The Robert Mondavi Corp. has retreated from a controversial vineyard project in southern France's Languedoc region, after facing sustained opposition from local government officials who were recently elected on an anti-Mondavi platform.
The company announced today that it is withdrawing from the project because of opposition from the town of Aniane, where the winery was to be built. Both the town's new Communist mayor, Manuel Diaz, and its new city council members, who were elected in March, are against it.
Mondavi had identified forested land in Aniane as suitable for making world-class wine, and held out hope that it might convince Diaz, after his election two months ago, that the winery and vineyard project would be good for Aniane.
But David Pearson, Mondavi's project manager in Languedoc, didn't get very far with Diaz. When the two spoke on the phone, Diaz told Pearson that he would receive him out of politeness, but that he didn't see what they might agree on.
On May 9, Diaz reinforced his stand against the project in an interview published in a local newspaper, L'Indépendant, in which he said the project wasn't in the best interest of Aniane and its vineyard growers. "Mondavi would be a competitor with unlimited economic power, which would kill us little by little," he said.
Faced with such resistance, Pearson said Mondavi had to accept reality. "In the final analysis it's rather simple: We needed a partner, the Aniane council, and they have expressed quite clearly their opposition. We can't impose ourselves on them, so the best thing [to do] is to pull out," said Pearson, who is vice president and general director of Vichon Mediterranean, a Mondavi subsidiary.
The previous city council, headed by André Ruiz, had signed a 50-year lease that would have allowed Mondavi to plant 123 acres of vines on the Massif de l'Arboussas. However, Pearson told Wine Spectator in March that Mondavi would not sue for breach of contract if Diaz really didn't want the winery in Aniane.
Mondavi had planned to spend about $8 million developing the vineyard and building a showcase winery, which would eventually produce up to 20,000 cases per year of high-end Syrah.
But the site they chose was on the 2,200-acre undeveloped massif, which is flanked by woods and nearly impenetrable bush (known as garrigue), and topped by 750-foot-high plateaus with sweeping views. Hunters, ecologists and naturalists fought against any development in the area, which they consider an environmental shrine.
The project had the support of those who believed Mondavi's name would bring good publicity to Languedoc, and especially Aniane, which is located in the Hérault area. Some politicians in the Languedoc still favor Mondavi and have said Diaz and his council made a monumental blunder in fending off Mondavi. The company had vowed to help modernize the Aniane wine cooperative and help the local growers produce and sell quality wine.
On March 18, however, the commune of Aniane went to the polls, and voted out all 19 members of the old city council, which had approved the Mondavi project last year.
Led by Diaz, the new council asked national officials to ignore the previous administration's request to clear forest land for the Mondavi vineyard. Diaz claimed that the Mondavi deal was unfavorable to Aniane.
Mondavi was in part attracted to Aniane because it is home to one of the finest wineries in southern France, Mas de Daumas Gassac, which makes a long-lived red wine in Aniane. But the winery's founder, Aimé Guibert, criticized Mondavi for wanting to develop a winery on public land.
"We are so happy that the forest has been saved," said Guibert's son, Samuel, who is Gassac's director. "We are glad if Mondavi comes to Languedoc, just not on that forest. The new council is doing its job -- protecting communal land." He said locals feared that the forest might be developed on a larger scale once Mondavi opened up the floodgates with its project. "There is plenty of land to plant with vineyards around the massif," added Samuel.
Pearson said Mondavi would review its strategy in southern France. "We'll take a couple of steps back and see what's best for the company. We've made no other decision but to pull out of Aniane," said Pearson.
Mondavi had worked three and half years on the project. "It leaves me feeling quite disappointed," said Pearson.
Read more about Mondavi's peril in Languedoc: