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St. Supéry Estate Vineyards and Winery

Napa Valley AVA

Team at St. Supéry creates New Winery Success Story

Many of you may have heard of or even tasted a wine from this month’s featured winery, St. Supéry. If you have, good for you! St. Supéry is a modern era Napa Valley success story that, while still new and small, has basked in a glow of adulation usually bestowed on larger, more established wineries.

St. Supéry’s first 18,000 cases of wine were released just five years ago. Yet since that time they have piled up accolade after accolade for their wines and winery concepts. Their superb Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots have all won a plethora of medals at the major wine industry competitions. In 1992 they were named as one of thirty “American Wineries of the Year,” by Wine & Spirits magazine. And just recently, the winery was recognized by The Wine Enthusiast magazine as having the Best Tasting Room, Best Self-Guided Tour, Best Winery Guided Tour, and Best Art Exhibits. “The whole approach of our visitor program is to get people comfortable with wine,” says winery head Michaela Rodeno. “And create a place where they can learn more about wine in an non-intimidating and entertaining way,” she adds.

From the outset, St. Supéry has been on the right track. Owner Robert Skalli has put together an impressive operation that may just be the blueprint for other new wineries to follow. In 1982 Skalli, who was born and raised and still lives in France, purchased 1,500 acres of cattle land in Napa county’s Pope Valley, called Dollarhide Ranch. He had been visiting the Napa area for almost a decade before buying Dollarhide. As a successful wine producer in his native country, he was encouraged by the likes of Robert Mondavi and Clos du Val owner, Bernard Portet, to consider starting a winery in California. After years of research, guidance and advice by these and other vintners, Skalli finally decided to forge ahead.

The Pope Valley area of Napa had been largely ignored by other vintners primarily because of its erratic topography and undocumented microclimate conditions. And most were simply unwilling to commit the time and money needed for the discovery and experimentation process to figure it all out. Robert Skalli was willing to take the calculated risk, and he had the financial strength to pull it off.

It took three full years of experimentation in the vineyard to determine the varietals and the best locations for each. Advanced farming techniques in irrigation, soil management, and trellis systems helped enormously in unlocking the potential of the property. By 1986 the vineyard was in full production.

That same year, Skalli purchased a 50-acre vineyard in Napa’s famed Rutherford Bench. Here he would farm the existing Cabernet Sauvignon vines and use part of the property to build his own winemaking facilities. The site also included an historic Victorian house built in the 1880s by early settler Joseph Atkinson.

Joseph Atkinson and his brother Louis were shirt clothiers from Philadelphia who came to California during the Gold Rush. They had hoped to cash in on northern California’s booming economy but instead became enthralled by the area’s emerging wine business. They eventually bought 126 acres and began planting vineyards and building a home. Their vineyards and winery operation were highly successful for many years until phyloxera devastated the vines in 1894. Financially ruined by the destruction of his vineyards, surviving brother Joseph forfeited the property to the bank.

Years later a French winemaker named Edward St. Supéry purchased the property from the bank for a fraction of its value. He held it from 1904 to 1917. The vineyard land had several other owners prior to the Skalli’s purchase; but when it came time to naming the winery, it seemed only appropriate to name it after its one French owner!

With the new purchase of the Rutherford property, Robert Skalli now had a showplace for his St. Supéry wines and a vehicle to develop his concept of sharing them with the rest of the world. “The first time I visited the Napa Valley, I was astonished by what I saw at wineries like Clos du Val, Mondavi and Domaine Chandon. All three had a way of explaining grape varieties and wine in simple terms to large numbers of people,” recalls Skalli.

With that thought etched in his mind, Skalli laid out plans to build a visitor-friendly winery. The result was a “Wine Discovery Center” built next to the winery. The Center is a virtual museum of wine for visitors to learn as much as they wish about viticulture and winemaking. One popular exhibit is dubbed the “SmellaVision” machine, where visitors can sniff the various components that go into wine. Also, the restored Atkinson house near the Center has a display vineyard where visitors can inspect some of the more common grape varieties.

The newly built winery is turning out 35,000 cases of St. Supéry wine each year. A second, popular priced label called Bonverre (French for “good glass”) keeps the winery humming, by adding 50-60,000 cases to the overall production. Recently, they have also started selling a line of Kosher wines under the brand name of Mount Madrona. Look for St. Supéry to continue growing. Who knows, they may soon be the next big guy on the block in Napa county!

All told, the Skalli family has invested over $40 million into their successful venture. Robert Skalli still lives in France and commutes to St. Supéry every three months to plan strategies with winery CEO, Michaela Rodeno. Michaela is a 22 year veteran of California’s wine industry, brought aboard by Skalli in 1988 to manage the operation on a day-to-day basis. She hails from previous successful careers at Domaine Chandon and Beaulieu Vineyards.

Winemaker Bob Broman has been with St. Supéry since 1987. He too is a 22 year wine industry veteran. Bob’s first winemaking job was at Louis Martini Winery in 1973. Later he moved to Concannon Vineyards, then later was winemaster at world famous Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Prior to joining St. Supéry, Bob was the winemaker at Guenon Winery.

This month’s featured 1991 Merlot is St. Supéry’s 3rd vintage of that varietal. It’s a multiple Gold Medal winner and easily their best Merlot to date. We fought long and hard to be able to bring you this excellent wine from St. Supéry. We are confident you will find it one of your favorite Merlots.

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Robert Skalli is making his mark in the wine industry.

Picture of Robert Skalli is making his mark in the wine industry.

Robert Skalli, at 44 years old, is making his mark in the wine industry on both sides of the Atlantic. Almost single-handedly he has convinced the French, wedded to their grand cru Bordeaux and Burgundies, that varietal wines from the once disdained vineyards of southern France can be of excellent quality. In California, Skalli has established a winery, St. Supéry, devoted to wine education and to producing value priced Napa Valley wines.

Born and reared in the Algerian city of Oran, Skalli, the son of a wine producer, lived in north Africa until independence, then went with his family to France. During their years in north Africa, the members of the Skalli family started semolina mills and pasta factories to make use of the semolina flour. They also made wine for the French wine market. They continue those enterprises today in France producing almost everything for today’s popular Mediterranean diet.

Robert took over the family business in his early twenties. In the early 1970s, at twenty-two years of age, Skalli visited California for the first time. He was charmed by the beauty of the Napa Valley and inspired by the innovation and lack of ties to traditional thinking. Encouraged by people like Robert Mondavi and Mondavi’s wife, Margrit Biever, to start a winery in Napa, Skalli visited the wine country off and on over the next decade.

Never idle, Skalli was working hard in France to introduce the concept of varietal wines, learned from California winemakers. ‘The attraction of varietal wines is much simpler than an appellation contrôlée,” says Skalli. He was also determined to convince the French that truly good wines could be made in the south of France, a region considered suitable only for the production of ‘vin de pays” (regional wine). ‘It is my mission to make ‘vin de pays’ a positive rather than derogatory term. We want to produce the finest wines possible from the region of Languedoc-Roussillon. The south of France is so much like California, with modern techniques there is really no reason why we can’t.”

Skalli began working with growers. Since most wine in France is produced by the growers themselves, it seems logical to provide them with the training and access to the expertise and equipment necessary to make premium wines. ‘We taught them to plant varietally as is done in California. We showed them how to irrigate, trellis, prune and keep their cellars scrupulously clean, as well as make good wine” he relays. Because Languedoc-Roussillon is not part of France’s contrôlée system, Skalli was able to encourage his growers to use modern cultivation methods forbidden to growers in regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy.

But as fascinating and challenging as his work in the French wine industry was, Skalli returned continually to the Napa Valley. Finally in 1982, encouraged by, among others, Michaela Rodeno, then Vice President of Marketing at Domaine Chandon, Skalli purchased the Dollarhide Ranch in the northeastern corner of the Napa Valley appellation. Ever the pioneer, he had chosen to plant his vineyard in a virtually untried part of the Napa Valley.

Since the opening of St. Supéry five years ago, Skalli, together with his uncle Albert, who is head of the family’s mills and pasta interests, and cousin Bernard, who is President of the family-owned corporation, have returned every three months to gauge St. Supéry’s progress. Skalli’s style is to give the St. Supéry staff a free rein to reach the company’s goals. With Robert Skalli’s support, Michaela Rodeno has assembled a professional management team with years of wine experience. ‘I am sure that our team at the winery has had a great deal to do with St. Supéry’s rapid success in the market place,” says Skalli.