How Mondavi's French Venture Went Sour

David Pearson loves wine and France. The San Diego native studied oenology at the University of California and spent a year after graduation working as an intern on French wine estates. So when Robert Mondavi Corp. (MOND ) asked him in 1998 to head up its Vichon Mediterranean subsidiary, the fresh-faced, French-speaking, 39-year-old Pearson crossed the Atlantic and settled in Southern France. In a hard-pressed region best known for producing oceans of cheap wine, he was confident that New World money and technology could produce superb bottles selling for $60 or more.

But this August, the energetic American packed up his belongings and returned to California. An unlikely coalition of local farmers, ecologists, hunters, and communists had painted him as a capitalist plotter and succeeded in killing his ambitious $7.5 million plan to acquire 120 acres of prime grape-growing land on an untamed Mediterranean hillside. "I felt like the Cuban boy Elián González, who became a symbol, in a weird, deformed way, of the clash between two worlds," Pearson laments.

Pearson spent his first two years conducting geological surveys to locate top-quality wine real estate. He needed a large tract to produce 260,000 bottles a year, the minimum number that made economic sense for a giant such as Mondavi. He finally settled on a swath of hillside above the 2,000-person village of Aniane, about 15 miles northwest of the regional center of Montpellier. "We saw David and Mondavi as the people who could help us survive the crisis," says Jacques Bonnier, director of the local winegrowers' co-op. In July, 2000, Aniane's town council voted to give Mondavi a 99-year lease.

A violent backlash ensued. Hunters worried that planting vineyards would frighten away wild boar. Environmentalists railed against razing a forest. Pearson sipped pastis with the locals, reassuring them that the company intended to plant small "islands" of vines and leave much of the natural scrubland untouched. Hunters, he promised, still could roam the hillside during autumn.

But the American couldn't shake off one far-reaching charge--that the invading Anglo-Saxons would destroy the village's social cohesion and deform traditional winemaking methods, imposing an alien, money-grubbing industrial model. Leading this crusade was Aimé Guibert, a former businessman whose glove factory had been driven into bankruptcy by Asian competition and whose Mas de Daumas Gassac vineyard produces an internationally renowned red. The 76-year-old Guibert eschews pesticides, harvests his grapes by hand, and traces the origins of his vines back to Palestine at the time of Jesus Christ. "The Mondavis will end up destroying our traditional artisans who make wine, just like McDonald's is destroying French gastronomy," Guibert thunders.

"NO POINT." In March municipal elections, Aniane's voters threw out the town council and elected as mayor an anti-Mondavi communist, Manuel Diaz. Diaz denounced Mondavi as a menacing multinational similar to Marks & Spencer, which was throwing thousands of French workers out of jobs in order to invest more in its British stores. "When we heard what he was saying, we knew there was no point in staying," Pearson says. In May, Mondavi canceled the vineyard project and is preparing to sell its Vichon brand.

Back in Aniane, winegrowers are suffering. Almost 15% of last year's harvest remains unsold. Mayors of 30 other French villages have written Mondavi seeking investment. But it's too late. "For now, we've decided it is too difficult to make wine in France," Pearson says. In September, he becomes managing director of another Mondavi winery near Santa Barbara. The francophile American says he'll miss Southern French cooking--but the wine certainly has left a bad taste in his mouth.

By William Echikson in Aniane, France

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