Jean-Charles Boisset—Biodynamic Wine Wizard Of Burgundy And California
Jean-Charles Boisset is showman and entrepreneur, visionary and dynamo, storyteller and entertainer. He also manages (with his sister Nathalie) a $400 million empire—Boisset Collection that includes dozens of international wineries associated with choice terroirs in Burgundy, the Rhone Valley and Beaujolais in France, as well as in Napa and Sonoma valleys in California. They also own wineries in England and India. All adhere to organic principles, and several are certified as biodynamic.
Boisset—in his early 50’s—is a big thinking gregarious character, an accomplished winemaker and businessman, and a lively promoter of the benefits of working organically.
Consider viewing his latest lockdown livestream videos on YouTube—providing entertainment, theater, history and tastings. Who would you liked to have been in history—he asked during an April livestream before he sabered open a bottle of Buena Vista rosé sparkling wine, all the while regaling viewers with stories of soldiers, lovers and historical figures. Boisset then introduced a figure dressed in top hat and coat tails—the Count of Buena Vista (who explained how, in 1862, he made Sonoma County’s first sparkling wine)
Or, Boisset’s May 1st livestream in which he dances a jig before tasting wines from multiple French regions—his own ‘tour de France’ within 30 minutes. He sits next to a chair on which is propped his own recently published sumptuous coffee table tome—The Alchemy of the Senses. “We are alone without books without pictures in our minds and our memories,” he said as he sipped Louis Bouillot sparkling wine—produced in the heart of Burgundy’s Nuits-Saint-Georges since 1877. “These bubbles inspired me all my life,” he said before toasting his virtual audience with a generously sized crystal glass.
In Napa Valley in California, a series of businesses that form part of the aggregate of Boisset Collection include not only vineyards and wineries, but food stores (Oakville Grocery and Atelier Fine Foods and the Senses boutique (JCB Village in Yountville).
The day before I was to visit Boisset’s Raymond Vineyards in Napa Valley in March, early lockdown forced my premature departure. However, earlier this year we sat together in Florida, where Jean-Charles explained that much of his values were shaped by wandering through Burgundian vineyards and gardens as a child. This experience helped propel his modern role as promoter of improved viticultural practices. He shared what influences shaped his thinking.
“I was born in Vougeot, and my grandparents are from Gevrey—Chambertin, two miles away. My grandparents were school teachers, and nature was a key principle. So I was into organic all my life in the sense that I played with nature. My grandmother was a great teacher for young people and was very close to mother nature as well as into natural composting, and bees and never hurting insects.
“My grandparents on both sides were very interested in wine. And they were very close to America with a great love of the United States. I was very lucky to be born in ‘69, so saw the early 70’s shows with the American lifestyle. I came to the U.S. at ten and a half on a trip with my grandparents and parents. California. Monterey to Sonoma. All the missions. Fell in love with it! I said to my parents and grandparents—this is where I want to be in the future. I knew early on. Then I had an opportunity with a French international school in Washington DC. I went back to France, built a business and got into winemaking—which I’ve done all my life, really expanding the portfolio.
“I saw the impact of pesticides even in my own village in the 70’s and 80’s. At the age of nine or ten I became very involved in gardening and was always outside. I was allowed to watch TV for two hours a week. My parents started the business and we were helping. I was very fortunate to be raised very closely with my grandparents and parents, and really fell in love with mother nature. When I took responsibility for many of our vineyards, I converted everything to organic.”
“We became iconic in 20 years, luckily—thanks to great wines and great appellations: Musigny, Vougeot and Chambertin of Domaine de la Vougeraie. When my older sister Nathalie and I created that estate, we said one of our key principles needs to be organic and biodynamic farming and winemaking. We did it all.
“My sister and I get along very well. We co-own the business. Phenomenal synergy, phenomenal wines but also following ethics and values dear to us. When we had the opportunity to acquire DeLoach Vineyards in California’s Russian River Valley, we converted it into organic. We bought it in November, 2003, and the next February pulled out the whole estate. Laid it fallow for almost two years, and thereafter planted according to all the best rootstocks and clones. Five years later we got certified organic by CCOF [California Certified Organic Farmers] and biodynamic by Demeter. The estate is extraordinary. It had a big impact. A lot of wineries have seen our success, and many growers we work with have converted to organic. They taste the wines and they really are transcended.”
DeLoach was listed as one of the top 100 wineries by Wine & Spirits magazine twelve times, and in 2004 it received a ‘wine of the year’ award in Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Boisset attributed key reasons to this success.
“One—our team was very engaged, even though it was new for them. Two, the neighbors were very curious and adopted the same methods. Three—we pay more, because they are phenomenal grapes. It’s win—win. Biodynamic obviously requires a lot more work, a lot more diligence, a lot more discipline; it’s a cycle which follows a lunar calendar. The wine has more energy, thanks to those practices. I really see a transformation of the neighborhood. I’ve seen amazing inspiration for—honestly—everyone around us.”
“We bought Raymond Vineyards in Napa Valley in August of 2009 and converted the whole estate—over 200 acres—into being organically and biodynamically certified. We introduced solar panels onto all roofing, and used water management through recuperating rain and through drip irrigation. Winemakers at DeLoach and Raymond are all American. I’m maybe the only French man there. People in America who farm and are in the world of viticulture are very engaged, very conscious of the reasoning.
“We are Napa Green and are fighting in a positive way to convert everybody into the obvious. Humans invented pesticides, which go against mother nature. We work with her cycle and the plants that grow around vines, such as chamomile, nettle and yarrow. We are synergistically fully in line—hand in hand, hip to hip with mother nature. As stewards of the land you’ve got to go full force. You cannot go half way.”
Boisset and his wife live with their twin daughters at their home in Yountville in Napa Valley, which includes an organic garden and 15 types of animals. He is intent on having his daughters appreciate good quality, healthy food.
As a French man who appreciates cuisine, Boisset also appreciates improvements to American cooking and recalled how Julia Childs—author of Mastering The Art of French Cooking—helped convert complex French kitchen techniques into methods accessible to anyone.
Though raised in rural France, Boisset’s exposure to the United States at an early age endeared him to California, its vineyards, and the mentality of those who work the land.
“Americans open their arms to you. What I love about the American mentality is that people are audaciously curious to the point that they ask questions, and are always willing to learn.”
Boisset’s latest book—The Alchemy of the Senses—is as much of an experience as a read, and several tactile pages of this hefty volume are conducive to touching. The book highlights principles and values that nurtured Boisset’s philosophy, as well as his interest in organic and biodynamic practices. One of these is maintaining an open mind to diverse and wise influences. For example, the book includes a huge fold out map of the ‘last supper’ with characters Boisset would invite to his own final meal, if provided such opportunity (including his wife, Gina Gallo, the Marquis de Lafayette, Mother Teresa, Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Gandhi, Federico Fellini, Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther King and Walt Disney). The purpose of this inclusion is to propel readers to consider who they value as influences.
Boisset is an engaging optimist—eager to share his grand view of life and its possibilities. Beneath panache and business acumen is also a man who learned well from his parents and grandparents the value of long-term, quality stewardship of land.
“The future is exciting. I am on fire! I’m a bon vivant. I love life. I really think that work is good if you have an impact. Hopefully I will have an impact here and influence people in a positive way and inspire them. Luckily, having credibility in wine helps.”