In the Languedoc region of France, Thomas Duroux eyes the dark red soil at the base of a thicket of arbutus trees. "These trees, this earth," he says. "This is what you need for a great, great wine." At least that's what California winemaker Robert Mondavi is betting on. For the last two years Duroux, a scientist working for Mondavi, and David Pearson, the company's representative in France, have scoured hundreds of acres of land in this southern region looking for the perfect spot for Mondavi's most ambitious project to date. Within 10 years they hope to have a wine to rival the finest Bordeaux and Bourgogne on the market. "The stakes for Mondavi are huge here," Duroux says.
The venture is a gamble, and not only because Languedoc has a poor reputation for producing good wine. French fears about globalization have made all big U.S. companies potential targets for protest. Last spring local environmentalists drummed out an American businessman bent on opening a racetrack in the region. But Mondavi means to succeed where other foreigners -- including some other big winemakers, who brought modern techniques to Languedoc in the early 1990s but soon picked up and left -- have not. By planting its own vines, Mondavi means to show that it's here to stay -- and become the first American company to make wine from scratch in France, the way the great French makers have always done it.
But planting those roots has been tough. Word that an American company was interested in 50 hectares of protected land brought immediate opposition from the environmental group Arboussas Defense. Boar hunters worried that Mondavi's plans threatened their game, and the Communist Party took to calling Mondavi's product "Coca-Cola wine." Local growers complained that the American behemoth would drive them out of business. "Initially it was really bad," says Pearson from the Mondavi villa on the outskirts of Montpellier. "They came out strong with a package of disinformation."
But Mondavi persisted. First, it argued that the company would help put Languedoc on the winemaking map. Despite a renaissance in the '90s when local Languedoc varietals made a splash in the United States, small growers are still struggling. European Union subsidies have dwindled, and much of the wine from Languedoc has turned into vinegar.
Mondavi has also worked on blending into the local landscape. "You don't teach the French how to make wine," says Pearson. "You have to integrate into the culture." Pearson himself has bought a house in the region and sends his kids to the local school. As for the wine, Mondavi plans to use traditional French methods, including oak-barrel aging, and local craftsmen. It is planning to spend around $3 million just to cultivate the vineyard, more than double what traditional growers would spend on the same acreage. Total costs coud hit $7 million, music to the ears of local Mayor Andre Ruiz.
Mondavi's efforts have paid off. Growers from the local wine cooperative, initally opposed to Mondavi, are now close to reaching an agreement in which they and the Americans would producce a wine together. The co-op will also inherit a 25-hectare plot next to the Mondavi site. "Nothing has been signed yet," says Jacques Bonier, president of the local co-op, "but we're in agreement on 90 percent of the issues." There are still some in the small town of Aniane -- like the Guibert family, owners of a vineyard just down the hill from the proposed Mondavi site -- who are virulently opposed to the project. But they're in a minority. Joelle Laval, a local producer who was initally sceptical about Mondavi's ambitions, now says, "The Americans aren't particularly dangerous for us. I'm more worried about the wild boars."