Brave New World
By James Laube, senior editor
Modern California vintners face a juggling act unlike any that faced those who've juggled before them. These companies--Beringer, Mondavi, Kendall-Jackson and Franciscan, to name a few--confront not only local harvests in California, where they've made wine for years, but also operate on a global scale. They've spread out their winemaking empires like an unwieldy vine, stretching to such faraway lands as Chile, Italy, France and Argentina. No longer are they merely focused on how the grapes are ripening in Santa Barbara, Monterey, Napa or Sonoma. They're just as tuned into weather forecasts for Chile's Casablanca Valley, Tuscany or the vast Languedoc region of France.
The latest chief executive to sit in the driver's seat of one of these new-breed multinationals is the new president at Franciscan Estates, Jean-Michel Valette. He's 38 years old, clean-cut, with dark brown hair and black-rimmed glasses. He's an unusual choice for a job like this. He's an outsider. He comes from a strong financial background, having spent a decade-plus at Hambrecht & Quist, an investment firm that specializes in high-tech Silicon Valley deals. But H&Q also put together several key California wine deals. Two of the biggest wine-related projects Valette worked on were the initial public offerings of Mondavi, in 1993, and Beringer, in 1997. Though larger in size, both Mondavi and Beringer mirror Franciscan's diversification.
Valette is more than just a savvy Wall Street analyst or barrel counter. He knows fine wine from a consumer's perspective and can taste and evaluate it better than most. He's among the elite who have earned the prestigious Master of Wine title, which qualifies him as a wine expert. So he brings unique qualifications to his new assignment.
While he knows a lot about wine, he's about to get a new education. What he learned about wine while studying for his Master's is that "there are some things you'll never, never know for sure." The quest for higher quality will continue to drive the world's best wine estates, he says, and as long as wineries keep trying to make better wines, the wine world will be forever changing and improving.
On a warm September day, Valette is dressed in a long-sleeved, pinstriped shirt, perfect for his former digs--San Francisco's financial district--but a shade dressy for harvest in Napa Valley, where T-shirts and rolled-up sleeves are the norm. Never mind that. Valette may be new to the inner workings of a winery, but he's no stranger to looking at the bigger picture, a prerequisite for today's global wine exec.
Franciscan's empire, put together by its chairman, Agustin Huneeus, is centered in Rutherford in Napa Valley. There, both Franciscan and a second wine estate, Quintessa, are based; the former offers elegant, supple Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot and Meritage wines; the latter is a $70-per-bottle, single-vineyard wine incorporating the major varieties used in Bordeaux reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
Franciscan also owns Mount Veeder Winery, on Mount Veeder, which makes Cabernet and Chardonnay, but of late has lacked a focus and identity commensurate with its appellation-bearing name. Then there's Estancia, a brand and winery that is fully extended throughout California, well known for its Alexander Valley red wines as well as its Monterey-grown Fumé Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Beyond California, Franciscan's major new endeavor is Veramonte in Chile, Huneeus' homeland.
Franciscan Estates' goal is to produce great wines from its vineyards, with the belief that the wine world's future is tied to distinctive wines of specific sites and appellations. In the old days, that might have meant getting the most out of one's vineyard or vineyards in front of the winery or down the road. But with today's modern wine companies, the factors are infinitely more complex, even if the basics remain unchanged. Franciscan Estates must rely on the expertise and judgment of its vineyard managers and winemakers like never before. Yet the opportunities for success are equally as diverse. No one is more immersed in this crash course than the newest global wine exec, Valette.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from senior editor James Laube, in a column also appearing in the current Wine Spectator. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.