Vinicultural Envoy

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Last May, David Pearson was in big trouble. An unlikely coalition of hunters and communists was parading through the narrow streets of Aniane, a village in the Languedoc region of southwest France, baying for his blood. Shadowy forces were spreading misinformation to trash the project Pearson had spent the previous two years putting together. Some seven months later, he recalled, "I told headquarters that in the worst-case scenario, this could end up like Elian Gonzalez."

Pearson's project--and the cause of an almighty ruckus in Aniane--was his search for, and acquisition of, some 120 acres of high-quality French grape-growing soil where California wine giant Robert Mondavi could produce its own high-quality French vintages. For Pearson, Mondavi's general manager in France, that turned out to be no easy task in a country where winemaking is an ancestral tradition and anti-Americanism something of a national sport.

Yet ultimately Pearson triumphed; having won local council approval, his Aniane vineyard awaits the green light from national authorities. Today Mondavi's man in southern France can sip pastis with the hunters who were among his staunchest opponents, fearing that Mondavi would destroy the habitat of their favorite prey, the wild boar. It's a tribute to the 38-year-old's soft-spoken perseverance. "If he were an Indian, he'd be called Crafty Fox," says local winemaker Pierre Clavel with a smile.

Pearson was raised in San Diego, where his father was a doctor and his mother a committed environmentalist. Pearson discovered his vocation while hiking around Europe after high school. He spent a year in France as a wine-business intern after graduating in 1984 from the University of Southern California at Davis with a degree in oenology. Then he moved to the East Coast and a job in a research lab. Before long he was hankering for the wine trade again. He studied for an M.B.A., then joined Hublein to manage imports of Baron Philippe de Rothschild's wines to the U.S. Then the phone rang, with an offer to work on Mondavi's Languedoc project.

The giant of Napa Valley focused on the South of France in the early '90s, when a mutant strain of phylloxera grub was eating its way through California's vineyards. Mondavi looked abroad to satisfy U.S. consumer demand for wine, which was increasing 30% each year. The company found what it was looking for in the Languedoc, where grape growers were starting to market single-variety wines. The Languedoc was also a region that was abandoning bulk production in favor of high-quality winemaking. "If you look at the climate and the soils here, you've got every element you need to make world-class wine," says Pearson.

When he arrived with his family in January 1998, his mission was simple: scout the region and find a single 120-acre plot where Mondavi could produce 240,000 bottles of top-quality wine each year. After two years of road trips, wine tasting and geological surveying, he settled on a patch of scrub-covered hillside on the Massif de l'Arboussas, above the village of Aniane, about 15 miles northwest of the regional center of Montpellier. There was just one problem: the land belonged to the village. "French people wouldn't even think about doing something on common land," Pearson says. "But we went ahead and asked."

Aniane's town council liked the idea and in the end gave Mondavi a 99-year lease on the land in return for promises of close relations with the local winemaking cooperative. But before then all hell had broken loose. When the deal was announced last May, wild rumors began to circulate: Mondavi was set to occupy about 740 acres of land, build an industrial winery and buy up all the best grapes in the region. Local vintners would be driven into bankruptcy, and hunters would be barred from traditional hunting grounds. Local communists organized demonstrations and denounced globalization and the spread of multinationals. "If I were from Aniane and I'd heard that stuff, I'd have been against the project myself," says Pearson, who spent the next nine months explaining what Mondavi's plan really involved and winning over the locals. "A year ago, I would never have thought he'd be able to get on with everyone as well as he does," says Aniane's mayor, Andre Ruiz.

If all goes well, ground clearance should begin this summer for a first harvest in 2006. Pearson will be in charge of cultivation and the production of wines under the current working title La Vallee de la Valcrose. Vines will be planted in 12-acre islands, surrounded by existing natural forest of green oaks and strawberry trees. Pearson insists that the new Languedoc label will succeed only if it's perceived as a genuinely French product. So as the Pearsons settle in for a lengthy stay, they are a study in cultural integration. They've bought a house in a village north of Montpellier, where the barber asks Pearson how the vineyard is doing as he cuts his hair. So far, he can say, "Ca va bien."