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Remembering a defunct winery, and a lesson in regional correctness



I don’t know what made me remember the old Chateau Woltner wines. The memory just popped into my head—who knows how these things work, or why. The winery had been started by an heir to the Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion dynasty. I don’t recall the details—here’s the Wikipedia entry that says after La Mission was sold, the owning family went their separate ways. Thus it was that Francis and Françoise DeWavrin took their share of the proceeds and moved onto something else. In this case, Napa Valley. They bought some land in 1980 on the lower slopes of Howell Mountain, above the Silverado Trail, and planted—not Cabernet, as you’d expect, but Chardonnay!

Even then, in the mid-1990s, this was a shocking thing to do. Napa Valley Chardonnay hadn’t yet acquired the reputation (unjust, in many cases) for being dull, but even so, Napa hadn’t been perceived as prime Chardonnay terroir for many years; and in any case, Howell Mountain was known to be superior Cabernet county. (Randy Dunn had seen to that!) So it was that, with pleasure and some curiosity, I accepted an invitation by the DeWavrins to visit their property.

The house and grounds had seen grander days. The DeWavrins themselves could not have been nicer. The Chardonnays? Well, to call them “minerally” would be an understatement. They were clean and elegant, yet hard in briny wet stone and metallic minerals. In other words, not the lush, fruity Chards California was known for.

Eventually the DeWavrins gave up their quest; I suppose the wines simply didn’t sell well. Today, I doubt there’s much Chardonnay remaining on Howell Mountain. The action has moved closer to the coast. Howell now is a hotbed of Cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties.

The lesson I glean from this is how hard it is to march against the popular drumbeat and try to grow varieties in places where tastemakers think they don’t belong. Critics seemed to resent those Woltner Chardonnays even before they tried them. Too expensive! Why is he growing them on Howell Mountain instead of someplace else? I suppose Francis DeWavrin had a bit of the contrarian in him—he certainly had some well-pronounced marketing genes and believed that he could develop a niche product. And then there was the Frenchman in him. When it came to world Chardonnay, his eye turned, not to Carneros or the Russian River Valley, but to Chablis.

If he were still making that wine today, I bet there would be sommeliers celebrating it as “Chablisian” and far more terroir-influenced than most other California Chardonnays, which so many somms say are overripe and flabby. This is a perfectly legitimate attitude, but it does tend to reinforce the tendency of California growing regions to become monocultures. Napa Valley once had, not just a lot of Chardonnay but a lot of Pinot Noir too, and it wasn’t bad stuff. But the critics of the 1970s and 1980s didn’t like it and badmouthed it, which meant proprietors couldn’t sell it, so they budded their vines over to the Cabernets, Sauvignon and Franc, or Merlot, or Petit Verdot, and that was that. A similar fate awaited Napa Valley Sangiovese, Semillon and other varieties that made honest, straightforward wines that consumers wouldn’t buy, because, after all, if it says Napa Valley on the label, it should be Cabernet Sauvignon, right? In fact, by 1990, it had become politically incorrect (from a varietal point of view) to grow much else in Napa Valley besides Bordeaux grapes.

Have a great weekend!

  1. TomHill says:

    “But the critics of the 1970s and 1980s didn’t like it and badmouthed it”.

    Your memory of the ’70’s-’80’s differs from mine, for the decline of Chard in NapaVlly. I recall the Heitz/SpringMtn/StonyHill/Montelena/Pecota/CarnerosCreek Chards getting plenty good reviews from Charlie/Earl & other critics of that era. In point of fact, most of the acclaimed Calif Chards in that era were from NapaVlly.
    I recall that the Woltner Chards got pretty good reviews from Charlie/Earl as well. They had a fair amount of oak to them, but were not made in the ripe/lush style that was prevalent of that time. Not sure I’d call them Chablis-like, but they were certainly less fruit-driven. I suspect they disappeared from the marketplace because they were pretty expensive compared to their compadres. And, to be sure, those wines would be, nowadays, the darlings of all the hip Somms.
    So I would not lay the decline of NapaVlly Chard at the feet of the critic’s disapproval but simply to the skyrocketing profitably of NapaCabernet.

  2. I sometimes wonder how Tom Hill remembers more of what I wrote than I do.

    I do recall the Ch. Woltner wines and my overall memory (yes, Tom, one of these days I will dig out those old notes), is that they were not memorable as a whole.

    Since Connoisseurs’ Guide tastes everything blind, we have no axe to grind about a wine’s provenance, its maker, its alcohol, the amount of oak and ML that have been employed in its making. We tastes within wide parameters of acceptability and tight, acid-driven wines are as acceptable as fat, ripe, juicy wines and as balanced efforts that somehow split the difference like David Ramey’s Chards and those of HdV, just to name two of dozens and dozens that earn praise from us.

    Ch. Woltner wines were not memorable, but they were expensive, and while I share you fond memories of meeting the de Waverins, it was their wines that did not make the grade. There are plenty of examples of French folks who come here and make very good wine and there are examples of such folks who either barely succeed or just do not find a happy home. But, it is always about the wines, not the people, and frankly, I wish we had more and better examples because everyone learns from the experience.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    I likewise remember the Ch. Woltner Chards.

    Their retail selling prices smacked of “arrivistes.” (But then again, so did Far Niente’s Chardonnay and Cabernet wine pricing.)

    “There are plenty of examples of French folks who come here and make very good wine and there are examples of such folks who either barely succeed or just do not find a happy home. But, it is always about the wines, not the people . . .”

    The above statement reminds me of Bernard Portet and his Clos du Val Cabernets.

    His “back story” is compelling: “He was mentored by his father, a regisseur at Chateau Lafite.”


    Alas, I found his wines underripe, tannic, and indifferently made.

    In all my years moonlighting in wine stores, I never found a wine collector “convert” to his offerings.

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