April 2010

The French Connection

By: Anthony Dias Blue

Ever since a California white and red wine took first place over rivals from Burgundy and Bordeaux in the infamous Paris tasting of 1976, California has been weighing heavily on the minds of the hitherto insouciant French wine establishment. After that upsetting victory, the French found they could no longer dismiss California as a wine producing region in the same league as, say, Uruguay.

Among French winemakers, some may have shrugged, cocked their berets, and lit up another Gauloise, but others began to heed to the siren song of California. Today, there are a growing number of French winemakers who have brought their skills into play in the sun-drenched wine regions of the Golden State. What follows are sketches of four of them.

In the Groove
Arnaud Weyrich, Roederer Estate (Mendocino)

One of the first things I noticed about California was that I liked the weather very much," smiles Arnaud Weyrich, winemaker at Roederer Estate, the Mendocino offspring of celebrated Champagne house Louis Roederer. The Alsace native, a graduate of the prestigious enology program at the University of Montpellier, first arrived in California in 1993 as an intern at the estate, when Frenchman Michel Sargues was director of winemaking.

 "Alsace is very groomed; the mountains are not very high and are covered with fir forest," reminisces Weyrich, an avid skier. "Northern California has a similar feel, like the Vosges Mountains. We can see snow north of here." After his two-year American internship, "I went back to France . . . for a girl," he admits, "but I always kept in my mind that Roederer Estate was a pretty nice place; not too big, not too small. There was a commitment to quality on the part of the owners, the Rouzaud family."

After working for a large French retail firm for several years, Weyrich bailed on corporate life. "I got bored of telling people what they should be doing." In 2000, he packed up and returned to Mendocino to become assistant winemaker at Roederer Estate. He brought the girl-now his wife, Floriane-with him. After an interim stint in charge of special projects at Champagne Roederer in Reims, he returned to Roederer Estate permanently in 2002 as winemaker and General Manager.

"What I like is the openness of the wine business in California," the winemaker declares; "it's less hidebound than France, where there are so many regulations. Here, you can hand-pick the French regulations and drop all those things that are just roadblocks." The results show in Roederer Estate's gorgeous non-vintage Brut and its tête-de-cuvée, L'Ermitage.

Living on the estate in order to be closer to the vines, Arnaud and Floriane send their two boys, seven-year-old Mathis and nine-year-old Maxence, to a public school (the only school in Anderson Valley) but speak French with them at home. He has no qualms about his decision. "I've now spent more years working in the States than in France," he says. "Either you're homesick in the beginning, or you get into the groove and you stay."

In Seach of Terroir
Stéphan Asséo, L'Aventure (Paso Robles)

"My goal was to find terroir," says Bordeaux-born Stéphan Asséo; "that's the beginning of all stories." Asséo comes from a winemaking family and honed his chops when, in 1982, his father put him in charge of Domaine de Courteillac, a ramshackle estate that he transformed into one of the top châteaux in Entre-Deux-Mers. But by 1997, Asséo decided to sell his Bordeaux property and strike out for a region with fewer restraints on his maverick creativity. "When you're in Bordeaux, you do everything Bordeaux," he sighs.

After searching in South America, Lebanon and South Africa, Asséo found what he was looking for on California's Central Coast. "I fell in love with the West Side of Paso," says the winemaker, who moved there with his wife and three children, aged seven, eleven and seventeen at the time. "The main motivation was the beautiful terroir," Asséo asserts, echoing the opinions of other vintners who have opted for this up-and-coming region. 

"I was a little bit crazy. I was looking for terroir. I didn't know about Tablas Creek [the nearby Paso Robles winery already owned by the Perrin family of the Southern Rhône]. All I knew was that Paso's West Side has calcareous soils, hills, slopes, and a Mediterranean climate." Asséo started planting vines in 1998 and named his new winery L'Aventure-for his ongoing adventure.

"You need terroir if you want to make a great wine that generates a lot of attention," the vintner says. He did just that. The flagship wine at L'Aventure is the impressive Estate Cuvée, which Asséo describes as "a Cabernet-Syrah blend with a touch of Zinfandel and a touch of Petit Verdot"-a heretical combination of grapes that would be outlawed under French AOC regulations. American critics, including the influential Robert Parker, love it, as they do his less pricy Optimus and Côte-à-Côte blends.

"Making good wine is not cheap," notes the reflective vintner. "In the middle of this venture I was almost bankrupt and ready to go back to France. But honestly, now I have no regrets. I only go back to France for vacation."

A Servant of the Soil
Pierre Seillan, Vérité (Sonoma)

"I want to capture the message of the grapes," swears vigneron Pierre Seillan, who first came to California in 1976, when he was 26, as a viticulture intern in San Diego County's Temecula region. Although he repeatedly reminds you that he is simply "a servant of the soil," Seillan is also a globe-trotting winemaker whose association with Sonoma-based entrepreneur Jess Jackson takes him from Jackson's Tenuta di Arceno in Tuscany to Château Lassègue in Saint-Emilion to the rustic but exquisitely groomed Vérité estate at the southern end of Sonoma County's Alexander Valley.

Seillan grew up in the vineyards on his family's property in Armagnac, the brandy-producing town in southwestern France. He was in the States marketing Bordeaux wine when he met Jackson in 1995. The two men's common commitment to terroir provided an instant bond, and Pierre moved to California in late 1997 to help develop Jackson's vineyard properties. "It was during El Niño," Seillan recalls. "It was raining almost every day; but when you are a farmer, you know how to deal with the weather."

The first vintage at Vérité was 1998. The label consists of three stunning propriety blends-Le Désir, La Muse and La Joie-inspired by Saint-Emilion, Pomerol and Pauillac, respectively. In addition to Vérité, he also "helps Jess" at Stonestreet, Archipel, and Lakota, and oversees the Kendall-Jackson red Bordeaux-style wines. His charming wife, Monique, is in charge of communications and strategy for Seillan and Jackson's joint projects. 

The couple spends seven months a year in Windsor, the rapidly-growing Sonoma wine community just south of Healdsburg. Their 22-year-old daughter, Hélène, is training this year in her father's footsteps at Vérité; son Nicolas, 34, also works in the company. "The parents are happy," beams Seillan, "when their kids have a direction and they like that direction."

Carte Blanche
Philippe Melka, Melka Wines (Napa Valley)

"We started very small, very tiny," says highly-regarded consulting winemaker Philippe Melka, referring to the decision to start his own Napa-based label in 1996. "The idea of starting my own label was to be able to trade up my name a little faster and to understand the marketing side of the business."

Melka grew up in Bordeaux, the son of an Algerian-born general practitioner and a mother from the Loire. His father made wine at home, but Melka's entrée into the world of professional winemaking came by way of a geology degree from the University of Bordeaux. His master's thesis was on the relationship between soil and the quality of resulting grapes and wine.
Métisse is Melka's Bordeaux-style blend. PHOTO COURTESY OF MELKA WINES. 
In 1991, the Moueix family, owners of fabled Château Pétrus in Pomerol and of Dominus Estate in Napa Valley, sent the budding soil scientist to California to obtain a better understanding of the diversity of soil types in the Golden State's premier wine-growing region.

Melka recalls the skepticism of his fellow Frenchmen about his prospecting in California. "In France, when I left, they were all saying, 'Yeah, there are some great wines in California, but there's no sense of terroir.'" Melka was unfazed, determined to discover that California can be as rich and varied as France.

Today, in addition to crafting his Melka Wines releases-the stylish Métisse Bordeaux-style blend and the CJ Cabernet Sauvignon (named for his young children,  Chloe and Jeremy)-Melka also consults on some of Napa Valley's most prestigious labels, including Hundred Acre, Lail, Seavey, and Marston Family Vineyard. "Most of my projects are small, site-specific estate wines," Melka says; "that's a way to show all the diversity of soils in the appellation."

So is there terroir in California now? Melka can't help laughing: "You can see that I'm still around, so that's the answer to that."


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