Depending on who you ask, the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 (also known as the Judgement of Paris) either famously or infamously changed the narrative of winemaking. In a major upset, the highly trained and sophisticated palates of 11 judges chose California wines over French wines, sending shock waves from Paris, across the ocean, and through an America that, until then, was mostly known in the culinary world for fast food and cold beers. So how did the French government react?
They sent Jean-Noel Fourmeaux, a Bordeaux native whose family had a long and rich history of French winemaking, as a spy. His mission: to figure out what exactly was going on in this place called Napa Valley.
“It took a few years for the French to react to that slap in face,” says the 70-year-old, who is based in Napa Valley and San Francisco. “The country was eating hamburgers and drinking cola in 1976 when that happened. I was sent in 1980 to check what this industry was because nobody had a clue.”
Fourmeaux stayed for six months, studying both consumers and winemakers. He quickly realized that the Judgement of Paris wasn’t a fluke—instead, it was a clear sign of a new standard. “I discovered other vineyards and the passion of many people. And when you have that kind of passion, something is going to happen. So I knew something big was happening in the wine country.”
At the same time, California cuisine was also emerging in a way he could not have imagined. “There was Alice Walters, Square One—all these people who were so imaginative and so outside the rules and traditions of what we called California cuisine,” he says. “Put yourself in my shoes, me in San Francisco. It was like being in Paris, but it was unique. I was about 33. There was a perception that only the French had status in France. But, here, there were no traditions, so they could express themselves more, and they could create a culinary revolution. It was a food revolution that the wine was ready to pair with.”
A barrel of VGS’ 2017 Fourmeaux, a Bordeaux blend, fetched $85,250 at the 2019 Auction Napa Valley.
So seduced by what was happening in the wine country and the Bay Area’s burgeoning culinary scene, Fourmeaux became one of the very things on which he was sent to spy: a California winemaker. As he explains it, he was left powerless in the decision. The wine made him do it.
“I first decided to live in Menlo Park,” he says. “We were making a wine at The Hess Collection, which is wine with an art gallery on Mount Veeder.” I wanted to live in the Peninsula because I figured that I really didn’t know Americans and the way they drink wine. So I wanted to live close to an affluent consumer population so that I could learn from them rather than learn here with other winemakers.”
Clearly still leveraging his spy skills, Fourmeaux mingled and drank among his unwitting focus groups, observing Americans’ habits and how their wine culture differed from that of the French.
“Before moving to America.” he says, “I never had a glass of wine without food. In America, I learned a glass of wine could be consumed in the Jacuzzi. This requires a very different wine than the one at the table. I learned things from and for the consumer rather than the producer. These viewpoints shaped a lot of my life in the industry because my approach to the Americans is for the consumer. I am the best consumer winemaker because I am not a winemaker’s winemaker.”
Fourmeaux was doing well selling wine out of The Hess Collection, which he did from the Peninsula for the next four years. In 1986, he made the move to buy land in Alexander Valley in Napa to create his own winery. “It was totally emerging,” he says. “There were 75 wineries at that time. What I decided was not to have a vineyard on the valley floor, but on the mountain. When I see flat land, rich soil, lots of sun, irrigation, I envision strawberry fields, not vineyards. What do you want in a strawberry? Big, red, juicy? Me, I want my fruit to be complex, not to be juicy, to have layers and shadows. I don’t care about juicy; it’s like when we get old, we have wrinkles, but we have complexity.”
Fourmeaux bought an existing winery so he could operate immediately, extending his original purchase to total 65 acres. He named his winery VGS Chateau Potelle in honor of his family’s château in Northern France. “Then I had a visitor at the winery and he asked me, ‘When you’re an official wine-taster, how do you rate wine?’ I had no clue. Finally, after 15 seconds, I said: ‘Good s---, bad s---.’ And he said, ‘This is very good s---.’”
Fourmeaux rejects any ranking system for wines, insisting that everyone has their own taste.
The next morning, Fourmeaux saw three times as many cars in the parking lot. He went to the tasting room and asked what they were all doing there. “They said they heard from the valley it was very good s---.”
And thus the name of Fourmeaux’s most coveted wines was born: VGS.
Today, VGS is sold directly to club members (located in seven countries), and is not available in stores or restaurants. Among his most popular current offerings: 2016 VGS cabernet sauvignon ($125), 2016 VGS zinfandel ($75), 2017 VGS chardonnay ($60) and 2016 VGS syrah ($75). The success of the wines is due entirely to word-of-mouth advertising since they do very little marketing. In fact, Fourmeaux refuses to have his wine scored or ranked in any way. “We don’t belong to that world,” he says. “I believe people have their own tastes.”
His under-the-radar, nothing-to-rate-here approach hasn’t hindered his reputation. In fact, his wine fetched the highest bid and broke a record at this year’s Auction Napa Valley, an event hosted by Napa Valley Vintners to raise money for local charities. His 2017 Fourmeaux sold for $85,250 (or $710 per bottle), a big coup in a valley of viticulture giants. He’s also in the midst of writing a book and is in talks with Netflix to create a documentary film about his philosophies on wine.
Is this finally redemption for the expat once seeking to reclaim his home country’s throne in winemaking? Hardly. He’s over that.
These days, he just wants to make some very good s---.