Napa Valley’s
French connection


Paul Franson

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.

Araujo Estate Wines, the cult producer of wines from its Eisele Vineyard in Napa Valley’s Calistoga, has been acquired by France’s Pinault family 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.

It’s the first buy of a top Napa estate by prominent French wine interests, but follows a long history including Dominus, Opus One, Domaine Chandon and most recently, numerous acquisitions by Jean-Charles Boisset.

Artémis bought the property from Bart and Daphne Araujo, founders of the winery. “The Artémis Group is the perfect buyer of this amazing vineyard we have called home for 23 years,” said Bart Araujo in a release. The rich heritage of Château Latour and its other wine properties, combined with the family’s passion for the wine business, absolute commitment to excellence, and extraordinary track record of success, assures that the stewardship of Araujo Estate and the Eisele Vineyard will continue with the best of care and intentions.”

Frédéric Engerer, CEO of Chateau Latour, added, “Araujo Estate and its jewel, the unique Eisele Vineyard, have been producing consistently one of the very best wines of Napa Valley.” 

The North American staff including the winemaking team will remain with the estate. Bart and Daphne Araujo will remain at Araujo Estate until January to assist in the transition.

Araujo Estate was founded in 1990 by Bart and Daphne Araujo. The  162-acre property includes the 38-acre Biodynamic and organically-farmed Eisele Vineyard, one of the best-known Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards in Napa Valley.

The couple bought the land under the Palisades southeast of Calistoga from Milt and Barbara Eisele in 1990. It was first planted to vines in 1884 and has long produced famed wines earlier bottled by Joseph Phelps Winery and Conn Creek Vineyards.

The 2009 Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon has a list price of $305. The winery also makes Altagracia Cabernet partly from purchased grapes; Eisele Vineyard Syrah; and Eisele Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. A Eisele Vineyard Viognier is bottled in some years.

By contrast, the 2009 LaTour is typically sold for $1500 and above.

A French whirlwind

The biggest other recent French buys in California have been by Jean-Charles Boisset, whose French wine empire has acquired DeLoach, Raymond, Buena Vista, Lockwood and Lyeth, started some other California brands like French Rabbit and JCB, and extensively updated the properties and wines.

The flamboyant marketing-savvy Frenchman even married Gina Gallo and they bought the knoll-top home of the late Robert Mondavi and Margrit Biever Mondavi, reinforcing his assumption of the mantel of that beloved figure by promoting wine and lifestyle first before his own interests.

Yet the French have always had a strong influence on California’s wine industry, however, both in the first wave of immigration in the mid 1850’s, and in the "second wave" of the last few decades.

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 from are also prominent in American firms. In the last decade, French winemakers have become prominent in Napa Valley, too.

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.

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 the late 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 winery is now half owned by Constellation Brands, which bought Mondavi.

Chalone Wine Group headquartered in Napa, was controlled by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), but is now part of Diageo.
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 remote Pope Valley, part of the Napa Valley appellation (American Viticultural Area).

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.
 Portet has retired but has another venture, Polaris Wines, which makes Heritance wines.

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.

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-Noel with the Chateau Portelle brand, and Marketta with a small winery in Napa called Handcrafted by Marketta.

Beaucanon Napa Valley, owned by the de Coninck family of Bordeaux, sold its prominent winery and small vineyard on Highway 29 in Rutherford to the Chalone Wine Group, which was acquired by Diageo. The company, however, kept its best vineyards, which are located off the Silverado Trail near Napa, and have built a winery for the brand there. 

Aubert de Villaine of Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 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.

Many 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.

Not all the French influence is in Napa, however. What is now Laetitia Vineyards on California’s Central Coast was started as Maison Deutz, and what is now J Wine Company in Sonoma County was once Piper Sonoma, the US arm of Piper Heisdick. Both firms overestimated the demand for sparkling wines and eventually sold their operations.

More successful was 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 owned by Roederer and managed by Maisons Marques & Domaines, its marketing arm

And in Oregon, Domaine Drouhin is owned by Jospeh Drouhin of Burgundy.

Paul Pontilier of Chateaux Margaux has a winery on Long Island in New York.

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.

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