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Château Chevalier

Napa Valley AVA

Few Napa Valley wineries have this rich of history

Tracing back to 1815, the birth of Fortune Chevalier was recorded in Belle Isle, France. The young Frenchman came to San Francisco in 1850 with the idea of establishing a window construction and repair business along with some French associates. When his friends deserted him for the California gold fields of the Sierra foothills, Chevalier ended up in Sacramento and began trading in the wine and spirits industry. Eyeing the scores of thirsty miners in the area, he established F. Chevalier and Company to meet those needs.

He moved the business to San Francisco in 1872. By 1880, a scarcity of wines (due to the phylloxera epidemic in Europe) caused a wine boom in the Napa Valley. In 1881, Fortune Chevalier decided to build an imposing barn and Chateau that would rival Napa’s finest structures. It was surrounded by 40 acres with about 25 of them being under vine. Roads were lines with olive trees and extensive gardens featured complex paths along terraces, swimming pools and numerous stone stairways.

Fortune died in April, 1889, but his son George continued to operate the business. He sold it and the venerable place changed hands several times until Berkeley oilman H.H. Hart purchased it in 1918 and renamed it Harthaven. The original structure burned to the ground in a fire in 1936, but the vineyards continued to be tendered and the grapes sold to local wineries.

In 1970, the Bissonette Family bought the land and replanted the vineyards and released the first Chateau Chevalier wines since Prohibition. John and Gil Nickel (of Far Niente Winery fame) acquired the property in the early 1980’s and further renovated the chateau.

In 1993, famed Napa Valley winery Spring Mountain Vineyard and its Swiss owner Jacqui Safra bought the winery and property and remains the owner today. A major renovation to the old chateau was also begun that required all of the exterior wood and trim be replaced. The formidable twin towers were completely rebuilt and the residence in the interior of the towers was completely removed. The winery’s striking interior, made from pristine redwood, was returned to a state much as it existed more than a century ago.

Chateau Chevalier is an amazing throwback to an era in Napa Valley that preceded Napa Valley’s ascension to international wine fame.

Susan Doyle - Winemaker

Picture of Susan Doyle - Winemaker

Winemaker Susan Doyle was born in the Australian Island State of Tasmania, where she grew up on an apple and cattle farm, thereby developing a real appreciation and love of the land. She studied environmental science at the University of Tasmania and later experienced postgraduate studies in enology and viticulture at Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand. She then worked in various capacities in wineries in both Tasmania and Victoria. In 1990, she took a six-month California internship at Kendall-Jackson’s Hartford Court Family Winery and fell in love with Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. After returning to Tasmania and Australia, Susan came back to California for good in 2003. She became winemaker for Gallo’s MacMurray Ranch (formerly owned by the late film actor Fred MacMurray) in the Russian River Valley and stayed there for seven years.

A position as director of winemaking for industry giant Diageo Chateau and Estates opened up and Susan jumped at the opportunity. “There I was able to work with 25 different winemakers to assure they had access to everything they needed to make the best wines,” she recalled.

The fact that she must now work with the 135 different blocks of vineyards in Spring Mountain Vineyards estates seems a somewhat daunting job for the blonde winemaker. “Our goal is to achieve balance in each of the 135 blocks,” she added. “Finding harmony in the grape itself will give us the opportunity to capture terroir in the wine with minimal intervention on my part.”

Susan also has the expert help of two consulting French winemakers, Patrick Leon (Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Opus One) and Bernard Hervet (Burgundy’s Domaine Faiveley) in her multiple projects. Susan Doyle is a proven winemaker with international achievements and skills. She has her distinctive hand in each of the Spring Mountain Vineyard---Chateau Chevalier projects.

Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley

Picture of Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley

Spring Mountain District is one of sixteen AVA’s (American Viticultural Area) within the confines of Napa Valley, having been awarded that distinction in 1993. It was the seventh AVA and was created in that year along with Oakville and Rutherford AVA’s.

The jagged, rugged hillside AVA of Spring Mountain is perched on the west side of the Napa Valley and more specifically, the Mayacamas Range. It was one of the first vineyard areas to be planted by the early settlers in the 1800s. Spring Valley was named for its many natural springs, and is endowed with forests and meadows of great natural beauty amid charming reminders of the historic past. The mountain landscape presents numerous challenges for today’s viticulturist.

As far as farming is concerned, establishing vines in the lean soils, obtaining and distributing water in the dry growing season, and preventing erosion are constant concerns. Weather patterns, strongly influenced by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the San Francisco Bay to the south, tend to intensify the harshness of winter storms and moderate summer heat. Most of Spring Mountain’s top vineyard parcels are naturally small and widely distributed, always far from the conveniences on the valley floor.

This rugged mountain environment is in some sense ideal for creating great wine because of the fact that grapevines that struggle at the edge of their habitable range for water, nutrients and sunlight develop fruit of more intense character and taste, and hence more memorable and long-lived wines. It is the winegrower’s charge to maintain that fine degree of nurturing that results in vines being stressed but not over stressed, by assuring them of just enough necessities to bring forth the finest fruit.

Chateau Chevalier’s vineyards are located just north of the town of St. Helena, just off winding Spring Mountain Road (between St. Helena and Santa Rosa) and somewhat behind (and west of) the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone campus. They rest at an elevation of 1000 feet, just below the Beringer Brothers original vineyard that was planted in 1882. Its grapes are highly prized and produce fruit with great natural intensity and excellent acidic balance.

Jacqui Safra - The newest owner of Spring Mountain Vineyard

Picture of Jacqui Safra - The newest owner of Spring Mountain Vineyard

As a member of one of Europe’s richest and most private families, Swiss banker Jacqui Safra is the newest owner of the Spring Mountain Vineyard---Chateau Chevalier saga. Safra is the nephew of legendary banker Edmond Safra, and of Lebanese-Swiss Jewish descent. Their family has been touted as the richest banking family in the world since the great-grandfather of family icon Jacob Safra began it all as a banker and gold trader during the Ottoman Empire. By the way, the name Safra means ‘gold’ in Arabic for anyone interested.

Jacqui Safra does himself proud with his extensive portfolio of investments. In addition to the Stone Mountain Vineyard---Chateau Chevalier investment in Northern California, he is also currently listed as the owner of Encyclopedia Britannica, Merriam-Webster, the renowned Parknasilla Hotel in County Kerry, Ireland and various other endeavors. He also owns Garnish Island in Kenmare Bay, Glengariff, Ireland.

He has also dabbled in Hollywood and in particular the works of noted filmmaker Woody Allen. Safra personally financed eight of Allen’s movies until a dispute with Allen ended his involvement and the two wound up in court. Safra had bit parts in three of the movies.

Jacqui Safra does things in a big way---and always in the best of taste. For the Spring Mountain Vineyard project, Safra cobbled together four separate but contiguous properties to create an 850-acre hillside property with 230 acres of vines, most of which are newly planted, often with expensive close spacing of the vines to increase density. The vineyards are today considered among Napa Valley’s truly elite growing areas.

He also spent a great deal of his money to make the property one of Napa Valley’s finest. For the ten- year construction project, the very private Mr. Safra did not allow wine trade members or the public visit the renovations.

Recently, Safra and his long-time companion (and former Woody Allen producer) Jean Doumanian, quietly placed their 50-foot wide limestone mansion on 75th Street for sale for a tidy $50 million dollars. If sold, it would be the costliest sale of its type in Manhattan.

For the record, Jacqui Safra does not give interviews, nor do many members of his family. The family has accumulated its wealth by staying out of the limelight and will continue to do so in the future.

The value of Jacqui Safra’s contributions to the wine industry and to Napa Valley must be seen to be believed. If consummate good taste and a desire for perfection are the benchmarks, then it would seem that Spring Mountain Vineyard---Chateau Chevalier will be talked about for many decades to come.