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james laube's wine flights

Vichon and the 'Food Wine' Craze

The winery, on a property purchased this week by Harlan, advocated acidity over riper flavors
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 27, 2010 3:00pm ET

More than once I overheard a Napa vintner threaten to blow up the Vichon winery. A lot of wine lovers eventually wanted to as well, but for different reasons. (The Vichon property in Oakville, sold to Mondavi in the mid-'80s and most recently owned by Diamond Oaks winery, was purchased by Harlan this week.)

To some, the winery, nestled in the hillside on Oakville Grade, was an eyesore. Oakville Grade is the road leading from the Napa Valley floor over the mountains to Sonoma Valley, and anyone who drove that road saw Vichon. So did those viewing the hillside from the Napa Valley floor. Vichon was built as a production facility, not as a showcase winery.

But Vichon had a huge impact on California wine. Its owners were among, if not the first, to coin the term "food wine," which triggered a sea change in winemaking styles that handcuffed California winemakers for nearly a decade.

Silly as it seemed then and now, Vichon made the claim that it was making wines to go with food, as if other wineries weren't. The style of Vichon's wines—flinty, steely Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon blends, high-acidity Chardonnays and lean, trim Cabernets—took aim at the Napa wines of the 1970s, primarily the 1974 and 1978 Cabernets, and any high-octane, late-harvest-style Zinfandels. There weren't enough Chardonnays, or other wines for that matter, to fuss about. The Chardonnay stars of the era, the Stony Hills, Hanzells and Chateau Montelenas, were well-proportioned wines that avoided malolactic and overt oakiness, and they aged gracefully. Pinot and Merlot weren't players.

Vichon, founded and owned by a group of restaurant owners, insisted that in order for wines to go with food they needed higher acidity to cleanse one's palate. In order to achieve that style of wine, grapes were harvested at 22 to 24 Brix max, resulting in some appealing Sauvignons but also rather tart reds.

The assaults on riper wines lead to an overcorrection and an unfortunate decade in the 1980s when too many wines lacked body, flavor and personality. Oh, the wines aged perfectly well. The acidities were so high and the pHs so low the wines never changed. They started out tart and stayed tart.

A few of Vichon's reds turned out pretty good in riper years. But the impact of the food wine craze took its toll. Some of the vintners of the era, including Robert Mondavi, were knocked off track ever so slightly. Joe Heitz thought the term "food wine" was absurd; his Martha's Vineyard Cabernets were among the ripest from Napa, at 13.5 percent alcohol or higher. It wasn't long thereafter that even the reclusive Bob Sessions at Hanzell encouraged California winemakers to go back to what the climate gave them: ripe flavors (and Hanzell's Chardonnays were often in the 14.5 to 14.8 range).

The food wine fad petered out as the wines got thinner and thinner, and less interesting. Wine lovers yearned for the days of the 1974 or 1978 Cabernets—rich, full-bodied, complex wines with depth and personality.

But it wasn't just the failure of the food wine craze that caused the sea change in style and the return to riper flavors. Phylloxera devastated many of California's vineyards beginning in the 1980s and through the 1990s, forcing a widespread replanting and rethinking of what vineyards should be. In the process new clones and rootstocks were employed and winemakers wisely realized the peril of the path of high acidity wines and picking by Brix. By the 1990s, winemakers knew full well that the reds of the 1970s were better than they realized, and even some of the great wines of the 1980s drank well on release but never achieved the level of complexity or depth vintners sought.

Right or wrong, styles changed. New vineyards provided new resources and winemakers paid attention to their vineyards and growing grapes rather than waiting for the gondolas to arrive at the winery. And they began to taste their grapes before picking. Vichon never made it. It sold to Mondavi and essentially disappeared, but not without leaving its mark.

Napa vintners sunk their teeth into some incredible Bordeaux vintages, too, starting with the 1982s. It was the first really great year in Bordeaux in a while. That year the Bordelais were blessed by great weather and let their grapes hang and ripen and develop some amazing flavors. They termed '82 a California vintage.

Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  January 27, 2010 4:19pm ET
Great Blog James! As I remember, after selling out in CA didn't Vichon have a facility in SW France that they moved to?

Your comments are accurate above, but for many of us the pendulum has now swung too far the opposite direction. We see blogs here on how restaurants (even in CA) are only serving European wines because the CA wines don't do well with their foods. Harvey wrote about a Aussie winemaker declaring he doesn't drink wine with his meals, only water. Have the wine before or after!

One could only wish the pendulum for CA wines could generally center for awhile, instead of being at the two ends. Until then, I'll continue with my Oregon wines, and the few CA wineries that haven't overdid the ripeness madness.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 27, 2010 5:13pm ET
Ah, yes, Sandy, I had forgotten Vichon moved abroad, and yes, the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction. There are some winemakers who can succeed with bolder wines, and many who can't.
Maryann Worobiec
Napa, CA —  January 27, 2010 5:32pm ET
Sandy, I can answer that, as I was looking into its history when I wrote the Harlan item.

When Mondavi bought Vichon in 1985, they tried a few different versions of the label--at first it was only Napa wines, but then it was switched to a California coastal focus (which ended up becoming the Mondavi coastal line). Sometime around the mid 90s, it changed to Vichon Mediterranean, and the operation was moved to the south of France. That's about when the La Famiglia moved into the facility.

In 2001 it was sold to Sieur d'Arques, who had been the longtime supplier of the wine. So you're right that the brand is based in the Languedoc.
Brad Paulsen
Saratoga, CA —  January 27, 2010 11:06pm ET
James,

Thanks for this blog. Your recent piece on Quintessa's purchase of the popular Prisoner had me very worried, for the stylings of the Quintessa line I have found to be thin and lacking. Your description of the Vichon lines "flinty, steely Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon blends" hits the nail on the head for me when I think of the Quintessa line of whites e.g. Illumination. These are the notes that they seeming strive for. Perhaps it's the Charles Thomas style and something he developed at Mondavi on the Fume Blanc? But after reading about Mondavi and Vichon perhaps the style has its real roots there? It for sure is not my favorite style and I hope once again that The Prisoner does not become a "food wine".
Burgess Cellars
Saint Helena CA —  January 28, 2010 1:36am ET
Great history, thanks.

And a reply to Brad's comment: Don't worry dude, if The Prisoner becomes a "food wine" then you can switch to ruby port for half the price and be totally satisfied. They taste the same with high alcohol, residual, and plummy flavors...

-Steve
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  January 28, 2010 5:14pm ET
I first got into the wine trade in the early 80's and I remember tasting many thin, acidic wines at trade tastings. The winemaker. owner or sales-rep would smile and say "It's a food wine." The trouble was, there was little or no flavor! The wines were said to be an improvement over the older "monster wines" of the 70's, which were reputed to be unbalanced and un-ageworthy.

In the course of the next few years I managed to taste quite a few of those supposedly unbalanced wines out of the cellars of friends and customers, and what a revelation! Many brutal brutes had become gorgeous wines with the passing of a decade or more. I knew then that "food wine" would pass and flavor was in for a comeback.

That said, I have fond memories of Vichon Sauvignon Blanc and plates of raw oysters. Yum!

David Clark
for The Wine Connection

Brad Paulsen
Saratoga, CA —  January 28, 2010 7:58pm ET
Ruby Port? Ouch!
Ok, I guess I'm over due for trip up Deer Park Rd to see what I've been missing :-)
Kevin Harvey
Santa Cruz, CA, USA —  January 28, 2010 9:29pm ET
Jim,
That is an interesting piece of history that made me think. Will the style pendulum for CA wine swing in a zero-sum sense (just repeating the past mistakes), or will each style swing incorporate more learning and get closer and closer to ideal?
There is certainly a strong argument to be made that with so much new information on rootstocks, clones and viticulture we might learn how to make wines that are complex, intense and balanced enough to be served in our finest local restaurants. Meanwhile, with California's ever expanding wine frontier, it is possible that we will discover new soil/climate combinations that are capable of producing fully ripe (not over-ripe) wines that are naturally balanced. California is so big and varied in terrain and climate that I think any generalization about the potential or character of its wines will be ultimately disproved.

My best guess is that in 100 years, the California vineyards that have proven to be able to make wines are both ripe and precise, complex and classically balanced will be considered California's true Grand Cru terroirs.
Dr Douglas Decker
San Diego ,CA,USA —  March 12, 2010 12:50am ET
My wife and I have a great memory of Vichon. The Mondavi rep we met at a wine dinner at Sante in La Jolla(Chris Vianello-sp?) in the late 80's set us up for an afternoon tour at Vichon. He recommended stopping at the Oakville Grocery for the makings of a picnic lunch to have at Vichon and then to go on a tour. It was a beautiful day. On the tour they gave us some of that "steely" sauv blanc and some semillon to blend and see what we liked. It was very informative and a lot of fun.( I heard people pay to do that now) Later we got a couple of magnums of their cab. We opened the last one in 95-96 at Tuscany's restaurant in Palm Desert- it was wonderful! Thanks for stirring the memories. Doug Decker PS James , did you fall in love with wine at the wine shop/liquor store in the shopping center where VG's donuts is in Cardiff across from San Elijo State Beach?
Ronec Enterprises Ltd
Springfield, Il, USA —  February 26, 2015 1:26pm ET
What ever happened to Vichon's Chevier Blanc (sp?) I remember it being the driest white I had ever tried.
Dick @ IAAW

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