The French Connection
He reinvented Raymond, rebuilt Buena Vista, and now Jean-Charles Boisset is going to reacquaint us with our own history.
He may be the closest thing to a winemaking rock star in the world.
He is French, with a California veneer. He is relentlessly charming and formidably intelligent. He is flamboyant, fun-loving and naughty in some sort of indefinable, French kind of way, with a bulldog (named, of course, Frenchie) who has his own winery and wine label.
He is entrepreneurial and innovative, impulsive but calculating, a little brash but very businesslike, fully capable of saying outrageous things that sound innocent, nevertheless, because they escape his mouth wrapped in an insouciant smile.
And he’s got style, style most men over 40 couldn’t carry off in the privacy of their bedrooms. He’s got the red socks, the skinny pants, the open collars and the pocket handkerchief, plus an apparent propensity for leopard print. Whatever he wears seems to work.
He is also the president of a privately held, French family wine business, with 20-odd labels and sales of more than 5 million cases a year and annual revenues that, by some accounts, approach a billion dollars.
Now he owns a growing skein of California wineries, strung through Sonoma County and across the divide into the Napa Valley, where he is not only making good wine, but where he is redefining the experience of drinking it.
And—here’s the 21st-century icing on cupcake—he is adamantly, eloquently, persistently ecological, reciting the gospel of sustainability, almost literally, whenever he speaks.
He is Jean-Charles Boisset and, if you live in, visit, or only read about California wine country, you will hear that name a lot—because of who he is, what he owns and what he’s doing with it.
Let’s get a little more specific. Take the naughty part.
In September of 2009, Jean-Charles married (some people called it a merger) Gina Gallo, granddaughter of Ernest and Julio and now head winemaker of the largest winery in the world, with 10,000 acres of vines in Sonoma County alone.
Gina and Jean-Charles were attending the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival in April when an attractive, female, online TV reporter engaged them in conversation about their wines. After lavishing a kiss on his wife’s lips, Jean Charles offered some romantic advice for the best use of his JCB champagne. Take a case, he suggested to the reporter, fill a bathtub with it and then share it with the one you love. The label of choice? A brut rosé, he proposed, called “JCB No. 69, you can taste it at our booth. And I don’t need to tell you what it means, do I?” Jean-Charles impishly grinned. To which the young lady blithely responded in kind, “So, if you want to get 69, you just go to your booth. Is that what I just heard, Jean-Charles?”
“Absolutely,” he replied, with a gleam both provocative and benign, “and which ever way you look at it, you’ll like it.”
Maybe you have to be French to skate around the edge of a double entendre that easily, but for a man with his charm it’s child’s play. Still, it belies a serious side that emerges the moment you mention the environment.
Jean-Charles is not just organic, he is not concerned merely with carbon footprints and upstream impacts and carefully rationing the drip. He is chin deep in biodynamic farming, the true gospel of Rudolph Steiner, tuning into lunar rhythms, cosmic influences and the ritual of burying cow horns packed with manure from lactating cows to ferment through the cold months of winter. The resulting fertilizer is sprayed on fields or vineyards and, according to the creed, increases beneficial bacteria, fungi and earthworm activity.
While others have preceded him with the Steiner stuff in California, he introduced biodynamic practices on the family farm in Burgundy years ago. And, in the same nearly religious—or romantic—fervor with which he approaches everything he does, he speaks about that family land as if it represents a sacred trust.
“I feel very honored and privileged to have come from such an incredible heritage, Burgundy,” he says more than once. “I’ve had the fortunate pleasure to walk the land I live on today with my grandparents and parents, who instilled in me a great sense of responsibility for our land.”
The biodynamic ethic, applied over the last decade, spilled into all aspects of winemaking. “From preserving water, to managing electricity, resources, recycling, each of the innovations we’ve done, not only in the vineyard, but in the winery through our packaging solutions, have been to the benefit of that land.”
The packaging solutions whereof Jean-Charles speaks, could be called innovative, though rarely applied to premium wine. But in the Boisset ecological equation, there can’t be a zero-sum game. If people win, and thereby nature loses, then people lose too.
So Jean-Charles came up with the Rabbit wines—varietals like chardonnay, merlot and pinot noir—packaged in aseptic paper cartons—Tetra Paks—that can last a couple of weeks or so, are resealable, reusable and, when discarded, represent dramatically less packaging than a glass bottle. Other wines he puts in aluminum bottles, PET bottles, and boxes. It just made practical and ecological sense—tradition be damned.
But Jean-Charles is not down on tradition. Far from it. It was the appeal of American tradition that first brought him to Sonoma when he was 11, in tow with his sister on a tour led by his grandparents, both schoolteachers and historians eager to visit the site of the Bear Flag Revolt and, parenthetically, the place where some Hungarian count started the first commercial winery in the West.
So they brought little Jean-Charles and his older sister to the already decaying stone edifice built by Agoston Haraszthy, and the boy was transfixed and transformed.
“We came here, and I literally could not believe it. The stone buildings, this was Europe. I remember everything about that day, it had an impact on me. When you travel, you remember certain postcards in your head for years. That was me.”
Like a lot of French and Italian kids, Jean-Charles had been drinking wine since he was 4. But he couldn’t drink at Buena Vista so the grandparents bought three bottles and brought them back to the little hotel on the Plaza where they spent the night and 11-year-old Jean-Charles Boisset had his first taste of the future in a plastic hotel cup.
After that visit, “Buena Vista was always in my sight. Always. I was fascinated by the story of the count. He created a wine world. He noble-ized this place, Sonoma.”
The 11-year-old grew up, Jean-Charles matriculated into the family firm, and then devoted his considerable energy into down-sizing and up-grading, turning the Boisset business into a higher-end brand.
In 1994 he came back to Sonoma, and back to Buena Vista, and this time he was old enough to taste the wine.
“It was very nice and friendly, but I said, ‘This place should sing again.’ I tried to buy it in ’97, in fact I tried every time I was here. And then, last year I had the opportunity.”
With the deed in hand, Boisset assembled a skeleton team to prepare plans, shape a vision, create a strategy for making California’s oldest winery sing. And one man who was there went into the cellar and pulled out a bottle of reserve pinot noir for the group to drink. The vintage date was 1983, the precise year of Jean-Charles’ childhood visit. It felt like a magical sign.
The plan for Buena Vista was not just to restore its structural integrity—the stone winery building was on the verge of collapse—but to “restore a sense of place, a sense of history, so people don’t just get a nice visit, looking at the Barracks, perhaps, but an experience that makes them want to come back. Not just looking at the history, but drinking the history.”
This is a theme that percolates constantly in Boisset’s head. “We are here such a short period of time, we need to achieve a willingness to communicate to the future its past, and to make sure we preserve that past, build from it, enhance it and hopefully continue a certain sense of excellence for the generations to come.
“You know, if every generation had not preserved Versailles, it would not be Versailles, and history would not be what it is. We have a tremendous history here in Sonoma that needs to be continued and our role is to build it for the next thousand years, not for us, it’s a responsibility for our children.”
Americans sometimes struggle through a love-hate paradox with the French. Love the culture, the food, the wine, the architecture, the Frenchness. But not so much what they perceive to be the sometimes arrogant people.
A somewhat world-weary Spanish expatriate, then living in Athens, observed one time with a sigh that you can’t make generalizations about nations of people. Every country, he cautioned, contains a cultural stew of the good and the bad.
And then he proceeded to generalize. “I hate the Germans, collectively,” he said, reflecting on their violent past, “but I love them individually. I love the French collectively, but I hate them individually.”
That Spaniard would be hard-pressed to hate Jean-Charles Boisset, and it is more than a little humbling to witness the restoration the flamboyant Frenchman has achieved with an iconic piece of American history, literally rescuing it from imminent collapse, not just for the sake of selling more wine, but to create a monument to remind generations to come what began here, and to show them what lives on.
Stripping a century of vines off the three-story, stone winery, Boisset’s work crews discovered a fragile shell, with mortar that had turned in places to dust. They drilled vertically through the walls, inserting steel reinforcement and a chemically correct mortar, and then repointed every single stone with new grout. There is no sign now of what went into those walls and the winery of Count Haraszthy looks as though it rose from the ground last week.
History plays, with a latter-day
Haraszthy, and epochal exhibits are being prepared at Buena Vista Winery. “People want to smell barrels, they want to touch stone, they want to learn about the heritage, that’s part of what winetasting is all about,” Boisset insists.
But along with the history, of course, there will be an exotic and exclusive tasting room celebrating the joys of champagne—Haraszthy created the first sparkling wine business in California—that promises to riff off Boisset’s taste for elegant luxury.
At his Raymond Winery in St. Helena, Boisset has rewritten the tasting room book, with three levels of experience. First there is the crystal cellar, a shrine to Baccarat, with gleaming, hammered stainless steel tanks, nightclub lights and mannequins dangling from trapeze bars.
Next there is the Red Room, a plush, velour boudoir with wingback chairs, card tables, more Baccarat crystal chandeliers and the old-fashioned opulence of a 19th- century Paris men’s club.
Finally, there is the JCB Lounge, adorned with bits of modernity, a stuffed leopard from somewhere, and various artifacts honoring Lady Gaga.
There are many faces to Jean-Charles Boisset, no doubt several not covered here. But there’s one more that must be included in any inventory, and that is ambassador. The French have always been diplomats, and in the low-grade competition for Wine Country supremacy, Napa and Sonoma sometimes seem to have more at odds than in common. But Boisset bridges the gap, he owns wineries on both sides of the Mayacamas Mountains, and he has Sonoma’s back.
“So,” he says, “we want Sonoma to shine. As much as we love the Napa Valley, it is important to us that Sonoma again live into a grand level, and is really being introduced into the world for its diversity, its very unique wines. Too often I travel around the world and hear about all the fabulous places in the Napa Valley, and very sadly I don’t hear enough about Sonoma.
“So the goal of doing what we’ve done, we want to create a lot of excitement in the cellars of Buena Vista, we need to give to Buena Vista, as well as to Sonoma, it’s title to nobility. Remember, it was 1872, we had unbelievable wars all around the world, but at the World Exposition in Vienna, the very first winery to win gold medals was a winery from Sonoma.”
From the 2012 Fall issue of SONOMA