December 11, 2015

The bistros of Paris 11th Arrondissement

The 11th arrondissement de Paris, that many Americans discovered in a tragic context for the first time on their TV screens on  November 13 , is in fact one of the most interesting  districts of the French Capital, especially for food and wine lovers.

Its very rich and passionate history is full of great, sometimes painful and blood-stained and most of the time very joyous moments.  From La Bastille to Oberkampf and the Place de la République,  and from the Place de la Nation to the Père Lachaise cemetery, its cafés and bistrots are a permanent reminder of the lively, happy, youthful, and convivial way of life of Parisians.

Place  de la  Bastille   (photo .A. Maes)

On the night of November 13, the odious massacre of so many innocents, happy to enjoy the many pleasures of week-end get together  to meet friends or neighbors and eat, drink, love, have discussions, dance,  and listen to music, was perpetrated by people who for various reasons have strong objections to our way of life.
I called my brother, who lives in the “onzième’’ in Paris a few blocks away from the café La Belle Equipe Rue de Charonne where 19 persons were gunned down, and he was deeply shocked not only by the immediate proximity of this atrocious event in his neighborhood but he also wondered about the impact that it would have on the life of its habitants, and on the way of life of Parisians at large.
We talked for a long time and at the end of the conversation we briefly remembered the happy time we had when a year ago we celebrated his 70th birthday at Le Chateaubriand, avenue Parmentier, a very creative and much loved bistro in the same  11th arrondissement. (see below)
On the next day, still feeling quite depressed, I wished I could be in Paris instead of Chicago and share a comforting dinner with my brother in one of my favorite bistros.
We must continue to have fun in these places. It is the best way to resist to the negative impact of such horror on our lives and to say F.Y to these fanatics who want to destroy them.  
In fact, a few days only after that tragedy bars and restaurants that had been the targets of the terrorists, reopened their doors and their customers were back, sitting at the terraces and drinking their coffee or beer at “l’heure de l’apéritif`’’ (happy hour). It was a clear answer from Parisians to these lunatics who wanted to scare them out of their cherished liberty, fraternity, and joie de vivre.

The Onzième Arrondissement is a trove of comfort food and great regional French wines found in many bistros, some of them used to be my favorites in Paris. One can say that the 11th is the epicenter in Paris for both traditional ‘’cuisine bourgeoise’’ and ‘’cuisine du marché’’ as well as since 2005 ‘’bistronomie’’  (bistro-gastronomy). But that latest trend is already fading away, and one can notice a return to the cuisine bourgeoise and ‘’de ménage‘’ (sometimes called familliale).

Personally I always loved this area, especially over the last 45 years which I spent in Chicago,  and every time I am in Paris, I used to return there with friends or even alone to walk around and eat in some of my favorite small restaurants and bistros of the capital.
The 11th  is an exciting mesh of sub-neighborhoods where old artisan wood-working or other crafts shops, furniture and design shops,  art galleries, casual clothes boutiques, specialty food stores, and many other small manufacturing activities share the tight spaces in small streets, alleys, courtyards, and passages.
And all over are monuments, plaques, and statues that reflect the tumultuous episodes during the infancy and later adolescence of the French République after the 1789 Revolution. The 11th has witnessed many workers demonstrations and protests over the last 225 years, and long marches still take place nowadays between the Place de la Nation and the Place de la République.  The 11th used to have a long tradition of voting for the parties on the left of the French political spectrum
But over the last 40 years many of its ‘’working class’’ neighborhoods have been gentrified and the price of real estate in the 11th went way up, so its ethno-social  picture and its political profile is no longer the same.

Some of my bistro memories are also associated to other more recent historic dramas which had a personal impact.  On September 11, 2001 early in the afternoon I was on my way to CDG airport in Paris to catch a plane to Hanover, Germany.  The traffic was so congested that I arrived to the check-in counter only 30 minutes before departure. I was told that my seat has been attributed to a standby passenger and that I should come back the next morning to catch another plane. When the airline employee checked my ticket and found out that I had just arrived from the U.S, her facial expression was suddenly very tense and grave. She told me that she was sorry for what happened and hoped that my family was all right. I asked her what was going on and she told me about the still developing event in New York. I took a taxi back to Paris and turned the TV on to watch in horror the images of the WTC buildings collapsing. One of the journalists said that there was perhaps another American Airlines plane that might have terrorists on board and still be airborne, but he could not say if it was on a domestic or international route. I immediately thought about my elder son who was on his way to Paris at this hour on an AA flight. I called him on his cell phone and after a few tense moments he called me back. He had just arrived at CDG and was on his way to his hotel. But he had just learned that his business meeting over dinner that night had been canceled for obvious reasons. I told him that I was myself grounded in Paris until the next morning and suggested that we should have a comforting dinner at ASTIER, at the time my favorite bistro in the 11th arrondissement.
When we arrived there, the restaurant where the main street level dining area consists of two rooms, was, as it is most of the time, totally packed. I had reserved a table and soon we were ordering. While we sipped our first glass of Bordeaux, we shared our mutual feelings about the shock we experienced watching the news. We were both totally exhausted and emotionally drained. At the tables around us people were all talking about the same tragic subject but surprisingly the conversations were animated and customers continued to eat and drink, and sometimes laugh. Obviously being with friends and share good food wine and animated discussions was comforting for them. And it also proved to be for us a therapeutic way to react to this horror. In the middle of dinner Stephane and I realized that we should have called my wife, his mother, in Chicago to let her know that we were both OK. We did so and she was relieved but in some way very disturbed by the fact that we could eat and drink and have a good time in such tragic circumstances. I told her that it was a typical Parisian reaction and that life should go on. But for her who was totally immersed in the horror of the terrifying scenes she was watching on TV in the U.S. where it was actually happening live, it was totally impossible to understand our own way of dealing with this trauma.

Last month, after the trauma they endured in that neighborhood, many Parisians and public media, encouraged their ''concitoyens'', via posters, articles, and grafitis,  to return to their favorite cafés and restaurants and meet with friends, family, and neighbors   over an apéritif, an expresso, or a meal. It would be the best cathartic and healthy way to share their griefs and express their determination to resist the bullying of these terrorists.
And that is exactly what Parisians did, as soon as the next 3 days. 

So here are a few memories about that restaurant which for me will always remain the symbol of happy times in the 11th. Arrondissement.

44 Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, Paris 11.
Tel : 01-43-57-1635  Metro : Parmentier or Oberkampf

During the many years I dined at Astier, this charming and lively place was a very typical Parisian bistro based on traditional ‘’cuisine bourgeoise’’ dishes made from scratch with good quality fresh products. It had been very popular with ‘’regular’’ Parisians customers since 1956 when it was created in a relatively modest neighborhood by Monsieur and Madame Astier.
It is also a favorite of many well-informed tourists, a lot of them from the U.K and the U.S. The competent and pleasant staff was most of the time able to give info on the dishes in English.  The tables were dressed with red and white checkered table cloth, and the walls were covered with old photos and diplomas.  My favorite dishes there were the delicious terrines de campagne, marinated herrings, or leeks in a vinaigrette dressing, as appetizers. As main dish I often ordered the Lapin à la Moutarde  (rabbit in a mustard sauce), the Blanquette de Veau (tender veal stew in a cream sauce) , the roasted guinea hen, or the Navarrin d’Agneau ( very tasty lamb stew with small spring vegetables). And of course you would call the waiter to bring to your table the extraordinary plateau de fromages  (cheese tray) where you could choose as many cheeses as you wanted, and there were usually as many as 20 different varieties. For dessert one of the stars was the famous “Baba au Rhum” a fantastic airy and fluffy sponge cake generously doused with good quality old rum. The wine list counted around more than 300 different wines, including great affordable crus bourgeois of Bordeaux, marvelous Bourgognes from small producers, and aromatic but cheap vins régionaux  from little known wine growers of the South West, Côtes du Rhône, Languedoc, Loire  or  Alsace.
 I always finished my meals with a small glass of Vieille Prune de Souillac, a plum brandy from the Dordogne Valley in Périgord. The owner Michel Picquart who took over the restaurant in the late 70s would pour me a generous shot from a bottle that was the queen of the old bar-counter.
Monsieur Picquart many years ago was one of the first restaurateurs in Paris to sell  bio-dynamic  wines.
In the late 1980s you could have a great dinner of 3 course selected from the very attractive ‘’menu-carte’’ for around 25 euros.   Nowadays it would cost you 45 euros.
But now  you can have access to WIFI if you need to check your e-mails. When I was dining there from the late 70s to the late 90s the only activities we had at Astier were eating, drinking, and conversing among friends. No need to check a smart phone every 5 minutes.
He sold Astier in 1995 to two of his closest associates who were veteran employees  of the restaurant.  Fortunately they  kept the culinary traditions of the restaurant and the high quality of its  products.
But in 2006 they sold the place to a well-known restaurateur, Frederic Hubig-Schall.
And, having stopped going to Paris on business on a regular basis every year, I never returned there. I understand that the quality is still there but the restaurant was redecorated and the menu and the type of dishes served modernized to adjust to the tastes of younger customers and new culinary trends.
The chefs, since Hubig took over are young alumni of famous 2 or 3 stars Paris restaurants and their fine cuisine is much more sophisticated from what I read.  I will return there to check it out during my next trip to Paris.
But in any case Astier was for me the epitome of good comfort food bistro.

In 1995 Michel  Picquart became the owner of another excellent traditional bistro a few blocks away ‘’LE VILLARET’’ ( 13 Rue Ternaux, Tel: 01-43-57-8976  Metro Parmentier). I have not been there for at least 7  years but from what I read it is still a very good restaurant and I warmly recommend it.

In 2015 I would say that my favorite bistros in this arrondissement are Le CHATEAUBRIAND and L’AUBERGE PYRENNEES-CEVENNES.

129 Avenue Parmentier
Tel: 01-43-57-4595
Métro Goncourt

The owner, Inaki  Aizpitarte  is an incredibly creative, I should say uniquely inventive, chef. He is also a very nice and interesting man whom I could listen to for hours talking about his cuisine, his herbs and spice blends , that is completely out of the ordinary and therefore impossible to categorize. This 43 year-old  self-taught cuisinier, born in the French Basque region,  has become a model for many young chefs all over the world. Quite an adventurer, he traveled around many countries before coming back to France to work first as a chef at La Famille, a minuscule bistrot  in Montmatre , and finally landing Avenue Parmentier  in 2006 where he opened Le Chateaubriand, a minimalist restaurant in a space that used to be a  charcuterie (pork butcher shop). You will not find here any sophisticated décor, fancy modern design furniture or expensive china or glassware.  The tables and chairs are typical old wooden bistro not even covered with white table cloth. The walls are almost naked. The wait staff consists of very casually dressed young men, without aprons or black vests, but they are very knowledgeable about the various very original and often unexpected dishes on the no-choice single prix fixe menu, that changes every day. The wine list is also a very unique selection from small independent growers, from various traditional French regions but also sometimes from unknown appellations in other areas in various countries.
You will be served several small dishes and 3 main courses plus very creative aromatic desserts. All the dishes feature totally surprising blends of colors, textures, spices, thinly sliced vegetables and fruits. And it would be impossible for me to describe a typical menu, which by the way is priced very reasonably  at 70 euros for 8 dishes .But the most interesting formula is the 135 euros menu with wine (or other alcohol based very original drink), because the pairings are as original as the dishes themselves. You have to book your reservations a couple of weeks in advance especially since the restaurant has been rated the 21st best restaurant in the world in the 2015 San Pellegrino “The World’s 50 best restaurants” list.
But you must have an open mind to enjoy such a great meal. Do not go there if you like ample portions and traditional French cuisine. You would leave feeling  frustrated.

106 Rue de la Folie  Méricourt
Tel: 01-43-57-3378
Métro République

This place is the complete opposite of Chateaubriand that represents the contemporary bistro trend in the 11th. It is a temple of abundant and well-prepared traditional regional French dishes served the old provincial way with good humor and the welcome is always warm and charming.  The décor is comfortable and sort of rustic like a country inn in the Southwest of France. In fact many of the dishes here, always served in enormous portions as it used to be in provincial ‘’auberges’’, are pleasant representatives of the Lyon area (frisée aux lardons, quenelles, sweetbreads, saucisson chaud, charcuterie) and of the Southwest, the cassoulet being a very popular dish there that is supposed to be one of the best in Paris.  The wine list, rich in very good and affordable regional wines from Burgundy and the Southwest, is quite attractive.
One again my last meal there goes back to a few years, but I keep very good memories of it. It was one of the most comforting and joyous repast I had with 2 other friends in this neighborhood.

A few others of my favorite bistros in the 80s and 90s were:

50 Rue Amelot
Paris 11

Even though the decor, plates, and silver, seemed to have been assembled from bits and pieces found in a flea market, and chances are that your table was too close for comfort to the next one, you would  enjoy a clever and very tasty ‘’cuisine de marché” in this establishment. Every day the chef-owner , Didier Varnier  who was working under Christian Constant at The Crillon, would compose a short menu made of only a few inventive specials according to the season and what was best at the farmer’s market.  The consistent quality of the ingredients and the imaginative precision of the cooking let you forget about the short list of options on the menu written on a blackboard.
It was a very successful formula. Only one menu for a fixed price consisting of one first course, one fish dish, one meat dish, and one dessert which could also be cheese. The chef`s soups were spectacular in winter. The home-made pastries, especially the fresh fruit tarts were very popular.
Lunch was a fantastic bargain and the wine list includes some very interesting  regional options at very attractive prices
The restaurant was sold in 2006. Then again in 2010 to become Qui Plume La Lune, a “restaurant gastronomique”   under a  young but gifted chef, Jacky Ribault , who was awarded a Michelin star in 2014.

114 Rue Amelot
Tel:  01-43-55-87-35
Métro :  Filles du Calvaire

This was a very picturesque but  modest wine bar and small  bistro, where  clowns and artists who worked at the nearby Cirque d’Hiver  (a beautiful indoor circus that still exists) , opened at the turn of the 20th century , would come to eat a bite and drink wine.  But it has been relatively recently acquired by young and successful restaurant entrepreneurs who expanded and redecorated the place and created a real creative menu.  I have not been there for 20 years but used to love the old place.
Here is what I wrote about in 1988:
This incredible wine  bar and bistro  next to the ‘’Cirque d’Hiver’’ has only a few tables but whether you sit down or you stand at the old ‘’zinc’’ counter to eat the ‘’ Plat du Jour’’ (special of the day which could turn out to be a very tasty like daube of beef or lamb with beans) or limit yourself to a plate of sausage, rabbit rillettes, or smoked ham, you will appreciate the special ambience and admire the beautiful art deco ceramic tile frescoes on the theme of the circus which decorate the walls, or the beautiful glass ceiling.  Meanwhile enjoy a glass or two of very decent Beaujolais Villages , Côtes du Rhône,  or Fitou and have a chat with other patrons. Very ‘’sympathique’’…

LES AMOGNES                                                                  *
243 Rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine

This restaurant closed in 2006. But here is what I wrote, in 1986 I believe, about this place that I loved and visited many times .
Thierry Coué , the chef-owner, who was at one point the sous-chef to Alain Senderens at ‘’l’Archestrate’’, has been offering for more than 12 years, in a pseudo country inn décor which could have been more exciting, one of the most innovative and reasonably-priced  ‘’menu-cartes’’ ( 27 euros), for such a level of quality, in Paris. Without pretense but with a very precise cooking technique, he works tasty marvels with good quality simple products, especially fish and great vegetables, which creatively offer unusual combinations of aromas.  The wine list is full of small regional little known gems.

17 Rue de la Fontaine au Roi

I have very fond memories of Fernand Asseline,  a former charcutier , who was the jovial and bon vivant owner of this charming bistro, essentially devoted to the cuisine of his dear Normandie where he was born. The man was doing many of its excellent products himself, especially his fragrant smooth  butter, his country bread, his cream, his sausages and tripes, and he aged his camembert in the cellar of the restaurant. Several times he made me taste his old Calvados apple brandies. He probably had the most spectacular collection of them in Paris. And with some of his typical regional dishes, such as a fabulous roasted in skate wing with a white wine and cream sauce, andouillettes (chitterling sausage) rabbit stew, or duck, he would bring you a bowl of a delicious apple cider (the fermented one that had 6 or 7 degrees alcohol content) made by some family member in his village in Normandy. His Pont-L’Evêque  cheese was probably the best I have tasted, and his home-made  apple tarts doused in Calvados  with his own whipped cream were addictive.
Eventually he expanded the bistro into a full restaurant called Les Fernandises, which still exist s in 2015  but is now owned by some Basque people. Needless to say the bistro dishes from Normandy are gone.
Upon learning about his death, I never returned to Chez Fernand.

In 2015 the 3 bistros that are the darlings of the critics and attract a younger client base which includes lots of ‘’Bobos’’, the ‘’Bourgeois-Bohème’’  folks  who now live in the 11th are :

18 Rue Paul Bert

Metro Faidherbe Chaligny

A blend of traditional cuisine bourgeoise and its contemporary ‘’bistronomic’’ version.
The popular owner Bertrand Auboyneau had for many years a solid following of regulars who love this type of mixed style of dishes that  can please the ‘’branché’’ (au courant) Parisians as well as the numerous international tourists and a few older customers who love high quality steak-frites.

80 Rue de Charonne
Tel : 01-43-67-38-29
Metro Charonne or Ledru Rollin

Since it opened in 2011 by the talented chef Bernard Grébault, who belongs to the generation of the new young lions who learned their trade and technique in the kitchens of famous starred chefs, in this case Robuchon and Passard,  you need to reserve weeks in advance to secure a table. His cuisine is based on high quality products but treated with lots of modern creativity.

1 Rue Jules Vallès
Tel: 01-43-71-4952
Métro  Charonne

Launched in 1904 this very old traditional bistro has a splendid décor. Since 2008 when it was reopened after intensive redecoration, the kitchen under the management of a very popular chef Cyril Lignac, recreates  the dishes of the cuisine de ménage of yesteryear. 

July 05, 2015

A great museum of antique French Tools used in viniculture at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma, California

French success stories in California are not limited to High Tech. Jean-Charles Boisset, a leader in the French wine industry has resurrected a dormant historic winery, Buena Vista, in Sonoma, California.  

He just launched a very unique museum focusing on antique French tools and equipment dedicated to viti and vinicultures. This must-see exhibit just opened in the historic main building of the 

Buena Vista winery in Sonoma that he splendidly restored.

My wife and I fell in love many years ago with the Sonoma wine country when we started to come every year in early May to visit our older son, Stéphane, my occasional  blogging partner, and since  2005, our grandchildren. Stéphane, who has been living and working in Mountain View, at the heart of Silicon Valley, since the late 1990s shares my passion for wine and as a Mother’s Day present he offered us a 3 days mini-vacation about 12 years ago at a great inn called the Gaige House  in Glen Ellen, just north of Sonoma. We loved it so much that since then our annual trip to Sonoma has become a very  enjoyable rite of spring.

Photo Alain Maes

We have discovered many great natural sites, restaurants, museums, shops, and above all friendly and relaxed people between Petaluma and Geyserville, where Stéphane’s wedding took place in a winery inJune 2003. When we are in Sonoma County we sometimes have the feeling that we enjoy this area almost as much as my native South of France where I grew up surrounded by vineyards, and olive, chestnut and fig trees. Later on I lived in Provence for a few years, particularly during my college years when I studied at the University of Aix-en-Provence, where I met Nancy my American wife, and I also worked in Avignon. This allowed me to visit the wine producing regions of the Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Ventoux and the Côtes du Lubéron. And many times since we moved to Chicago in 1970, we have returned for summer vacations in Provence and in the Lubéron where we have friends. In 1994 we visited with Yves Rousset-Rouard, a well-known film producer and owner of the Domaine de La Citadelle in Ménerbes that produces very good Côtes du Lubéron wines that I discovered when he was presenting them at a trade show in Chicago. He was also the mayor of that charming little town at the heart of the Lubéron that Peter Mayle put on the French map of many Americans in his book “A Year in Provence”. 
But the main reason we were there was to see Rousset-Rouard’s famous collection of more than 1,000 corkscrews of all kinds and shapes, some of them more than 300 years old, that he had assembled in a very attractive ‘’Musée du Tire-Bouchon’’, located on his estate. Nancy wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune about the museum.
I mention Provence and the Lubéron, and our deep attachment to this region, because we found many areas and wine districts in the Sonoma wine country that reminded us of the Lubéron. We particularly like their harmonious landscapes and the ‘’joie de vivre’’ of their people, many of them wine growers and restaurant owners. Over the last 12 years we visited many wineries between Healdsburg and Sonoma and progressively discovered some very exciting wines from well-established labels as well as little gems, with strong terroir qualities, in districts such as Russian River, Dry Creek, and others.
This year though, we were trying to find new places to explore, and particularly museums or art galleries that might have escaped our attention during preceding trips. On May 6 in the morning, Nancy was reading the May-June issue of a Californian magazine, Gateway, that she had found in our beautiful mini-suite at the Gaige, when she suddenly exclaimed ‘’I found a museum that looks very interesting, especially for you”. She passed me the article by Kathleen Thompson Hill, titled ‘’Tools of the Trade’’ and it immediately fascinated me, not only because it reminded us of the Musée du Tire-Bouchon in Ménerbes, but also because it mentioned that all these tools were from France. They were exhibited a few miles from our hotel in a historic winery, Buena Vista, in Sonoma  now owned and completely restored  to its past splendor by a well-known French wine producer and négociant,  Jean-Charles Boisset, who very explicitly likes to call himself a ‘’viniculteur’’.
The article described a large collection of tools, implements and instruments used all year-long by wine growers for the planting and caring of their vineyards, and by wine makers for the ‘’vinification’’  (wine making processs) of their wines from harvesting to bottling.
 I immediately did some research on my iPad and found out that this exhibit was originally assembled, and shown in a small town called Loché in Bourgogne (Burgundy, France) as a ‘’show’’ called Le Vigneroscope. This very successful exhibit was created in 1999 by a vigneron (wine grower), mechanical and electronics engineer, and wine historian named Philippe Bérard who for decades had collected more than 1,200 harvesting and wine-making tools from Burgundy, and later from all the wine growing areas of France. The show was produced by Jean-Claude Boisset (Jean-Charles’s father), the founder and owner of the family-owned very large and powerful wine conglomerate located in Nuits-Saint-Georges in Burgundy.

Jean-Claude Boisset, the founder of an international wine group

Jean-Claude Boisset was, and still is, is a very ambitious, creative, and innovative entrepreneur who was completely atypical compared with the very traditional and in some way conservative world of ‘’vignerons bourguignons’’ where very often vineyards and wine houses are transmitted from father to children from generation to generation. In 1961, when he was only 18, this son of elementary school teachers dreamed of becoming a “négociant en vins de Bourgogne’’. He purchased 4 appellations of regional wines that he resold rapidly with profit. Then 3 years later he acquired and planted a small parcel in Gevrey-Chambertin, Les Evocelles, which was actually the first base for the Maison Jean-Claude Boisset. After a short period in Vougeot, he moved for good in 1970 to Nuits-Saint-Georges where he soon established its headquarters in a modern building that was originally the site of a former convent.  From there he pursued a very rapid expansion. In 1990 his group’s strategy started to focus more on higher-end appellation quality Burgundy wines.
Since 1999, many assets, managerial as well as research, development and production, of the Burgundian family estates (altogether close to 30 appellations) are now recentralized with the increasingly active participation of his son Jean-Charles and his daughter Nathalie as top executives in their beautiful  Domaine de la Vougeraie.
In 2002, Gregory Patriat a very competent ‘’viniculteur’’ as he likes to define his job combining both the functions of viticulteur” (supervising the whole care of the vineyards), and “vinificateur” (wine making and oenological development of various appellations) became a key architect of the second phase of  development of the ‘’collection’’ of quality labels at Boisset.

After multiple acquisitions the group was renamed ‘’Boisset La Famille Des Grands Vins’’. Among the better known French ones you can recognize a few iconic names from Burgundy such as Bouchard Ainé, J. Moreau, Ropiteau, Antonin Rodet, Bouillot, Jaffelin. From Beaujolais: Mommessin and Benoit Lafont. In the Côtes du Rhône wine houses such as Bompas, Salavert, Lavigne, and in Languedoc Skalli (Fortant de France). The most recent acquisition comes from the Jura with the old house of Henri Maire.
Several other participations and partnerships were established in other parts of the world, such as Italy, South America, and Quebec where Boisset owns an apple cider business, ‘’La  Face Cachée de la Pomme’’.
Boisset innovated again with the launching in 2005 in the U.S. of French Rabbit, an ecological way to sell good quality vintage wine in “Tetra Pack containers. It was a bigger success in North America than in Europe.

Jean-Charles Boisset ‘’ the family’s American link’’

To refresh my memory, I read a few more articles about both the Boisset family in general and Jean-Charles in particular. I met him very briefly when I visited the Boisset booth at the Vinexpo show in New-York in 2002. I remember a very dapper and cheerful man who spoke English fluently and at the time discussed a possible partnership with a Canadian winery. Over the following years he moved to Napa Valley and in 2009 married Gina Gallo, a grand-daughter of Julio Gallo, who still has a very important managerial role at her family’s company. They live in a spectacular house that was designed and built for Robert Mondavi, the patriarch of Napa Valley.
Far too many of the numerous articles written in newspapers and magazines, and the TV interviews unfortunately insist on Jean-Charles’s life style. Some mention his occasional ``flamboyant`` eccentricity, his taste for luxury and theatrics, his devouring passion for ‘’high quality in everything he touches’’, his love of celebrations and festivities, his many awards. But relatively few journalists focus on his most impressive assets: his incredible sense of entrepreneurship, his total dedication to his French and American family and to many good causes, and his non-stop pursuit of achievable dreams. In fact he has inherited many of his father’s qualities, but added to them one particular and very important touch: he is a very strong believer in the American way of doing things, but at the same time he is still very attached to his French and Burgundian heritage and traditions. Above all the man is curious about everything related to history, American as well as French, and of course about everything related to wine-past and present.

Photo Boisset

He could be considered a true example of the perfect blend of French and American culture. We should not forget that even though he was born surrounded by vineyards in Vougeot, some of his most formative high-school years were spent in Washington DC, and that his grand-parents took him with them when he was young to visit Northern California during a summer vacation. He was only 11 years old when they went to Buena Vista, a visit that obviously left a mark on him.
When the fortunes of his father’s business in the U.S. started to develop, Jean-Charles asked to let him take charge of their small Californian office. In spite of his son’s relative inexperience since he was still in his early 20s, Jean-Claude Boisset 
accepted this new challenge. The rest is history.
Jean-Charles negotiated and acquired several well-established Californian wineries. The first one was De Loach in 2003, then Raymond in 2009, followed by the acquisition of Lockwood, Lyeth, and finally Buena Vista in 2011. He also created his own brand, JCB, out of his HQ at Raymond winery in St. Helena where he manages his American company Boisset Family Estates.  
Jean-Charles who strongly believes in sustainable and organic farming implemented biodynamic methods at Raymond’s that had been put to practice earlier at La Vougeraie.

Our visit to Buena Vista and our interesting conversation with ‘’ The Count’’ about the history of the winery and its original founder.

I called Buena Vista and asked if we could visit the museum that same afternoon and talk to somebody from the PR dept. there. I was told that it was possible and that someone would show us around and answer our questions. At around 2:00 PM, after a short (7 minutes from downtown Sonoma) but beautiful drive on a small country road bordered by splendid leafy trees, we arrived at the site of the winery’s parking. Then we walked down a path where we encountered our first surprise. On the right side of that path leading to the winery’s main building strange silhouettes were standing on its hilly banks among fruit trees. It did not take long to recognize which historical figures from American history as well as French literature or Greek antiquity, they personified.
Photo Alain Maes

We entered the imposing stone building through the main open door and found ourselves in a beautiful tasting room with a long bar to the right and I asked one of the young men serving wine if he knew whom we should ask for to be able to visit the museum. He placed a couple of phone calls then told us that our “guide” was on his way.
After a few minutes a man entered the door from the outside, stopped in front of us and extended his hand greeting us with a surprising “Hello, I am the Count”. I looked at my wife wondering if like me she thought that this strange character whose persona, stature, and voice corresponded more to an image of Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables” than  to a winery PR person, but she just smiled and shook his hand. The man was wearing a top hat, an elegant black frock coat, a cravat around the old-style collar of his white shirt, and a brocade vest. He walked with an elegant cane, and was sporting very aristocratic a well-groomed grey beard, sideburns, and a mustache.

Photo Alain Maes
After I explained who we were and our interest in the museum, he told us that the large tasting room where we stood used to be the press house of the old winery.  In 1862 Buena Vista was the first winery in California to have a gravity-flow press.
The ‘’Count’’, actually impersonated by a talented actor named George Webber, who also serves as an occasional marketing ambassador for the winery , then took us to a visually impressive tour of the ‘’Champagne cellars’’ where you can taste wines directly from the barrels. When the recently restored caves were excavated in 1864 they were the first ever in California. They were modeled after their European predecessors. However, for reasons I will explain later no wine was produced in those cellars between the late 1970s and 2012.

After a short visit to the Champagne Cellars and its amazing barrels, “The Count” took us to sit in a beautifully appointed Private Reserve tasting lounge and told us the amazing history of the beginnings of Buena Vista, and of its present owner and renovator Jean-Charles Boisset.

Photo: Scott Beregia

This very long epic story started in 1857.
That year a 42 year-old Hungarian immigrant, Agoston Haraszty De Mokesa, born in a noble but financially unstable family from Pest, arrived in Sonoma. He had always been fascinated by viticulture since he grew up surrounded by his family’s vineyards and orchards back in Hungary. He immediately decided that it would be the perfect environment to plant a vineyard and to build a winery. He found the right place and called it Buena Vista, “the beautiful view” in Spanish. And this is where he built a home for himself and the winery of his dreams which he transformed rapidly into a successful wine business, a research lab, and an experimental field for the 300 seeds and cuttings of varietals that he brought back  in 1861 from Europe. Before him a Frenchman, Jean-Louis Vignes had brought the first “vitis vinifera” to California.
He contributed to the development of a new viticulture in Northern California through the creation in 1863 of the Buena Vista Vinicultural Society, and he also contributed to the launching of a school of agriculture, which many years later became the University of California at Davis, famous for its academic program on wine-making.
By that time he had decided to call himself The Count of Buena Vista

Photo from historical archives Boisset

But it is interesting to know that the Count’s adventures did not begin in Sonoma.

When this very ambitious, enthusiastic visionary arrived in the U.S in 1839, he created the town of Sauk City in Wisconsin where he planted hops and started to brew beer. Then in 1849 he traveled with a wagon train to San Diego where he planted grapes and fruits, and at the same time completely reshaped a whole district of San Diego. He was elected and held the first office of sheriff in San Diego, then was elected to the California State Assembly in 1850. He met and eventually developed a friendship with the legendary General Vallejo, the last Mexican governor of California, who strongly advised him to visit the area north of the San Francisco Bay. And that is what he did.
He died in Nicaragua in 1869, probably devoured by an alligator, when he fell from a tree in a jungle river. As a memory of this sad event JCB placed a stuffed alligator near the entrance of the gift shop.

After his death the winery continued to receive great reviews and awards until 1878 when financial problems forced Buena Vista to stop its wine production and sell the estate to a family for its private use. Its potential rebirth was further doomed by a succession of problems such as the Great Depression, Prohibition, the phyloxera infestation, the 1906 earthquake, and some other curses.
After WW II in 1949 the Bartholomew family bought the property, worked on the damaged buildings, and after replanting a vineyard produced wine again with the help of a well-known Russian-born oenologist and wine maker, André Tchelistcheff. So this historical winery and its vineyards, the first of its kind in California, was practically left unexploited for practically 70 years.
But in 1989 the caves had to be closed again because of the damage caused by a new earthquake.   
Finally, in 2011, after many years of inactivity and neglect Buena Vista was purchased by Jean-Claude Boisset and integrated into his Boisset Family Estates portfolio.

Between 2012 and 2015, JCB launched an intensive project to completely restore the property, including  retrofitting the center core of the main building to render it earthquake-proof.
This proved to be a valuable and successful investment since the retrofitted building went through a new powerful earthquake on August 24 2014, but did not suffer any structural damage because of the anti- seismic protection that had been implanted.
Six major labels of wines produced by Buena Vista are now commercialized from there: Private Reserve, Vinicultural Society, Heritage Collection, Carneros, The Count, and Sonoma.

The Wine Tool Museum

As I mentioned earlier the Boisset family acquired Bérard’s tool collection in 2001. In 2010 the original exhibit was transferred to a larger three-room space at the ‘’Imaginarium’’ in Nuits-St.-Georges where it was enhanced with a high-tech and successful 40 minute ‘’sight and sound’’ show renamed ‘’Sacrée Vigne’’. The story focused on 3 progressive stages of grape planting, harvesting and wine making in 3 rooms: the vineyard, the wine, and the men and women who make it.
In 2015 Jean-Charles Boisset, brought the show to Buena Vista and reorganized it in a single large room, in an adaptation that better fit an American audience. A part of the original tool collection remained at Boisset’s in Burgundy. Philippe Bérard contributed to the setting of the new exhibit at Buena Vista.
This American version of the exhibit, that officially opened at the end of May, has benefited from up-to- date audiovisual techniques as well as a very good voice-over narration by George Webber, the actor who personifies “The Count”.

The walls on the stairs to get to the museum which is on the third floor of the Champagne cellars building are decorated with a collection of antique glass decanters displayed in glass cabinets. But there is also an elevator for the handicapped or less energetic visitors. George Webber took us there by this elevator.

Photo Alain Maes
The first thing you notice is a long banquet table in the center of the room elegantly set  with period china and stemware, lit by chandeliers. Sitting and or standing by the table, are mannequins in festive attires, personifying the two sons of the Count who had just married  the two daughters of General Vallejo..

Then we started to watch the successive displays of 19th and early 20th century French tools and equipment, which are sometimes suspended from small chains, sometimes encased in special cabinets or panels all around the room against the beautiful walls made from stones from the nearby Mayacamas mountains.

And to accompany the visitor in his discovery and understanding  of the evolution of  the farming, planting, harvesting, wine fermenting and aging, and barrel making, through the ages, some videos, music, and of course the narrative, tell you the whole story. Every time you move from one “station” to the next, the lighting of the set, sometimes brightly colored sometimes more subdued,  changes and this produces some quite effective special effects which sometimes  emphasize the threatening aspect of cutting tools, or  the  beautiful visual aspect of small presses, elements and tools used in  woodworking and barrel making.

There is a logical historical and technical progression from the first displays (left from the entrance) to the last one on the other side of the room.
You start with early, almost primitive tools used in the caring of soil and vines, such as plows, picks, grafting and pruning knives, shears, secators, and amazing soil injectors.
                                                                                                                                                                                                      Photo Drew Kelly

Then you see everything used during the harvesting time and early stages of grape pressing: baskets, boxes, fouloirs, screws, small presses, and small wooden fermentation vats. There is quite an impressive group of pomace cutters in the center wall.
Photo Alain Maes

Photo Alain Maes
But to me the most beautiful part of the exhibit is on the right wall where you can admire all the stages of woodworking that lead to the manufacturing, assembling and burning of barrels. From saws and axes to cut  down the trees and tools to make staves, to batissoires, doloires, gabarits, and spigots.
When the 20 minute show was over I told George Webber that the quality of his voice reminded me of the voices of French professional actors and narrators that I worked with for several years at the French National radio in Paris before moving to the United States. I told him that instead of being called the Count of Buena Vista, he should be nicknamed the ``Orson Welles of Sonoma``.
He helped us to travel back to the time when  Agoston  Haraszty’s  visionary dreams became reality.

Museum Tours are available daily by-appointment at 11 AM, 1 PM and 3 PM (walk-up visitors will be accommodated as availability allows; groups of eight or more require advance reservation).
 In addition to the $25 tour and tasting, families will also be offered a choice of a museum-only experience for $10 per person, and children with paying adult are free.
Normally the ticket price of the guided visits include the tasting of a few Buena Vista wines.

Buena Vista Winery, 18000 Old Winery Road, SONOMA, CA 95476   Tel: 800-926-1266