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Clos Pegase Winery

Napa Valley AVA

Jan's philosophy of winemaking was to focus on a few varietals and make each one a perfect gem

Many of you are also members of our monthly Gold Wine Club in which we recently featured the wonderful Clos Pegase 1993 Chardonnay. The newly released Clos Pegase 1994 Merlot is a stunning wine, one that we would not necessarily have discovered had it not been for the Chardonnay. So if you have already read the Clos Pegase story as it appeared in the Gold Wine Club newsletter, great. Go ahead, uncork the wine and enjoy a great bottle of Merlot. The rest of you we encourage reading the Clos Pegase story as you are enjoying their wine!

It was named after the winged horse of Greek mythology, and like Pegasus, the rise of the Clos Pegase Winery is a tale of power, beauty and imagination.

The power behind the beauty is proprietor Jan (pronounced yahn) Shrem who turned his love of wine and art into one of Napa Valley’s best, and certainly most talked about winery.

The winery which the Washington Post called “America’s first monument to wine as art,” began with an extensive search throughout California in 1980 for an ideal winery location. The search lasted three years until 1983 when Jan (who at the time was living in France) discovered a unique 50 acre parcel near the town of Calistoga, in Napa Valley, California. The site had a key characteristic that made it attractive to Jan: the property had a large rocky knoll within which to build the winery’s all important aging caves.

With the purchase of the land negotiated, the next task at hand was building the caves and winery. Jan wanted to create a showplace for winemaking that would also generate interest in his label. Since Jan was new to the United States, he decided to find the right architect for the project by holding a nationwide architectural competition. The event was sponsored by the San Francisco Museum of Art and led to the selection of renowned Princeton architect, Michael Graves. Graves efforts resulted in a spectacular “temple to wine” that has won international awards and generated lasting excitement among wine, art, and architectural circles.

While the winery and caves were being constructed (from 1984-1987), Jan turned his attention to securing land on which to grow his grapes. The search for a suitable location took two long years. In the interim Jan launched his inaugural wines—a 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, using grapes bought from other specially selected Napa vineyards. Overseen by the legendary winemaker, Andre Tchelistcheff and bottled at the nearby Rombauer Winery, the results were elegantly styled wines that drew immediate critical praise. Still, Jan was determined to create wines produced exclusively from estate vineyards. He has always felt strongly about having exclusive control of the quality of grapes used to make his wines. In 1989 he found the land he was looking for—a 365-acre Los Carneros property and the 42-acre Palisades vineyards, both in the Napa Valley.

Jan’s philosophy of winemaking was to focus on a few varietals and make each one a perfect gem. He chose four: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a proprietary red blend “Hommage”. In developing the vineyards, Clos Pegase has spent $15 million, placing it at the forefront of what some have termed “the vineyard revolution”. In 1990 they were the first to plant 5 different rootstocks in an effort to balance the rootstock to the varying soil and exposure conditions. They were also among the first to narrow the spacing between the rows to increase the vine density and decrease the yield per vine.

Solid results from the winery’s flagship wines have earned the winery numerous awards and countless accolades. Boosted by continued success, their plans are to raise output from the current 35,000 cases to 50,000 cases within the next 10 years.

Jan Shrem - Proprietor

Picture of Jan Shrem - Proprietor

Building a winery and vineyard from the ground up takes vision, determination and a rather tidy sum of hard cold cash. To Jan Shrem all of the above represented an irresistible challenge.

Of Jewish-Lebanese parentage, Jan was born in South America but soon moved with his family to Jerusalem. While growing up he had little desire to follow in his father’s footsteps as a dry-goods merchant. Instead he convinced his parents to send him to America to attend high school in New York City. Even at that time he had thoughts of becoming an architect or pursuing some other artistic calling. When it came time to go to college he received a scholarship to attend the University of Utah. Graduating with a degree in Political Science he then went on to study international law at UCLA grad school. It was there that he met a Japanese girl who invited him to visit her native homeland.

Jan absolutely fell in love with Japan. He wanted to stay and live there to absorb as much as he could about this fascinating country. The question was, what kind of work could he do there as a stranger in a strange land’ The answer was to sell encyclopedias, a job he had worked to put himself through college. He eventually began importing many types of reference and technical books into Japan which in the aftermath of WWII was disposing all of their German based educational books. His timing was impeccable as Japan’s thirst for knowledge seemed insatiable. Soon he was importing and translating millions of books a year. The business developed into a publishing empire, printing Japanese books of every kind. At its peak his Japanese business grew to over 2,000 employees in 50 offices throughout Japan.

During this period of time he met his wife-to-be, Mitsuko. ‘It was Mitsuko who opened my eyes and palate to wine,” says an appreciative Jan. In 1970 Jan and Mitsuko wanted to marry but could not do so in Japan where ancient customs and strong tradition forbid Mitsuko from marrying ‘an outsider.” They made the tough decision to sell the business, leave Japan and travel to Switzerland where they could be married. Soon after they the newly wedded couple settled in Paris.

Once in France Jan started another publishing company, this time specializing in printing books in many different languages to satisfy the multi-cultural European community. For the next 10 years as Jan’s business grew so did his passion for wine. In addition to building a strong knowledge and appreciation of wine he also collected unique and historical wine related art and artifacts. He even enrolled at the University of Bordeaux to deepen his understanding of wine and winemaking. His intense interest of wine and wine art compelled him to search for a location to build his own winery. That search lead him to California where his timing was once again exquisite. California wine had just begun to come into its own and here was the perfect opportunity to create another success. The birth of Clos Pegase Winery was realized soon thereafter.

Today Jan is still very much a world traveler, promoting Clos Pegase and continuing his art and artifact collection. Instead of trying simply to fill up the spacious winery interior with artwork, Jan uses a keen eye when adding to his collection. ‘I concentrate on acquiring quality,” he says. ‘I’m not concerned with volume,” he adds. It was so obvious that we didn’t even bother to ask if he felt the same way about his wines.