Everything you always wanted to know about Chianti Classico (and lots more!)

nestoBill Nesto MW and Frances Di Savino, Chianti Classico: The Search for Tuscany’s Noblest Wine. University of California Press, 2016.

I didn’t know much about Sicily and its wine industry until I read Bill Nesto and Frances Di Savino’s 2013 book The World of Sicilian Wine  and it really opened my eyes. I enjoyed the detailed analysis of the regions, the wineries and the wines and I especially appreciated the  economic history of the wine region and its complicated relationship with international markets. What an interest place!

I approached their new book on Chianti Classico from a different perspective. While I am no expert on Chianti and its wines, I am way more familiar with this region that Sicily. (A section in my 1990 book Mountains of Debt analyzed the fiscal history of Renaissance Florence, including their wine tax scheme.)

Would Nesto and Di Savino be able to open my eyes to this relatively familiar place in the same way as the earlier book? Yes! What an interesting book.

Eye-Opening (Literally)

One chapter literally made me rub my eyes. It was the chapter on viticulture, which is complicated in Chianti Classico as elsewhere with competing theories about the best way to train and treat the vines to get the best quality or maximize quantity.

This is not a new discussion and as evidence of this the authors cite one of the most famous works of Italian Renaissance art — the 1338-39 Lorenzetti  frescoes of the allegory of good and bad government that are found in Siena’s town hall. I have seen these images several times (the distinguished economist Robert Mundell, who taught some years before me at the Johns Hopkins Bologna Center, first drew them to my attention), but I never appreciated the full story they told.

There, within a part of the image on the effect of good government, are three different vine systems! One features narrow rows of densely planted vines. A second has rows widely spaced with interstitial crop plantings. And a third is planted in the Etruscan style with trees for the vines to climb. Fascinating.


What is Chianti?

The over-arching question this book addresses is “what is Chianti?” Newcomer wine consumers are often confused about whether Chianti is a grape or a region, but that’s not what we are talking about here. Rather the issue, which is thoroughly examined over the course of eleven chapters, is how should the Chianti region be defined and what wines should therefore receive the Chianti designation.

Once upon a time Chianti meant the area that we now call Chianti Classico, but at several critical points the borders of the appellation were expanded to include zones called “External Chianti,” which vastly increased the volume of Chianti wine available.

Changing the borders of any appellation creates conflict (hey Mr. Champagne, I’m talking about you!). Chianti has in fact been the focus of at least several wars including a real war in the middle ages between the city-states of Florence and Siena and an economic and political war between the interests of Chianti Classico and those of External Chianti.

Nesto and Di Savino take sides in the Chianti wars, especially over the geographical boundaries and cite a previously obscure edict issued by by Medici grand duke Cosimo III in 1716 defining Chianti narrowly as Chianti Classico. They argue for a return to Cosimo’s borders, making the case that the appellations in External Chianti are now strong enough to compete without the Chianti designation. This is bound to stir up further controversy. Stay tuned.

Full of Surprisesrooster

Chianti Classico is packed with information and insights — something for all wine lovers. The early chapters introduce us to the controversies and how they (and Chianti) evolved over several centuries. Great depth and detail here. Then several chapters examine the geography, grape varieties, viticulture, wine-making and winemakers. Finally, each subzone is explored with profiles of the major wine producers that double as a wine touring guide. Cosimo’s 1716 edict appears at the end in the form of a Da Vinci Code-style mystery story.

Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that my favorite part of the book is the set of chapters on the economic history of Chianti, Chianti Classico and the Chianti Wars. Economic forces were unusually important in shaping this wine region over the years and Nesto and Di Savino do a masterful job turning what is obviously pain-staking research into a lively and informative narrative.

There were many surprises. I had no idea that international trade was such an important force in Chianti in the earliest years. I had no idea that Chianti was such a valuable “brand” long ago, either, or that the story of the straw covered flask bottled would be so complicated and interesting.

And I did not realize that Chianti Classico almost ceased to exist at one point in the post-WWII era when high cost producers found themselves undercut by cheap bulk Chianti wines that drove prices down to, for them, economically unsustainable prices. The story of how this happened and how the Chianti Classico producers rallied to revive their industry makes great reading.

Does Chianti Classico live up to my high expectations for it? Yes! A great book for anyone who loves Chianti or Tuscany or … wine!

(Republic of) Georgia on my mind: Wine tourism’s future in the “Cradle of Wine”

In a few days Sue and I will be jetting off to the Republic of Georgia for the first United Nations World Tourism Organization Global Conference on Wine Tourism.We have been trying to learn all we can about Georgia and its wine and wine tourism industries in preparation for the trip. I thought you might be interested in three of the resources we have found especially useful.

Taber’s Final Frontier

George Taber spent the best part of a year circling the globe collecting wine tourism experiences that he chronicled in an entertaining 2009 book called In Search of Bacchus.  Most of the places Taber visited would be on any globetrotter’s wine tourism map — Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany and so on — and his reporting and first person accounts are very interesting. Taber waited until the final chapter to veer off the conventional road map to visit Georgia, which he calls wine’s “final frontier.”

Taber had a great time in Georgia, the “Cradle of Wine,” 8000 vintages and counting. He loved the people and culture and was fascinated by the wine, reporting on the traditional wine-making process using big clay jars called Qvervi (which are buried in the earth as shown below) to ferment and store the wine until ready to drink.

Taber comments on consumption patterns as do most who write about Georgian wine. A rule of thumb, he notes, is to allow for two or three liters of wine per person at a supra banquet or celebration, where tradition requires that guests drain their glasses after each toast.

When celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain visited Georgia (see video above) he also cited high alcohol consumption and complained of frequent hangovers, although this might be Bourdain being Bourdain as much as Georgian tradition. I will let you know what I find out.

Wine Tourism as Economic Developmentqvevri1

My wine economics colleague Kym Anderson visited Georgia a few years after Taber to analyze the wine industry’s potential as an engine of economic development. His 2012 report, Georgia, Cradle of Wine: the next “new” wine exporting country? (pdf), makes good reading.

Anderson found the wine market quite segmented. Most of the large domestic demand was satisfied by basic traditional wines, a surprisingly large proportion being home-produced. Industrial production of wine for export to former Soviet countries made up a second market segment. Rising quantities of wine are made for export to other markets (including US, Canada, UK, etc), where quality expectations are different than the Russian market and production adjustments necessary.

A recent report lists Georgia’s five largest export markets as Russia, Ukraine, China, Kazakhstan and Poland although there have been substantial sales increases (albeit from a low base) to Germany, the UK, and Canada.

Anderson clearly sees potential for Georgian wine exports if industrial and agricultural upgrading continues, but he is especially interested in wine tourism, which he sees having potentially greater  impact on rural incomes and employment. Georgia’s decision to host the UNWTO program is consistent with this priority. International tourism is an important income source for Georgia and wine tourism has growth potential.

Anderson makes a number of specific recommendations for upgrading hospitality and winery facilities to make them more appealing to wine tourists. We will be interested to see what progress has been made in this regard in the short time since Anderson’s report.

Back to the Future of Winefeiring

Natural wine proponent Alice Feiring seems to have found her “tribe” in Georgia. Her 2016 book For the Love of Wine is an entertaining, informative and deeply personal account of her encounters with Georgia wine and wine-makers.

Feiring is taken by the naturalness of the Qvervi wine-making process and the dedication of those who kept this tradition alive during the long Soviet wine winter. Whereas Anderson’s concern is economic development, Feiring worries more about the soul. She sees Georgia’s past as a path to a better, more soulful future.

But she worries these traditional wines are threatened by a new foe — those US, UK, and EU markets that seem to demand “me too” wines made in an international style with lots of additives and manipulation. For Feiring, Russian communism and international capitalism are “twins separated at birth” in the sense that each destroys the essence of wine in its own way.

Feiring’s mission is to support those who seek to make high quality traditional wines. But there are problems. The Georgian domestic market for such wines with their necessarily higher price compared with home production is not large enough to support the craft industry, which means that buyers must be found in other countries.

Feiring’s tribe needs to grow to support the wines she treasures. The natural wine movement is growing in part due to her determined efforts. Perhaps wine tourism will convert visitors to natural wine (and Georgian wine) ambassadors.

That is a sip of what I’m learning and a hint of the sorts of questions we hope to explore. Georgia is definitely on my mind!


We appreciate everyone who helped us prepare for this trip including the officials and staff at the UNWTO and the Georgia National Tourist Administration plus Mariam Anderson, Prof. Kym Anderson, Nino Turashvili, Viktoria Koberidze, Irakli Cholobargia, George Akhalkatsi,  and Hermes Navarro del Valle.

July 4th Flashback: How the U.S. & Canada Almost Destroyed Wine

patriotic_pourIt is Independence Day here in the United States and that is all the excuse I need for this special Flashback column, which takes us back to 2015 to tell the story of how, in very different ways, the U.S. and Canadian governments almost destroyed their respective wine industries.

My friends always tell me to have a fifth for the Fourth, and I assume they are recommending a bottle of American wine with the required holiday menu of hot dogs, hamburgers and salads. Cheers and Happy Independence Day.


At one point in Kym Anderson’s new book about the Australian wine industry he reflects on what can be done to shorten that country’s current wine slump and to get things sailing again on an even keel. One of his suggestions caught my eye:

“Governments need to keep out of grape and wine markets and confine their activities to generating public goods and overcoming market failures such as the free rider problem of collecting levies for generic promotion and R&D.”

This is more than the simple Adam Smith “laissez-faire” idea. Anderson’s book clearly demonstrates the law of unintended consequences — how well-meaning government policies sometimes have had unexpectedly negative side-effects. No wonder he recommends a cautious approach to wine and grape policy.

I was reminded of this when I was researching the history of the Canadian wine industry for a recent speaking engagement in Ontario. I was struck by Canada’s experience with Prohibition in the 20th century, how it differed from the U.S. experiment, and how both ended up crippling their wine industries but in very different ways. Here’s what I learned.

How U.S. Prohibition Crippled the Wine Industry

The great experiment in Prohibition in the United States started in 1920 and lasted until 1933. The 18th Amendment outlawed the manufacture, sale or transport of intoxicating beverages, including wine. Most people assume that the wine industry collapsed as legal wine sales and consumption fell and this is partly true but not the complete story. Commercial wine production almost disappeared, but wine consumption actually boomed.

How is this possible? There were three loopholes in the wine regulations outlined in the Volstead Act. Wine could still be produced and sold for medical purposes (prescription wine?) and also for use in religious services (sacramental wine). This kept a few wineries in business but does not account for the consumption boom, which is due to the third loophole: households were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of wine per year for “non-intoxicating” family consumption.

Demand for wine grapes exploded as home winemaking increased (but not always for strictly non-intoxicating purposes). Total U.S. vineyard area just about doubled between 1919 and 1926! But the new plantings were not delicate varieties that commercial producers might have chosen but rather grapes chosen for their high yields,  strong alcohol potential and ability to survive shipping to eastern markets.

Thus did Prohibition increase wine consumption in the U.S. but it also corrupted the product by turning over wine-making from trained professionals to enthusiastic  amateurs working in often unsanitary conditions. The home-produced wine sometimes had little in common with pre-Prohibition commercial products except its alcoholic content.

Americans drank more wine during Prohibition, but it was an inferior product. No wonder they dropped wine like a hot stone when Prohibition ended. That’s when the real wine bust occurred and it took decades to fully recover. Do you see the unintended consequence in this story? But wait, there’s more …

How Canadian Prohibition Crippled Its Wine Industry

Prohibition started earlier (1916) and ended earlier (1927) in Canada and took a different fundamental form. With support from temperance groups, consumption of beer and spirits (Canada’s first choice alcoholic drinks) was banned as part of war policy with the stated intent of preserving grain supplies for vital military uses. Consumption was forbidden, but production of beer and spirits was still allowed for export, which accounts for the boom in bootleg Canadian whiskey in the U.S. in the 1920s.

Neither production nor consumption of wine was included in Canada’s ban on alcohol, although wine sales were limited to the cellar door. What made wine different? Maybe grapes were not as vital to the war effort as grains, although John Schreiner cites the political influence of the United Farmer’s Party in his account of this period in The Wines of Canada. Wine became the legal alcoholic beverage of choice for Canadian consumers and production boomed. By the end of Canadian Prohibition there were 57 licensed wineries in Ontario (up from just 12) to serve the big Toronto market.

Wine sales increased 100-fold, according to Schreiner, but “It would be charitable to describe the quality of the wines being made in Ontario during this period as variable,” he writes. The market wanted alcohol and set a low standard of quality, which many producers pragmatically stooped to satisfy. No wonder wine production collapsed at the end of Prohibition as consumers went back to spirits and beer.

Unintended Consequences

Thus did government policy in both Canada and the United States create wine booms during their respective Prohibition eras, but the worst kind of booms: bad wine booms. Quality suffered as quantity surged. It is no surprise that consumers turned away from wine once other beverages were available. It took decades for these industries to recover.

Both the Canadian and U.S. wine industries are vibrant and growing today, having recovered from the crippling effects of poor quality wine. But they both are still hampered by other policies — especially regarding distribution and sales — that date back to the end of Prohibition. Economic policies can obviously have unintended effects and the shadows they cast can be long indeed.

No wonder Kym Anderson is skeptical about government interference in the Australian industry. Prohibition is an extreme case, to be sure, but such cases clearly show the unintended consequence potential that exists even with other seemingly harmless proposals. A cautious approach makes sense.

The Past Meets the Future at Alentejo’s Historic José de Sousa Winery

P1110385The dynamic intersection of old and new was a theme of our recent visit to Portugal’s Alentejo wine region and there cannot be a better example of it that the work that winemaker Domingos Soares Franco is doing at at José Maria da Fonseca‘s José de Sousa winery. Here is a brief report.

Past & Present

Domingos Soares Franco’s roots in Portuguese wine run very deep. He is the sixth generation of his family to make wine. He is a quiet man, I would say, having met him just once, but also proud of all that he and his family have accomplished at José Maria da Fonseca. And rightly so (see video below).

Domingos is known for the innovations that he has introduced in winemaking here, which reflects the new. His technical training was in California at UC Davis (he was the first Portuguese Davis graduate), so it is no surprise that he brings the modern and experimental to his work here.

But we did not meet him in a high tech facility as you might imagine. Instead he took us into a deep cellar at the José de Sousa winery where we confronted Alentejo’s past and perhaps also its future.

Going Back in TimeP1110389

The Romans made wine in this region two millenia ago using huge clay jars not unlike the ones shown in the photo above and video below. Incredibly the ancient practice remained alive here over the centuries before fading away in the 20th century as the local wine industry suffered from adverse economic incentives (the Portuguese government promoted grain production over wine).

The reemergence of wine in this region is an important story and as we saw at Adega de Borba, modern technology and innovation have been key to that success. But many of those old 1000 liter clay jars still survive from a century ago and we saw them at several wineries that are experimenting with them to see if the past can provide insights for the future. I am not sure anyone has gone as far as Domingos, however.

We inspected the basement with the largest collection of jars that I saw on this trip and peered into a jar full with wine that Domingos was making based upon an ancient recipe. A layer of olive oil protected the wine from oxygen. It was like a look back into the past!

A Memorable BlendP1110401

Then we tasted and that was very interesting, too. Experimenting with both the past and the future, Domingos makes one wine using modern techniques and then another, using identical grapes, in the clay jars. You could sense the family resemblance, but there was a lot that is different, especially aroma and mouthfeel.

We tasted one and then the other and then improvised the blend that Domingos favors: half past, half future. Memorable. Not just a wine but an experience.

If you look closely at the photo you can see the shimmer of olive oil floating on the surface of the clay jar wine. That will be gone when the finished wine is made, Domingos said, but the sense of history will certainly remain.


This video gives you a sense of the old and new that we experienced in Portugal.

Legendary Fred Franzia to Speak at Unified Symposium Luncheon

Sue and I will be at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento on January 26-28, 2016 where I will once again moderate the State of the Industry session featuring presentations by Steve Fredricks of Turrentine Brokerage, Nat DuBuduo of Allied Grape Growers and Jon Fredrikson of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates.

I always look forward to the Wednesday “State of the Industry” panel because the speakers are so well-informed and the information so timely and interesting. But if I am honest, this year I am even more excited about the Tuesday luncheon gathering because that speaker will be the legendary Fred Franzia (a.k.a. Mr Two Buck Chuck) of Bronco Wine. Wouldn’t miss this for the world!

Bronco By the Numbers

Bronco Wine Company is a major force in the U.S. wine industry. According to the most recent Wine Business Monthly report, Bronco’s 20 million annual case volume makes it the fourth largest U.S. wine company after Gallo, The Wine Group, and Constellation Brands. Although Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck) is the best known Bronco label, the company has more than 50 brands. One of the products that Bronco does not make is Franzia, the popular box wine, which belongs to The Wine Group. Franzia doesn’t make Franzia? It’s a long story that I will tell another time.

Bronco’s history began in 1973, when Fred Franzia and his brother Joseph met with their cousin John and pledged to go all in to build a new wine company. Equipped with a tiny bank loan, their knowledge of the business side (Fred and Joseph) and of winemaking (John), plus a major measure of determination, they set out on the twisting road that has brought them to their current position.

Their accomplishment is quite breathtaking when you think about it.  Bronco today boasts impressive winemaking facilities, a packaging and distribution center in Napa and about 40,000 acres of vineyards. No, I didn’t make a mistake, the number is 40,000, making Bronco one of the largest vineyard owners in the world.P1100664

The Miracle of Two Buck Chuck

One of Bronco’s greatest achievements, of course, is the success of the Charles Shaw wines sold at Trader Joe’s stores. These clean, balanced, and affordable wines played an important role in the democratization of wine in the United States. So many previously intimidated consumers were drawn into the wine market by Two Buck Chuck and the other wines it inspired or provoked.

I wrote about “the miracle of Two Buck Chuck” in my 2011 book Wine Wars. The quality of these inexpensive wines forced other winemakers to raise their game and give better value, which in turn gave consumers more confidence and expanded the wine market’s reach. If you think about the U.S. wine world before 1973, well it really is a miracle that we have come so far. The Franzias played an important role.

The View from Bronco Wine

What will Fred Franzia talk about at the Unified Symposium luncheon? Obviously I don’t really know, but I hope that he will look back at some of the inspiring figures that he has known in his life in American wine and look ahead at some of the challenges he sees for the future. I’m hoping to be  informed, entertained, and inspired.P1100655

Sue and I had an opportunity to talk about the past, present, and future of American wine with Fred Franzia back in September. Fred invited us to come down to see what a large-scale grape harvest looks like. Fred’s son Joey took us to see the night harvest at a 4000-acre vineyard ranch near Lodi — quite an experience to see the big machines at work under the stars.

We also visited the Napa bottling and distribution center and the main winery in Ceres, where we had lunch with Fred, Joseph, and John Franzia. Then John took us through the working winery (he designed it and supervised its construction), which was receiving grapes picked the night before (more than 300 big truck loads a day at that time).

Big and Bigger

The scale of the Ceres operation got our attention, of course. We saw some tanks that held 350,000 gallons of wine each. Big as they are, they were dwarfed by other tanks that held twice as much. Amazing.

Once we got used to the scale of the Bronco winery we began to appreciate the tremendous attention to detail, which was apparent in all of the other Bronco operations we visited. So many moving parts coordinated so efficiently. Very impressive. We enjoyed the opportunity to sit and chat with Fred in his modest trailer office and to hear some stories from the past and his vision of the future. I’m hoping to hear more along these lines when Fred gives his luncheon talk.

The Name is Shaw, Charlie Shaw

Let me share one story. Fred told us that he was making a call  at a Trader Joe’s store — he still handles that account himself — and struck up a conversation with a young man who was stocking a Charles Shaw display. Fred asked about how the wine was selling and what customers were saying and so on and the clerk asked who he was and why he wanted to know. Well, Fred replied, I’m one of the people who help make this wine — I work at the winery.

Wow, the clerk exclaimed. You’re Charles Shaw? You’re Charlie Shaw! No, no, my  name’s not Shaw, Fred tried to explain, but it was too late and a minute later the store PA system announced that Charles Shaw was visiting the wine aisle. Amazed customers surged to the Two Buck Chuck display to thank their hero and Fred spent the rest of his visit happily autographing wine bottles. A rock-star moment!

I hope I have the details of that story right (and I apologize if I’ve messed up) because it says a something about the pride and personal touch that we found everywhere at Bronco and about the warm enthusiasm that Charlie Shaw inspires in his fans.


Sue’s photos above show the blur of the Charles Shaw bottling line at the Bronco Napa facility and a tractor driver during night harvest.

Looking Back at the European Invasion of California Wine

The Beatles’ Boeing 707 landed in the USA on February 7, 1964 and pop music has never been the same. It isn’t that the British Invasion conquered American pop music as much as that a creative dynamic was accelerated. The influence can still be felt more than 50 years later.

Another invasion took place from about 1970 to 1990 when a number of Europeans made significant wine investments in the United States, stirring the creative pot in ways big and small. Last week I talked about the Skalli family’s Mondavi-inspired investment in St Supéry and the recent sale of that property to the brothers who own Chanel.  That event got me to thinking about the other invaders. Where are they now? Here are a few quick case studies.

Chandon’s French Invasion

Domaine Chandon, for example, has thrived as a sparkling wine producer and now also a maker of fine still wines.  Chandon California (1973) is part of Moët Hennessy’s  global luxury wine portfolio that also includes Newton Vineyard in Cailfornia, Chandon Argentina (1959), Chandon do BrazIl (1973), Chandon Australia (1986) and Chandon China (2013) as well as Cape Mentelle, Cloudy Bay, and other famous brands.

(Newton Vineyard is the part of the answer to one of my favorite trivia questions. What two California wineries were featured in the Japanese re-make of the film Sideways, which was set in Napa Valley? Answer: Newton and Frog’s Leap.)

Boisset Comes, Goes, Returns

Chandon was not the only French firm to invest in the California wine industry. Boisset, known today for DeLoach, Raymond, and Buena Vista wineries among others, came on the scene in the early 1980s. In fact, Boisset sold Robert Skalli  the Rutherford property on Highway 29 that became the St Supéry winery.

Boisset first entered the California market as an importer and producer in 1980. The Rutherford property was purchased in 1982 (the Victorian home you see there was used as a summer residence for a couple of years). But it was sold to Skalli in 1984  as the result of a strategic shift to focus to building the company back in France rather than expanding further into California.

Jean-Charles Boisset returned in California in 2003 with the DeLoach purchase and has gone on to become an integral part of the wine industry here with a large wine portfolio and deep local roots. He is married to Gina Gallo and the couple live in the old Robert Mondavi house.

Water to Wine: Hess Collection

Donald Hess wasn’t looking to start a winery when he came to the U.S. from Switzerland in 1978, although he ended up creating the Hess Collection vineyard and winery on  Mount Veeder and starting an international wine portfolio that now reaches out to California, Argentina and South Africa. Hess wanted to produce and sell bottled water in the U.S. and he traveled across the country looking for both a production source that appealed to him and evidence that there was a growing market for bottled water.

Having failed on both fronts when it came to water (he was obviously just ahead of his time), Hess became inspired by some of the wines he tasted and changed direction. He invested first in the vineyards high up on Mount Veeder and then took over the historic Christian Brothers winery up there, which is quite an inspiring place to visit now that Hess has strengthened and restored it after the Napa earthquake. Hess’s signature modern art collection is spectacular, too, and some of the wines we tasted were memorable indeed. 

Atlas Peak to Antica Napa Valley

As we drove the winding road to Antica Napa Valley I had that feeling of déjà vu: have I been on this road before? Impossible? Nothing much out here except Antica Napa, the Antinori family’s Napa Valley winery (the Antinori are also involved in Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Red Mountain’s Col Solare in partnership with Ste Michelle Wine Estates) and this was our first visit.

But I think I had been there before, back when it was called Atlas Peak. The winery and its famous cave system are a fascinating story. Piero Antinori first came to California in 1966, when Robert Mondavi was just starting out with his new winery. Antinori fell in love with the place and started a slow, thorough search for the right path to enter the region.  He finally found it in 1986 when he entered into agreement to purchase land for vineyards and a site for a winery in the beautiful Atlas Peak area. Antinori formed a partnership with Whitbread, Inc., the British brewer, and Christian Bizot of Bollinger Champagne, who were also keen to get a toe in the U.S. pond.

The partnership did not go quite as planned (a long story that Richard G. Peterson outlines in part in his new book The Winemaker) and in 1993 Antinori bought out the Whitbread and Bollinger shares and in 2006 renamed the operation Antica (Antinori + California) Napa Valley.  The road from 1966 to today has been as full of twists and turns as the road to the winery itself and I think it is fair to say that the journey continues with growing confidence. The Townsend Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon we tasted speaks volumes about this winery’s capacity, vision and direction.

Two for [Opus] One 

No one remembers for sure, it is said, whether it was Mondavi who approached the Rothschilds or if it was the other way around, but whoever had the idea for a French-California partnership it proved to be a good one. The terms were simple: fifty-fifty. No one had a controlling interest, everything had to be mutually agreed.

The first Opus One wines were made in 1979 and 1980 and in 1981 a single pre-release case sold for $24,000 at the Napa Valley Wine Auction. It was the highest price ever paid for an American wine at the time and still quite a lot of money for a case of wine today. The first wines were released in 1984.

The landmark winery sits just off Highway 29 across the road from the Robert Mondavi winery where those very first wines were made. The dramatic architecture of the winery gets all the attention, but the vineyards are the important thing here.  Opus One counts part of the historic To Kalon vineyard as a key asset and component in its wine.

Constellation Brands purchased Mondavi in 2005 and inherited half ownership of Opus One. The Rothschilds considered buying out the American half interest as was their right under the founding agreement, but opted instead to keep the winery with a foot in both wine worlds. Constellation and the Rothschilds reached an agreement to remain partners while assuring the winery’s independence and integrity.

Unintended Consequences

I admit to being surprised when I learned about the Constellation side of Opus One.  I could not imagine that the Mondavi family would structure things in a way that would allow this jewel to slip away.

But things don’t always turn out the way we plan and perhaps this quick survey of the European Invasion shows just how diverse the experience has been for those who came to America in the 70s and 80s to make wine here (and for American winemakers, too).


St Supéry Winery Sale: From Algeria to California & from Skalli to Chanel

I was surprised to learn a couple of weeks ago that Robert Skalli, founder of the St Supéry winery in Rutherford, was selling his family’s iconic winery and vineyards to Chanel, the French luxury goods producer.  Press coverage such as an article in Decanter was pretty limited — not much more than the press release version of things — lots of unanswered questions in my mind.

Sue and I visited St Supéry in September (we loved the wines and the people we met) and we were told many times how committed the Skalli family was to the project, so I was caught off guard by the change in ownership. It is natural to keep quiet about a business deal until it is finally done of course, but the quick change got my attention.

All in the Families

The facts of the sale are these. Chanel owners Alain and Gérard Wertheimer,  who are said to be worth €16.6bn, have reached an agreement to pay an undisclosed sum for the winery on Highway 29 in Rutherford, the 35-acre vineyard there and the magnificent 1500-acre Dollarhide Vineyard up north in the hills.

No reason was given for the sale, although Skalli is quoted saying he happy that his winery will be run by a firm that shares his values. The Wertheimers own two wineries in Bordeaux, Château Rauzan-Ségla and Château Canon, but there is no indication that they plan to build a luxury winery portfolio. Lots of questions — why, how much, and so forth — but winery sales happen all the time and details are not always fully revealed. So why am I so curious to find out more?

I first got interested in St Supéry when I was working on my 2011 book Wine Wars. I was examining the tensions between New World and Old World ideas about wine and I came across the fascinating story of the Skalli family wine empire.

Rise and Fall of Skalli Wine Empire

Robert Skalli is the founder of the Skalli Group, a holding company that was until 2011 one of the largest producers of wines in the Languedoc.  The Skalli conglomerate made branded varietal wines  and sold them in France and around the world. Skalli sold almost all its wine interests to Boisset in 2011. Almost all? They  held on to St Supéry.

Robert Skalli’s grandparents were pied noirs, French migrants to Algeria.  Many pied noirs emigrated to Algeria starting in the 1870s, when phylloxera wiped out vineyards and grower incomes in the Languedoc. The Skallis left France in the 1930s, presumably in search of greater opportunity in Northern Africa – and they found it.

Robert-Elle Skalli, Robert Skalli’s grandfather, built an empire on grain and wine. By the time that Francis Skalli took over from his father after World War II, the family business included a huge grain operation, Rivoire et Carré with a mill in Marseilles, the number two pasta company in France, Lustucru, a vineyard in Corsica, a rice producer, Taureau Aile, and of course vineyards in Algeria.

By 1964 the Skalli vineyards in Algeria spread over 600,000 acres, which is nearly as large as all the vineyards in Languedoc today (700,000 acres, which is much less than a few years ago). This was the wine that the French négociants blended with the weaker Langudoc product to make industrial strength vin du jour and they made vast quantities of it.

Like many other pied noirs families, the Skalli eventually fled to France as a result of the Algerian war and its independence in 1962.  They settled in the Languedoc and went about rebuilding their business.  Robert Skalli entered his father’s and grandfather’s business in the 1970s and, as part of his education, studied and worked (as  a “flying intern”) with winemakers in Australia and the United States.

California Inspiration

Significantly, according to the official company history, he worked with Robert Mondavi, who introduced him to the idea of branded varietals and opened his eyes to a different vision of the wine business, one based not on the condition of supply (and the traditional practices and regulations governing production) but on demand and the development of vineyard, cellar and marketing techniques that would provide buyers with wine that they could understand, appreciate and that they would buy.

Skalli returned to France and began to organize a business to make the clean, consistent, mid-range varietal wines that he saw in California and Australia. He established partnerships with growers and cooperatives in the Languedoc, providing financing for the process of pulling out their tough old vines and replanting with market-friendly varietals like Merlot and Chardonnay. Replanting is expensive, both in direct outlays and in lost production while the vines mature.  I suppose having the backing of the profitable Skalli grain business was useful in this transformation process.

The main Skalli brand, Fortant de France, was established in 1983 to produce and market these wines both in France and in 25 foreign countries.  The Cabernet Sauvignon sold  for about six dollars a bottle back when I was doing my Wine Wars research. There was a cheaper brand, Couleurs Du Sud, sold mainly in European hypermarkets and also a kosher wine line.

Mondavi Again

The Skalli family eventually decided to concentrate on wine – the grain and pasta businesses were sold or spun off.  They had wine interests in Languedoc, the Rhone Valley, in Corsica, where they owned the largest private vineyard, and in California.   Skalli credits Mondavi with helping him make the St Supéry investment.

And in return Skalli supported Mondavi’s aborted attempt to invest in the Languedoc on the logic, I believe, that anything that Mondavi did would draw favorable attention to the Languedoc, which would benefit both family businesses.

In 2011 the Skalli family sold off their wine interests to Boisset but, significantly, retained St Supéry. This surprised me at the time and I figured that it must either signal a new direction or a special fondness for the Napa project. Now I am not sure what to think.

But it seems like the winery is probably in good hands if Chanel gives the excellent local team that Skalli developed some autonomy. Luxury goods companies are sometimes more focused on managing brands than making wine. Skalli seemed to be good at both and perhaps Chanel will take the winery to the next level. Fingers crossed for a bright future at St Supéry.


The decade from about 1975 to 1985 featured a surprising number of European wine investments in California. Sue and I have made a point to visit many of them over the last few years to find out how they have changed or developed. How have those ambitious Euopean investments of 30-40 years ago turned out?  Tune in next week for some thoughts.


The Wall Street Journal published an interesting article about Chateau Canon, one of Chanel’s French investment on November 11, 2015.  Unclear if this is  St Supéry’s future.