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.