The debate about wine is often framed as Old World (Europe) versus New World (California, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America) but I am suspicious of such simple dichotomies. I suspect that the issues don’t break cleanly along these lines, so I always find it interesting to explore the blurry edges where Old meets New to see what I can learn.
The film Mondovino examined l’affaire Mondavi – Robert Mondavi’s unsuccessful attempt to build a winery in the south of France. That’s a pretty easy (is oversimplified) story to tell: Americanization, McDonaldization, Disneyfication. You know what I mean.
I’m interested in the reverse flow, Old World winemakers who invest in the New World, how and why do they do it and what are the results? Sometimes Old World firms enter into partnerships with New World winemakers. Opus One is probably the most famous such venture, a partnership between Robert Mondavi and the Rothschild family of France. Col Solare is another good example, an alliance Ste. Michelle Wine Estates of Washington and the Italian Antinori family.
Direct investment is another strategy – Old World wineries buy land, plant vineyards, build wineries, bring in their winemakers, and make wine. What kind of wine? Old World wine in the New World? New World wine? That’s a question worth exploring.
Some examples of Old World winery investment in the New World include the Domaine Chandon in California (owned by the French Champagne house), Barboursville winery in Virginia (owned by the Italian Zonin family), the St. Supery winery in Napa Valley (owned by the French Skalli family) and Domaine Drouhin Oregon (DDO), which is owned by the French Joseph Drouhin firm. I visited DDO recently, accompanied by my wife Sue (photo right) and our friends Michael and Nancy Morrell (photo left below), who are sailors (they have circumnavigated the globe in their Norseman 447) and aspiring wine research assistants. Here’s what we learned.
Maison Joseph Drouhin is a famous Burgundian winemaking firm. They began as negociants in the 1880s, aging, blending and marketing wine made by others and eventually acquired some exceptional vineyards of their own. Oregon appeared on their radar nearly 30 years ago when Robert Drouhin presided over a blind tasting of Old and New World Pinot Noirs in 1979, which was won, to everyone’s great surprise, by an Oregon wine from Eyrie Vineyards. What followed is a long story that involved many visits to Oregon. Robert’s daughter Véronique, who was studying winemaking at Dijon, interned at several Oregon wineries. Having learned all they could, the Drouhins took the big step, bought land, planted vines, built a winery, and began making wine. The first vintage, 1988, was made in a rented facility using purchased grapes. The gravity-flow winery (the first such in Oregon) was built in 1989. Today they have 90 acres of densely-planted vines (one meter by one meter by the look of them) on a 225 acre estate. Véronique is the winemaker and her brother Philippe manages the vineyards here as well as those in France. The wines? The classic Burgundian varieties, Pinot Noir and a little Chardonnay.
Mark Bosko, the DDO tasting room manager pictured here, spent almost two hours with us, showing us the vineyards and production facility and answering all manner of questions. The tour ended with a comparative tasting of Drouhin’s French and Oregon wines. To be specific, we compared the 2005 Maison Joseph Drouhin (MJD) Chablis Premier Cru ($27) with the 2006 DDO Chardonnay Arthur ($30) and a 2004 MJD Beaune Premier Cru ($28) with the 2005 DDO Pinot Noir Willamette Valley ($45). We are not professional tasters, but we did have opinions. The group seemed to favor the Oregon Chardonnay over the French Chablis. I suspect that this is because we are more familiar with the oaked Oregon style than the more mineral classic Chablis flavor. It would be interesting to taste these two wines with consumers from France — I am sure they would make the opposite choice! It was easy to tell Old World from New World here.
We liked the French Pinot Noir better, although I am not sure if it was a completely fair comparison. I think the French wine benefited from its additional year of aging. I would like to taste the DDO again in a year to see how it has matured.
So what kind of wines are the Drouhins making in Oregon? I would say that they have some of the style of the French wines that we tasted (a family resemblance, as Mark suggested?), but they are still quite different – and this is not a surprise. Although the grape varieties are the same as are the barrels and the vineyard manager, almost everything else is different, especially the climate and the soil. If terroir matters, the wines should not be same. And the market is different, too, which makes a difference.
How do other Oregon winemakers view DDO? On one hand, I think that DDO’s investment here has given Oregon Pinot Noir credibility that would otherwise be difficult to achieve and so it has benefited the entire industry here. I think that some of the pioneer winemakers probably worked pretty hard to encourage Robert Drouhin make this investment for exactly this reason. On the other hand, of course, DDO is big-bucks, deep pocket competition for the many smaller winemakers in the valley, so you can imagine that there is some envy and even resentment of their success. But this isn’t an attitude unique to wine when it comes to direct foreign investment.