The French Connection: It’s not just John Kerry that looks suspiciously French

Even though we’ve been making wine for a hundred years or so, the American wine industry, compared to Europe, still totters in infancy. The grown-up French have spent centuries ranking every square inch of land from good to better to best for grape growing, and we’re just beginning to play in our dirt. Beginning in the ’70s, and mostly in the ’80s, the French, full of verve and chutzpah, began staking claim to our fertile land. You’ve probably already tried one of these Franco-American wines and didn’t even know it. The name might give it away – or not. The taste might give it away – or not. But there is undeniable quality seeping out the pores of the bottle, giving our so-called pedestrian palates a special treat. Mumm Cuvee Napa, a winery in Napa County specializing in bubblies, started in the late ’80s. Legendary Champagne producer G.H. Mumm et Cie of France secretly sent his master winemaker, Guy Devaux, wandering America to uncover the best American fruit. Guy’s lofty goal: “make a sparkling wine on American soil that would be the equal of the Champagne he had so lovingly created for 40 years in France.” Settling on a plot in Napa, they put to work all the historical winemaking knowledge Champagne is known for, namely, Méthode Champenoise. Méthode Champenoise is part of Champagne’s fermentation process that generates natural bubbles inside the bottle, as opposed to a tank. The added effort creates a richer, more complex sparkling wine.

But it was Mo&#235t Chandon who pioneered sparkling wine in California. Recently celebrating its 30th birthday in Napa, Domaine Chandon paved the way for other Champagne houses like Mendocino County’s Roederer Estate (Louis Roederer Champagne house), Sonoma County’s Piper Sonoma Cellars (Piper Heidsieck) and the gorgeous Domaine Carneros, established by Champagne’s Taittinger.

As if something was in the French water, Domaine Drouhin in Oregon began at about the same time as many others — in the late ’80s. Robert Drouhin, head of famed Burgundy producer Maison Joseph Drouhin, had been deeply impressed over the years that Oregon pinot noirs were turning heads. Curious as to why, he sent his daughter Veronique to Oregon to learn the secrets. Turns out, it’s all in the rich land. Starting in the mid-’90s, Domaine Drouhin began producing world-class chardonnay and pinot noir, applying French techniques and that country’s anal attention to detail.

The Mack Daddy of all French invasions is Opus One. Although it’s really a mélange of both American (Robert Mondavi) and French (Bordeaux’s Rothschild family) interests, the outcome is most definitely frou-frou French in flavor. The joint venture came together in the early ’80s, and built an expensive, exclusive winery that eclipses most others. Quickly rising as a cult wine, Opus One, armed with the massive marketing clout of two of the most powerful wineries in the world, easily became the icon for high-end cabernet.

So you see what you get when you combine rich American soil with ages of wine-making tradition? Great stuff. We may not always like the French or their politics, but they damn sure make some good wine.

Recommended Wines

Mumm Cuvee Napa Reserve Brut

A sparkling for all tastes — slight sweetness dances on the tongue, yet finishes dry, with yeasty, green apple action. Lemon spritzer in there too. $25. 3 stars.

Domaine Drouhin 2002 Chardonnay Oregon
Gorgeous, elegant, made-for-me kind of chardonnay. Fruit-forward honeysuckle with lemony melon. Just a hint of balanced oak to round out the sip. $25. 4 stars.

Opus One 2000

Too young to drink now, but you can tell this wine will grow old gracefully. Tastes of dark cherry, wood soaked leather and bittersweet chocolate. Worth the $100-plus price tag? Maybe, but I wouldn’t pay it. $125-$150. 4 stars.

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