres in Napa County from Robert Skalli, a third-generation French winemaker whose family came from Algeria. Ironically, the Boisset family once owned St. Supéry’s home property in Rutherford. Chanel also owns Château Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux and Château Berliquet and Château Canon in Saint-Émilion,

In 2016, Alfred Tesseron from the Tesseron Cognac family and owner of Pontet Canet in Pauillac bought the Villa Sorriso property in Napa previously owned and built by the late comedian Robin Williams. He calls the wine Pym-Rae, Williams’ chosen name.

Genevieve Janssens is director of winemaking for Robert Mondavi Winery. 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.

Many other French winemakers have made their mark in the U.S. wine business, including Philippe and Cheri Melka, Stéphane Derenoncourt, Luc Morlet and Nicholas Morlet, Pierre Seillan at Verite, Gilles Nicault at Long Shadows in Walla Walla, Pierre Birebent at Signorello, Francois Bugue at Cain Cellars, Jerome Chery at Saintsbury, Ludovic Dervin at Mumm Napa, Antoine Favero at Mazzocco-Matrix-DeLorimier, Julien Fayard, Nathalie Jure at Opus One, Franck Lambert at Watts Winery and Arnaud Weyrich Roederer.

Famed wine consultant Michel Rolland also works with many California wineries.

What is now Laetitia Vineyards on California’s Central Coast was started as Maison Deutz, and what is now J Wine Company and recently bought by E. and J. Gallo in Sonoma County was once Piper Sonoma, the US arm of Piper Heisdick.

Roederer Estate in Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, which makes some of California’s best sparkling wine in that cool valley. Nearby Scharrfenberger Cellars, which makes Pacific Echo sparkling wines, is also owned by Roederer and managed by Maisons Marques & Domaines, its marketing arm.

Oregon attracts Burgundians

In the Dundee Hills of Oregon, Domaine Drouhin was founded by third generation Robert Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin in Beaune. He had discovered Oregon in 1961 and then again two decades later. He bought the estate in the late 1980s.
Robert’s daughter Véronique Boss-Drouhin came to Oregon in 1986 after completing a masters in enology and today is the winemaker at both wineries. Her brother Philippe Drouhin joined in 1988 and is the vineyard manager at both wineries. France.

Chapter 24 in Oregon was founded by Mark Tarlov in 2012 with Mark is Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, who created Domaine du Comte Liger Belair in 2000 but whose family winemaking roots extend back to the 19th century. His ancestor was a general in Napoleon’s Army and was given Chateau de Vosne where Liger-Belair makes wine today.

Lingua Franca in the Eola-Amity Hills of Oregon was co-founded in 2015 by Dominque Lafon. Lafon is the owner and winemaker at Domaine des Comtes Lafon in Meursault. His partners are Larry Stone and David Honig.


Christophe Baron now became a legend with his Cayuse Winery and Vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley of Washington and Oregon.

Married couple Marie-Eve Gilla of Forgeron Cellars and Gilles Nicault of Long Shadows Vintners met in the mid-1990s in the Yakima Valley, but both are from France : Gilla attended the University of Dijon and makingwine in Burgundy. Nicault was raised in the southern French city of Avignon, studied winemaking there and worked in Provence and Champagne before coming to Washington in 1994.

There’s even a group of French in the wine business called the French Association of Wine Executives-USA. Contact it via Jacques Brix at The organization includes both winemakers and suppliers.
Paul Franson is a writer based in Napa Valley.

Dernière modification : 21/11/2019

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