Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Building of a Dynasty

I was in a rush that day, hurrying from work to a wine company dinner, tasting as many bottlings as I could before scooting home to read bedtime books with my daughters. Parking in front of a McDonald’s, on a dirty urban street in one of the few rough neighborhoods of San Francisco, I hurried down the windy sidewalk and into an unlikely wine-tasting venue: Yoshi’s, a Japanese restaurant and jazz club.

In a private room, Robert Skalli and his son David waited with their local publicity people. They’d already opened a number of bottles from the new Robert Skalli line of French wines aimed at the international market—eschewing the conventional French labeling regime, in other words, Skalli offers a “South of France Pinot Noir” and a “South of France Chardonnay.” Because “South of France” is not an official French winemaking region, Skalli has enormous latitude, including the freedom to bottle and label wines in the new-world varietal-focused way. He has even been converting old vineyard properties to this sort of modernized production—all while he acquires and preserves more traditional winemaking properties, like one in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

But every person has a story; every gathering of humans has something curious hidden somewhere, behind somebody’s eyes. In this case, it came in answer to the simple question of how the Skalli family got into wine. I was talking to David Skalli when I asked this; David is a nice-looking Frenchman with dark hair and eyes and olive skin and the conventional outgoing charm of a successful financier, which he is. In fact, David doesn’t work for the family wineries; he runs his own mergers and acquisitions consulting group, helping with the purchase and sale of wine and spirits companies. But his answer began with one of those statements that no American can ever give you:

Well, you see, our name is really Cohen-Skalli, and the Cohenim were originally based in Andalusia, in the 15th century, but my family had to flee the Inquisition—we are Jewish—in 1490. So we moved to Sicily. That’s what Skalli is: It’s an old way of saying Sicily. So, really, we are the Cohenim of Sicily. But we only stayed there two generations and then moved in maybe 1530 or so to Morocco, because it was a Spanish-speaking colony at the time and we helped with other Sephardic families to develop trade between the Arabic and Christian worlds. We were mostly trading wheat in the 1800s when the French colonized Algeria in a war, and so we moved to Algeria and began trading wheat and wine to the French.

I want you to picture the room, though it will not add to David’s story: bland upscale corporate, with nervous wine-industry trade-mag editors and writers, the Skallis dressed like the international businessmen they are, the wines solid and accomplished, waiters bustling around. Dirty street outside, Japanese-food smells occasionally wafting in from the kitchen, the floor carpeted. But here’s why I want you to picture it: When we think thoughts like “Wine is a business,” we don’t often get positive feelings. That room expressed everything negative we feel instead, and yet David’s story rescued it for me. David’s story, which I’ll let him finish in a moment, reminded me of the ancient and very human aspect of the international wine trade, of the degree to which business is the business of mankind.

‘The French allowed Jews to own property in Algeria,’ David told me, ‘so by the end of the 19th century we owned property, and then, in the early 20th century, a French law allowed Algerian Jews to become French citizens. So we did. My great-grandfather also started vineyards in Algeria, along the border with Tunisia. And we also began selling wheat to the biggest pasta and cereals maker in France. In the 1950s, when they could not pay off their accounts, they gave us a share in the company. Then, in the 1960s, during the terrible wars between the Arabs and the Israelis, we left Algeria and bought vineyards in Corsica and Languedoc and eventually in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. By the 1980s we owned the pasta company 100 percent. Then, four years ago, a private equity group bought it from us, at a price we could not refuse.’

My own family history has nothing like this, and I found it impressive: the continuity, the will to survive and succeed, the building of a dynasty. The wine? Well, clearly it is something the Cohens of Sicily have traded in, back and forth across the Mediterranean, for a very long time.

Here is the bottle I liked the most:

2005 Maison Bouachon Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Grapes: 60 percent Grenache, 30 percent Syrah, 7 percent Mourvèdre, 3 percent other CDP varietals (like Counoise, Terret Noir, Muscardin, and Vaccarèse)
Aging: Their literature says this wine was aged in French oak barrels and in big casks for 12 months prior to blending, with an additional few months in bottle. They don’t get more specific.
Alcohol: 14 percent
Price: I couldn’t find a retail price for the 2005; the 2003 is $32.76 at WineZap.com
My Tasting Notes: I like the weird old-world eccentricity of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, and this one had a kind of truffle-tobacco-herbal aspect that I found interesting and pleasing.

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