In recent years, more and more French winemakers are making the move to the West Coast and snatching up vineyards in the lush Napa Valley of California. The Robb Report
writes that the move takes commitment, as it means concentrating on lesser known land, rather than the tried and true domaines of Burgundy or Bordeaux, relocating their families to a new continent, and risking entire careers on a hunch. The gamble begs the question: what’s the draw?
For Philippe Melka, a native of Bordeaux and by now one of the old guard of Napa winemakers, it all comes down to dirt, a variable that any vintner worth his grapes knows plays a huge role in the quality of wine. With a degree in geology from the University of Bordeaux, Melka has always been a student of the land. In fact, he came to Napa Valley with a mission to study the soil to find out why wines from one place have different characteristics from wines a few hundred feet away. He found that Napa offers generally great quality soil, a wide range of elevations (which Bordeaux lacks) and a rare diversity of soil types, which is, according to him, “the most important thing.”
Christian Moueix, owner of Dominus, is the man who sent Melka to study Napa soils in the first place. A Frenchman himself, he led winemaking at his family’s properties in France as well as Dominus Estate’s Napanook Vineyard in Yountville, giving him a view from both sides of the pond. His insight has drawn him to the conclusion that “the most important difference...is the climate.” With less rain between May and October, Moueix feels the growing season is easier in California, though less nuanced.
Like his two counterparts, Guillaume Fabre of 11-year-old Clos Solènewas was drawn to California by the land. After spending time working for Stephan Asseo of Paso Robles’s acclaimed L’Aventure, he went on to launch his own winery, requiring him to “let go of [his] knowledge of how to make wine in Europe, and make wine differently in California.”
Historically, the French have always influenced California’s wine industry, particularly in the Napa Valley. Now, drawn by soil and climate, a new generation of French winemakers are leaving the Old World behind and paving the way for a more collaborative style.