How a Frenchman became the consummate Californian
I don’t exactly remember the first time I ever met Jean-Charles Boisset, but I do have a memory of seeing him across the parking lot of his Boisset America offices, which then were in Sausalito. I had driven there to interview him. It was a windy day, and as I got out of my car, I saw a youngish man, slender and terribly good looking, with his hair and scarf flapping in the breeze.
The scion of one of Burgundy’s most important families, Jean-Charles then was in the process of launching his California operation, which now includes Lyeth, De Loach, Lockwood, Raymond, Buena Vista, Frenchie, JCB, California Rabbit and Amberhill. (Those are only the California properties.) The company now is known as Boisset Family Estates.
The three flagship wineries are, of course, De Loach, Raymond and Buena Vista, which was Jean-Charles’ most recent (2011) acquisition.
The Boisset family is one of the few players able to buy California wineries these last few years, since the Great Recession. As a longtime observor of watching wineries pass hands (Buena Vista, for example, has gone through more owners than I can even remember), I’ve developed a single litmus test for whether these transations are good or bad–for the consumer, that is: Does the new owner trade on the good name of the winery by driving quality downward, or does he raise quality?
It’s an important question, because these wineries that are bought generally have names that are well-known to the general public, and even if quality gradually goes south, the wines continue to sell well for years, because the public doesn’t really understand that quality has been compromised. By the time it does–if it ever does–the owner then can resell the winery to someone else, and walk off with his profit.
I am not going to name names, obviously, but this kind of thing does happen in California. It’s always sad to see a winery that once had a great name run into the ground by new ownership anxious to squeeze out every cent of profit they possibly can. The opposite of that kind of sad transaction, of course, is when a new owner buys a winery that–while good–has been troubled, for one reason or another, and then, instead of running it into the ground, has the vision, taste and means to resurrect the winery. When you see these kinds of renaissances, it cheers your heart, and lets you believe that unbridled capitalism can have positive effects.
There are two gentlemen these last few years who have been buying wineries and, as best as I can tell, are intent on elevating them. One is Charles Banks, who recently acquired (wholly or in part) Qupe and Mayacamas. Those familiar with both wineries and with Charles Banks have to be thrilled, particularly with Mayacamas. How exciting it will be to experience future vintages, which I have no doubt will restore the great name of Mayacamas.
The other gentleman is, obviously, Jean-Charles Boisset. De Loach wasn’t exactly a slouch when Boisset bought it, but the wines have either maintained their quality in the years since, or actually improved, especially the single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Zinfandels. Raymond’s progress has been spectacular (thanks, in part, to Philippe Melka’s role as consulting winemaker and the talented Stephanie Putnam). The style of its reds (Cabernets especially) is softly approachable and utterly delicious, wines of such immediate appeal that there’s no reason to cellar them–but they will mellow, too, with ten years in the bottle, if that’s how you roll. Concerning Buena Vista, it’s a little too early to tell. I’m not certain I’ve tasted any Buena Vistas produced since the Boisset takeover. I can say that, while I liked many of its wines in the 2000s, they were good rather than outstanding. Boisset did not acquire the winery’s sprawling Ramal Road vineyard, in the Carneros, which was the source of most of its top wines. I’m not entirely sure how Jean-Charles plans to replace those grapes, but I know that he will, and will do so with diligent intelligence. So, again, it’s very exciting to look forward to future releases from this legendary winery, California’s oldest (1857).
Beyond the quality of the wines, Jean-Charles certainly is one of the most colorful personalities in California. Few exceed him in the sheer, sunny force of his personality. It’s one thing to have an overwhelming personality; it’s quite another for that personality to be so affectionate, even lovable. Combine that with a passion to make great wine, and you have something that’s world class–that can, in fact, symbolize California’s own sunny, optimistic nature. Jean-Charles may have been born in Burgundy, but he has turned into the quintessential Californian.
With Jean-Charles at Raymond