Legendary Winemaker Jean-Charles Boisset Shares His Magic World

Jean-Charles Boisset

Jean-Charles Boisset is an international vintner, entrepreneur, and risk-taker. A man of endless curiosity and imagination with piercing blue eyes, he is an alchemist to the senses. For the past few decades, Boisset has been a passionate leader in the world of wine—both in France and the United States—but recently Boisset has set some incredible expectations for himself. Those goals include changing the way people engage in the world through their senses. With the use of scents, textures, games, and even a pendulum, his hot-off-the-presses book, The Alchemy of the Senses (Chronicle 2018), plans to shake up the wine, literary, and design worlds.

One of his great dreams was to create a book that illuminated his esoteric views of the world and captured them on paper. This dream is now a reality, and as with everything that Boisset does, it is a stunning masterpiece of poetry in motion. While most coffee table books use words to elucidate their readers, Boisset employs most of the senses in the pages of the book to transport the reader to a new place of understanding.

When asked about 2019 he shares that this is the year of the senses. “I want to challenge people to explore each of their five senses as well as discover their sixth sense of intuition and connection.” Along with his epic coffee table book, Boisset is launching an impressive list of other delights that invite one to experience life through the senses. But before we look forward, let us turn back to better understand this charming Frenchman who has dramatically influenced California’s winemaking community.

Boisset and his new book

In the Beginning

Boisset was born in Burgundy; he and his older sister Nathalie were raised in vineyards of the ancient city of Vougeot, France. Their parents, Jean-Claude and Claudine Boisset, were the children of schoolteachers and in 1961, at the age of 18 began their family journey in the wine world. “The most cherished souvenirs from my childhood are the memories of planting grape vines with my grandparents,” Boisset reminisces. “At five years old, I would be in the fields, holding tight to the twine that would lay the foundation for the rows of grapes. My grandfather would slowly let out the ball of twine, while my grandmother used her pendulum to line up the rows to perfection. I would walk backward, taking directions from my grandfather, ‘A bit to the left, more to the right, stop!’ Then, the lines were set, batons were staked into the ground to hold the twine, and planting of the vines began. While digging into the moist earth, I would be energized by finding fossils. My grandfather would give me impromptu science lessons about how the ocean once covered this land. Through his stories, I would be transported a million years back in time when the prehistoric fish, plants, and other living creatures existed. We are thankful for all the many life forms that are now buried deep beneath our land that create this rich, nourishing soil where we plant the vines.”

John Legend and Boisset

Honoring the Elements

Joining his parents and grandparents in the world of wine at such a young age—from the soil to the vines, the cellars to the wines—had a profound impact on Boisset. A sense of place grounded his view of the world. His playground was the open fields, the walled vineyards of Vougeot, and the tiny yet influential River La Vouge. The surrounding terroir was his inspiration; a living classroom where he learned about nature, ethics, values, heritage, history, and most of all, respect. “Our family’s philosophy has always been to abide by the rhythms of nature and follow her lead in the vineyards,” Boisset says. “We are children of Mother Nature and connected to her seasons. Through our experience, we elected to become much closer to the soil, to pay deep attention to it, to follow the lunar calendar, and to listen to nature and make it our guiding principle.”

His family used nature to treat nature–a biodynamic approach of composting, chemical-free remedies, and loving attention to the land that enabled the vineyards to respond—seemingly to reciprocate—and to thrive. This philosophy creates exceptional wines precisely because it cultivates the grapes’ remarkable ability to express a sense of place or what winemakers call terroir. “What if we could capture the style and hold it in a bottle, with all its heritage and promise?” Boisset wonders. “This is not a dream. This is what we live and experience. It feeds our passion and is the source of our energy.”

Buena Vista Winery

Coming to America

In 1981, when Boisset was 11 and his sister was 14, their grandparents took them on a journey to California. “We found ourselves discovering the spirit of the gold rush in Monterey, San Francisco, and Sonoma. When in the Sonoma Square, my grandparents noticed a signpost pointing to a nearby winery founded in 1857. It was so intriguing that we had to go on an adventure and visit this significant destination. It was Buena Vista Winery,” he says. “I’ll remember forever discovering the oldest stones of the California wine world—a grand winery estate. My grandparents allowed us tastes of those incredible Chardonnays, and I was transfixed–such pure, elegant, and tropical notes that we did not know in Burgundy! I recall the moment I declared to my sister, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to make wine in California one day?’”

JCB Tasting Room in Yountville

His First Love Affair

Boisset’s childhood trip to California was the beginning of his love affair with America and his intercontinental state of mind. “When I was a young boy living in France, I would fantasize about the American way of life. I imagined it was amazing, filled with discoveries and endless opportunities,” he says. As the years passed, and Boisset completed his French military service and graduate studies, he always remembered that pivotal moment with his grandparents tasting an extraordinary California Chardonnay. Soon he was entrusted to oversee the American Boisset distribution office and relocated to San Francisco. “I landed on the ripe, fertile soil of Napa Valley and the reality exceeded my expectations! Indeed, America allows you to dream. The power of America is this melting pot of religions, colors, and everything else that creates an amazing dynamic. Anything is possible here! I experienced a profound cultural shift. I took advantage of the wonderful gift of freedom and adventure, and I haven’t stopped yet.”

At the time, the Boissets didn’t own any wineries in California. But that was to change soon. In the late 1990s, Boisset purchased his first American winery, Lyeth Estates. This was followed by the Domaine de la Vougeraie, DeLoach Vineyards, and Raymond Vineyards. In 2011, he acquired the winery whose old stones had captured his imagination and whose wine sparked his fantasies—Buena Vista. He has since merged French winemaking techniques with an American spirit of innovation to create exceptional award-winning wines.

Building His Legacy

He set out to restore and revive Buena Vista in a way that paid homage to the rich history of the region and the winery itself. The Buena Vista of today is one its founder would still recognize. Boisset wanted Buena Vista to be a monument to America and a tribute to the first premium winery in California. It has the first wine caves and the first gravity-flow winery; it is the first grand estate planted with premium viniferous vines and the first to produce Champagne method sparkling wine. Buena Vista was the birthplace of all that would happen in the California wine world—and Boisset has harnessed this historical legacy. Today, his family owns over 25 wineries across the globe. Boisset’s dedication to fine wine and sustainable growing practices are legendary, as is his passion to see and experience wine—and life—in a multitude of ways. His all-encompassing vision explodes the compartmentalized way we usually perceive the world and his ventures are expanding from wine to a variety of products that scintillate the five senses.

Alchemy of Senses

There is no question that 100 years from now lively discussions about Jean-Charles Boisset will fill the air at dinner parties around the globe. But what will be discussed? Will Boisset be the topic of fine wines, and his predictions about cutting-edge biodynamic farming, or will the conversations dive deeper into how he shifted the paradigm of the senses and our view of the world? Most bets will be on the latter. Here is a breakdown of Boisset’s views on the senses.

Taste

The sense of taste is the most personal. It is this singularity of experience that gives each person his or her proclivities for flavor. Boisset understands that and proclaims, echoing his favorite philosopher of food–Brillat Savarin–“Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are.” As bold as that statement is, the truth that governs it is universal. What does one reach for–a piece of greasy fried chicken or a plate of fresh fruit?

Just recently Boisset purchased the Oakville Grocery. Founded in 1881, it is the oldest grocer in California. He plans to incorporate only the finest and freshest products available, and of course, they will be organic, biodynamic, and support the local farmers and winemakers to the fullest extent possible. “I want to showcase the remarkable agricultural abundance this valley and Northern California has to offer. This is a destination that offers the best of the West Coast and has a strong sense of community.” The meaning of food has always been of central importance to him and his family, and they are excited by the new edible adventure ahead.

Smell

Boisset prides himself on working with only the best, and this is evident in his line of scents that he created with the famed French perfumer Olivia Giacobetti. Much like winemaking, the nose plays an integral roll in the perfect combination for perfume. So, along with the popular line of JCB candles, Boisset has created a new series of fragrances that exemplify his passions.

The aromas capture the sensuality of the cellar, white oak, rootstock, and the scent of grapes. Because smell is so connected to emotions, Boisset wanted to ensure that the perfumes were subliminal, ethereal, and elegant. He wanted to capture that scent of a fleeting yet powerfully intimate moment with all of its delicate nuances and memories. Along with the fragrances, Boisset designed the bottle, including a limited-edition crystal bottle made by Baccarat, as well as the perfume box.

Touch

The vessel that touches one’s lips when drinking wine is an important part of the tasting experience. Imagine the difference in perception between drinking the 100-point 2015 Surrealist by JCB red wine in a squishy Styrofoam cup versus the crisp edge of a Baccarat glass. Regardless of the magical elixir, the first thing one experiences are the touch of the vessel to one’s mouth—which will inevitably affect the rest of the tasting. Boisset is keenly aware of this, and he has worked with Baccarat to realize his dream and create his line of glassware and decanter, which will launch in the spring of 2019.

“Wine is the catalyst for our creativity and our creations. It is thanks to wine that we dream and that we experience the world with the emotion and passion that connects,” he says. “Therefore, it is only natural that we created our ultimate dream glass with Baccarat to experience the wines we produce in the luxury and purity of crystal in a glass with the perfect proportion, weight, and balance with a delicate and refined shape perfect for red and white wines. It is our Passion Collection and the only wine glass you’ll desire to use.”

John Legend and Boisset

Sound

The most engaging of all the senses is sound. Unlike taste, which is only experienced in the mouth, sound is experienced throughout space and with others. Because we can share the experience, music is the perfect conduit to raise vibrations and create a sense of togetherness simultaneously. One of the fascinating effects of music is its ability to create a powerful and mutual connection in a room, such as at a concert or the symphony.

Boisset has worked closely with John Legend to create a collection of wines called LVE–Legend Vineyard Exclusive, as well as events that capture this harmonious state of wine and music, and in doing so, they have raised millions for charity. One of the organizations they have supported is Auction Napa Valley, which raises money for children’s education and community health. And, last year with the devastating fires in Sonoma and Napa, Boisset and Legend hosted a private event at Boisset’s home that was offered at the Napa Sonoma relief auction, and the funds went to support North Bay fire relief efforts.

The JCB Tasting Room in Healdsburg

Sight

Walking into a dramatic color-saturated space designed by Boisset is a visceral experience. Expect to gasp with amazement and transform into a curious child who wants to touch and play with everything in sight. He has mastered the art of feeding the eyes with beauty and objects of desire. The environments he creates flood guests with an overwhelming sense of opulence and visual stimulation. The best way to experience the many wonderful spaces Boisset has created—including the Red Room at Raymond Vineyards and the JCB Lounge at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco—is to sit down and rest the body while letting sight devour the endless treats offered in each unique and decadent venue. 

Sixth Sense

While the rest of us mortals are content with living in the realm of the five senses, Boisset has made it his 2019 mission to explore the sixth sense with clarity and purpose. He does this with the use of a pendulum, which he has also included in The Alchemy of the Senses. “I use my pendulum to channel energy, connect with the unseen forces of the earth and cosmos that guide us through our subconscious. I also use it to confirm my intuitions and seek meaning. Think of the pendulum as an extension of your wisdom—consciously and unconsciously. That powerful connection allows you to assert and affirm the energy of thought and intention. The pendulum can create a true connection between your heart, your mind, your body and a sense of place.”

So, in 2019, perhaps we should take Boisset’s lead and live our lives fully engaged with all our surroundings. Let us honor each sense for its powerful role in helping to shape our perception of reality. Knowing that, just like Boisset, we can harness the force of our senses and create a magnificent new year.

Photos by Alex Rubin & Eric Ryan Anderson

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