The James Bond of Bur­gundy

Wine­maker Jean-Charles Bois­set has stealth­ily built a $450 mil­lion oeno­log­i­cal em­pire in France and Cal­i­for­nia one strug­gling vine­yard at a time— and un­corked a las­civ­i­ous se­cret-agent per­sona.

Forbes - - CONTENTS - By Chloe Sorvino

Jean-Charles Bois­set has built a $450 mil­lion oeno­log­i­cal em­pire—and un­corked a las­civ­i­ous se­cret-agent per­sona.

JJean-Charles Bois­set qui­ets a long table of 50-plus guests in New York’s Meat­pack­ing District as gold mag­nums of Cham­pagne clink in the back­ground. It’s a Last Sup­per– in­spired meal for the French-born wine­maker, part of his mul­ti­c­ity tour to pro­mote a $395 cof­fee table book called The Alchemy of the Senses.

As saumon à l’os­eille ar­rives with a rich pinot noir, Bois­set be­gins to ex­plain his se­lec­tion, an un­usual blend of grapes from Bur­gundy and Cal­i­for­nia called JCB No. 3.

Af­ter in­hal­ing deeply from a par­tic­u­larly wide crys­tal goblet that’s part of his new col­lab­o­ra­tion with Bac­carat, Bois­set ad­mits that this din

ner has caused him to miss the ten-year an­niver­sary of his mar­riage to Gina Gallo, the third-gen­er­a­tion face of the fam­ily be­hind the world’s largest wine producer by vol­ume, E. & J. Gallo. Dur­ing their en­gage­ment, they made a wine of the same ori­gins to­gether—blend­ing, bot­tling and cork­ing by hand—and then served it at their wed­ding as a sym­bol of her his­toric Cal­i­for­nia roots be­com­ing in­ter­twined with his fam­ily’s own Bur­gun­dian her­itage.

“Half of it is made in Bur­gundy, so that’s 49% of the blend,” Bois­set says in a thick French ac­cent be­fore paus­ing dra­mat­i­cally. “I need to con­fess. I will tell you some­thing very per­sonal. My love likes to be on top. So 51% is Cal­i­for­nia.”

Sex is clearly the theme of this Bois­set soirée, where the in­nu­endo-filled jokes flow as freely as the wine. Leop­ard-print silk nap­kins sit on a red vel­vet table­cloth, and a mir­ror has re­placed the ceil­ing (“Ladies, be care­ful, be­cause I can see every­thing!”). Dates never sit to­gether, and Bois­set en­cour­ages touch­ing (“You could still ca­ress the per­son next to you. I see a lot of that is al­ready hap­pen­ing, which I’m de­lighted to see!”).

The 50-year-old Bois­set is blithely obliv­i­ous to the #MeToo era, and his guests seem to ap­pre­ci­ate the sin­gle en­ten­dres. A few months ear­lier, Rob McMil­lan, founder of Sil­i­con Val­ley Bank’s wine divi­sion, de­scribed Bois­set as “the wine equiv­a­lent to Rin­gling Brothers—he’s an en­ter­tainer with flair and flash. He’s also a great busi­nessper­son‚ able to take a tar­nished penny and shine it up.”

Along with his older sis­ter, Nathalie, Bois­set pre­sides over close to 30 winer­ies world­wide, in­clud­ing a good por­tion of Bur­gundy’s vine­yards. An­nual sales are about $200 mil­lion; Forbes con­ser­va­tively es­ti­mates the com­pany to be worth some $450 mil­lion. If the col­lec­tion were di­vided up at auc­tion, many as­sets would likely sell for more than as part of the pack­age. “Buy­ers are look­ing for a tro­phy pur­chase,” says Michael Baynes, ex­ec­u­tive part­ner at Vine­yards-Bordeaux Christie’s In­ter­na­tional Real Es­tate. “There’s a lack of sup­ply. The Bois­set Col­lec­tion would get a very premium price.”

Back at Bois­set’s Last Sup­per, he in­tro­duces JCB No. 81, a chardon­nay in­spired by the mo­ment in 1981 when he first be­came fix­ated on Cal­i­for­nia wines. As the story goes, it was dur­ing a trip to Sonoma with his grand­par­ents when he was 11 years old. Af­ter vis­it­ing Buena Vista win­ery, founded in 1857, Bois­set turned to his sis­ter and proph­e­sied, “One day we will make wine to­gether in Cal­i­for­nia.”

Nearly a decade later, Bois­set’s par­ents ac­quired a patch­work of prop­er­ties through­out some of the most valu­able parts of Bur­gundy through a com­bi­na­tion of lo­cal bank loans and sheer luck. Be­cause it was so hard to com­bine parcels, few oth­ers even tried.

He brought that mav­er­ick phi­los­o­phy to Amer­ica. In 1991, Bois­set started lead­ing the fam­ily im­port busi­ness in San Fran­cisco and search­ing for fam­ily-owned winer­ies with his­tory to ac­quire. Buena Vista, af­ter re­treat­ing from na­tional dis­tri­bu­tion, looked promis­ing, but the own­ers re­buked Bois­set’s of­fer. “It was very in­no­va­tive at the time, very icon­o­clast[ic] from a strat­egy stand­point. No one looked at Cal­i­for­nia

the way we looked at it,” he says.

He closed on DeLoach Vine­yards in Sonoma instead in 2003. Bois­set then be­gan spend­ing more time in Cal­i­for­nia as DeLoach tran­si­tioned to bio­dy­namic farm­ing based on the lu­nar cy­cle. In 2007 he ac­quired the 300-acre es­tate of Ray­mond Vine­yards in St. He­lena. Bois­set fi­nally se­cured Buena Vista in 2011, af­ter try­ing at least four times.

Af­ter an ac­qui­si­tion, Bois­set has three main strate­gies: First, ev­ery vine­yard tran­si­tions to or­ganic farm­ing. Next, he in­creases the price of the wines, usu­ally around 30% to 40%. (In the case of Ray­mond, the re­tail value of several bot­tles more than dou­bled to $45 each.) Fi­nally, the wines are mar­keted with the rest of the col­lec­tion to more than 600 part­ners world­wide. Buena Vista, DeLoach and Ray­mond, for ex­am­ple, are now sold in more than 20 coun­tries each. Be­cause Bois­set’s wines range from $15 to $2,600, this sys­tem stream­lines the buy­ing process for dis­trib­u­tors who can mix and match for dif­fer­ent ac­counts.

“In Europe, if you come from Bur­gundy, you’re on the up­per scale,” Bois­set says. “But it’s too much strat­i­fi­ca­tion of so­ci­ety, per­ceived value and his­tory based on her­itage rather than who you are. In the U.S. you could come from wher­ever, who­ever, what­ever. It’s about you. That’s what I re­ally value. That’s what al­lowed me to be­come who I am.”

That in­cludes his not-so-se­cret iden­tity, Agent 69, an er­satz James Bond who bran­dishes swords and res­cues women—and wine—at lav­ish par­ties and in several very campy videos. It’s some­times dif­fi­cult to tell where the se­ri­ous wine­maker ends and the louche al­ter ego be­gins. At Ray­mond’s tast­ing room, vis­i­tors on tours are ush­ered past in­dus­trial tanks and man­nequins hang­ing up­side-down on fuzzy red swings, wear­ing sheer bras and leop­ard-print leg­gings.

Bois­set has also com­modi­tized his hy­per­ac­tive libido. With Swarovski, JCB pro­duces lines of jew­elry, one of which, Con­fes­sion, fea­tures hand­cuffs. There’s also a red wine called Re­strained. The bot­tle is fas­tened with a leather bondage har­ness and O-ring.

Bois­set’s busi­ness part­ners say they’re not put off. “He doesn’t hide who he is,” says Dina Opici, pres­i­dent of her fam­ily’s New Jer­sey–based wine­and-spir­its dis­tri­bu­tion com­pany, who has known Bois­set for 15 years. “It is re­ally gen­uine. He’s wellinten­tioned.”

With 10 winer­ies in the U.S. and a grow­ing pri­vate-la­bel busi­ness, Bois­set must now con­tend with an over­crowded wine mar­ket amid fast­grow­ing cat­e­gories such as hard seltzer and le­gal­ized cannabis. Last year, Amer­i­cans’ wine con­sump­tion de­clined for the first time in 25 years, ac­cord­ing to trade group IWSR.

But op­por­tu­ni­ties beyond winer­ies abound. Last year was par­tic­u­larly busy: Bois­set ac­quired the nearly 140-year-old Oakville Gro­cery and founded Napa’s first wine-his­tory mu­seum. He also opened a strip mall called JCB Vil­lage in Yountville that fea­tures a tast­ing room, a day spa and a boutique that sells JCB la­bel can­dles and dress socks along with Bac­carat de­canters in­spired by Bois­set’s own col­lec­tion, which is the largest in the world. Amid de­clin­ing Napa tourism, he has opened lounges out­side the val­ley at the Ritz-Carl­ton in San Fran­cisco, Ghi­rardelli Square’s Wat­tle Creek and the Rose­wood Ho­tel in Palo Alto.

Bois­set in­sists his lux­ury em­pire will con­tinue to take years to build—and will with­stand threats, be they wine tar­iffs, cli­mate change or com­peti­tors. “You don’t build a lux­ury busi­ness in five min­utes,” he says. “Be­sides LVMH and Pernod Ri­card, two mon­sters, no one has had our jour­ney. The Amer­i­can way of life drove me here.”

FI­NAL THOUGHT “A BOT­TLE OF WINE CON­TAINS MORE PHI­LOS­O­PHY THAN ALL THE BOOKS IN THE WORLD.” —Louis Pas­teur

Jean-Charles Bois­set, in the Ray­mond Vine­yards’ Red Room, has a boutique that sells jew­elry and a bob­ble­head of him­self that sings.

The el­e­gant tast­ing rooms at two of Bois­set’s vine­yards, Buena Vista (left) and Yountville

Bois­set has a long­stand­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion with Swarovski— the col­lec­tion in­cludes a brooch of his wife Gina Gallo’s lips. Crys­tal Clear

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