Vérité: French Roots in California Soil

by Mort Hochstein
September 30, 2008

The flag of France is well represented in the ranks of American winemakers, and the marks the French make on American wine are, likewise, distinct. Dr. Charles Fournier, for example, a distinguished-looking gentleman with a ramrod back, was imported by the Gold Seal Wine Company to breathe life into a languishing line of wines based on native American grapes and French-American hybrids.

Fournier, in turn, imported his countryman Guy Devaux from the Champagne region to improve Gold Seal’s sparkling wines and work with Chardonnay, which was then a very new grape to the Finger Lakes of New York. Devaux succeeded Fournier at Gold Seal and then went west to open Domaine Mumm, the California outpost of the famed French Champagne house. Devaux did well there, and Mumm honored him posthumously with a bubbly named DVX.

Fournier and Devaux are part of a long line of French winemakers who have had an impact on American viticulture. There was the marketing genius of Paul Masson, Georges de Latour at Beaulieu Vineyard and that winery’s most famous enologist, André Tchelistcheff, (Russian born, but French trained), and in the current ranks, Bernard Portet is making great Cabernet at Clos du Val while Véronique Drouhin is producing world-class Pinot Noir at Domaine Drouhin in Oregon. And recently, I had the opportunity to meet another Frenchman leaving his mark on American soil.

Pierre Seillan runs Vérité, an upper-tier Cabernet Sauvignon establishment backed by Jess Jackson of the hugely successful Kendall Jackson Chardonnay. Like Fournier and Devaux, Seillan was an import. Jackson, who owns land throughout Sonoma and Napa, plunked Seillan down in a prime Sonoma site, gave him unlimited power to take the best grapes from all of his Sonoma properties and ordered him to make a world-class red wine. And that came naturally for Seillan, who embodies the term terroirist, a winemaker who believes that the right soils and the right climate can produce a special wine.

Perhaps, however, unlike Fournier, who had the manner of a chief of state, and Devaux, who had a dominant personality, Seillan does not hesitate to show his sense of humor. With Jackson’s open-handed backing, Seillan knows he’s onto a good thing at Vérité, plainly enjoys what he is doing and communicates his pleasure.

Having worked at his family’s Armagnac house and later in the Loire, where he developed a passion for Cabernet Franc, Seillan made his bones in nearly three decades as a winemaker and vineyard manager. But he prefers the French term, vigneron, which implies mastery of the fields as well as the winery.

Living up to the term vigneron, at our meeting in New York, he showed us samples of dirt from various fields in California, pointing out the different characteristics of select micro-crus, a term he coined for an exceptional section of his fields, a vineyard within a vineyard, which an American winemaker might call a vineyard block.

On this soil, he produces three Bordeaux blends — of which Cabernet Franc is an important element in his Le Désir bottling, (La Joie and La Muse are his two other labels). “Cab Franc,” he observes, is an extremely aromatic Bordeaux variety, as well as being fruity and spicy, complex and powerful.” It is a cool-climate grape, particularly successful in the East on Long Island’s North Fork and upstate New York. “Cab Franc,” Seillan emphasizes, “must be grown on the right soils, and we feel we have found the proper sites for it.”

He applies the same standards for the other varietals that go into his blends, and finding the right soils can be troublesome. “In Sonoma,” he observes, “the volcanic soils are a real jumble, particularly at Vérité.” Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grow on roughly the same rocky volcanic soils at his Mountain Estate vineyard, but Seillan feels his best Merlot comes from well-drained sandy loam soils at his Jackson Park vineyard, where an extreme temperature swing between day and night adds to its complexity.

Ten years after his arrival at Jackson Park, has he achieved what Jackson commissioned him to do? Produce a world-class Bordeaux blend? “We have achieved some success,” he admits, “but there is always room to improve. Ours is a wine,” Seillan says, “that is not a replica of Bordeaux, but one that expresses the typicity of the soils in which it originates.” The marketplace provides a more exact answer. His three Bordeaux blends from the 2004 vintage sell at $200, and they are never easy to find.

They are all impressive wines. His 2004 La Joie is almost two-thirds Cabernet Sauvignon, bolstered by 20% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, and 4% Petit Verdot. The La Joie has a powerful nose emitting coffee, leather and earthy aromas. On the palate it offers cherry, tobacco and cassis tones with soft tannins and a long-lasting finish.

Le Désir, with almost equal portions of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon and a small dash of Malbec, comes across with a hint of California’s bell pepper heritage, masked by earthy, leathery notes and translated on the palate to a smoothly textured wine with bright cherry flavors that linger long after the glass goes down.

My favorite in our tasting was the La Muse, 86% Merlot, 8%, Cab Franc and an almost equal dose of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. It is a more powerful wine, though still quite elegant, with a nose redolent of tobacco and cherry, and complex, balanced dark red fruit, tobacco and cedar on the palate. Like his colleagues in Bordeaux, Seillan varies his grape content based on what nature gives him, and the ’04 La Muse, primarily Merlot, is one of the finest Merlot-based Bordeaux blends I’ve tasted from an American vineyard.

Seillan is somewhat of a flying winemaker, though he works only on two continents. In St. Emilion, he is partners with Jackson in Château Lassègue, a grand cru which emphasizes Merlot. At Seillan’s Tenuta di Arceno, he crafts Super Tuscans, explaining in true terroirist fashion, “All vineyard sites are different, and our job is to construct an architecture of wine that reflects its origins.”

Pierre Seillan is a vigneron with high standards and a handsome budget. This combined with the terroirist’s French background and California soil mean that, like his Gallic predecessors, Seillan is doing remarkable work bound to influence that of his West Coast colleagues.

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