Search This Blog

Friday, January 04, 2013

Wine Blessings at Vichon

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: Yet another entry in the seemingly endless series of pieces I cranked out during a cross-country drive in 1989. To put Vichon Winery in perspective (and illustrate the changing fortunes within the business), it was begun in 1980 to offer lower-priced alternatives to ever-more-trendy California varieties. Robert Mondavi bought Vichon in 1985 where his son, Tim (a part-owner), took charge. They closed Vichon as a Napa Valley entity in 1996, moving all production to the Languedoc region of France. Two years later, Mondavi launched a line called La Famiglia, at the former Vichon estate, to make Italian varietals. In 2001, La Famiglia’s facility was closed, at the same time that what remained of Vichon in France was sold to one of its suppliers. Two years after that, the former Vichon property became a small winery again, called Diamond Oaks. In 2010, the property was purchased by Bill Harlan, who has his own winery next door. So my visit, on Sept. 13, is a word-picture of something now long, long gone.


“WE FEEL THIS MAY revolutionize the wine industry,” says Tim Mondavi, one of the owners of the Vichon winery in this little Napa Valley town. “I don’t want to talk too much about it because I get too excited.”

Tim Mondavi
Tim is a tall, thin man with a full red beard. His eyes gleam with a little too much passion as he speaks, which could be the effect of the wine that’s been flowing so freely during this day of celebration. As it turns out, we’re witnessing a display of his very wry sense of humor. He’s referring to a specially-constructed shoe, a thong, actually, with metal sports-type spikes dotting the sole. The purpose? Vichon is the only winery in California (Tim assures me) with a full-sized bocce court.

“Well, almost full-sized,” says winemaker and general manager Michael Weis. “It’s a couple of feet short.” The stretch of sand is set between the parking lot and hillside picnic area, and guests are invited to use it.

Nobody is doing so today. It’s the annual Blessing of the Grape. Vichon is celebrating its tenth anniversary, which, “in the scope of the Napa Valley,” says Weis, “is middle age. When Robert Mondavi opened his winery in 1966, it was the 26th in the area. Vichon, 14 years later, was in the low hundreds.”

The crowd is gathered around a hopper of grapes—four and a half tons of Chardonnay grown for Vichon by the Rossi family (no relation to Carlo). It’s a hot, clear day and the people are California casual, dressed in colorful cottons or safari-type outfits.

It’s a two-stage process to bless the grapes. First a secular blessing, delivered by a member of the staff. “We ask someone simply to express some feelings about the harvest,” Weis explains.

He has chosen a member of the retail hospitality staff, Kelly Pepper, who steps onto an upturned box in front of the hopper. She has a bottle of Vichon Chardonnay and a wineglass. She speaks with passion about the elegance and mystery of wine, lauding the “gift of good food and friends to go with it.” She finishes by emptying glass and bottle onto the hopper to cheers and applause.

Then Father Albert steps forward. He’s from the local Carmelite Monastery (you pass it on the approach to the winery) and has been doing the blessing for four or five years. And he’s having a great time. With long white hair and beard and long, light-colored robes he’s the classic picture of saintliness. “I want to tell you about wine,” he says, and does so with Scriptural quotations, including the story of the Miracle at Cana when Jesus turned water into wine. Tim points out that “Jesus was the first and only winemaker. The rest of us have to grow it.”

The family feeling at the Vichon gathering is tremendous, and tremendously flattering. Weis warns, with ominous friendliness, that once you become a friend of Vichon they’re reluctant to let you go.

Not that you’d especially want to. Stand on the porch near the sales barn (it’s actually a storage area that opens onto the bottling area, but the space is always imaginatively used). You’re on a deck that looks over a magnificently colorful hillside, or series of hills, with vines as far as you can see.

This is en route to the picnic area, where the guests are invited to help themselves from a buffet of Fajitas Vichon (see recipe). With, of course, plenty of wine.

The Chardonnay, used in the recipe, is one of several wines on the table. You don’t get away without sampling the local product, which includes an award winning Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chevrignon. The wines are processed and blended to accomplish a special Vichon purpose: to produce a bottle that is drinkable when released but will age and improve with the best-quality wine.

That’s where Weis performs his special magic. Sur lie aging is one of the techniques, in which the crushed juice is left amidst the stems for a mellower finish. Then there are the myriad decisions to make at each step of the blending and fermentation and bottling process.

How nice to find the accomplished result on the table, with a tangy meal to bring out the complexities of the wines. Cooking is a creative art that gives immediate satisfaction; the delay inherent in winemaking makes it the most challenging—and thus satisfying—of the food realm.

When shared among friends, which is an unspoken Vichon purpose, the good fellowship is one more dimension of complexity. An easygoing one.

Fajitas Vichon
(serves 4)


1 1/2 lbs. flank steak, skirt steak or chicken
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup Vichon Cabernet Sauvignon
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp. sugar
8 flour tortillas
2 tomatoes
2 avocadoes
3 green onions, chopped fine
1 small red onion, chopped fine
1 clove garlic, minced
1 lemon, juiced
2-3 tsp. rice vinegar (or to taste)
salt and pepper
1 bunch cilantro, cleaned and picked into sprigs

Method: Mix soy sauce, Cabernet Sauvignon, garlic and sugar. Pour over the meat and marinate at least one hour and up to 48 hours.

For the Salsa
: Dice the tomatoes into small cubes. Put in colander to drain while preparing other ingredients. Peel and dive avocadoes into cubes the same size as the tomatoes. Toss with the tomatoes, add the green onions, red onion, garlic, lemon juice and vinegar to taste (should not be too tangy). Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To Assemble
: Grill the meat (mesquite charcoal recommended). Heat the tortillas by wrapping in foil and warming in the oven at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes, or place them briefly on the grill, turning to warm both sides, one at a time. Slice the meat on the diagonal thinly, place in a tortilla, spoon salsa inside and place a few sprigs of cilantro in before folding over to eat. (Recipe courtesy of Sarah Scott Catering.)

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 6 January 1990

No comments: