A visionary is a person with original ideas about what the future will or could be like, a person thinking about or planning the future with imagination or wisdom. It takes courage, confidence and an independent spirit. How does one become a visionary? Perhaps one is born a visionary. Or perhaps it develops from a lifetime of focused experiences and observations to develop the vision.
What is important is that John Alban envisioned new possibilities for viticulture and winemaking in San Luis Obispo County and California over 35 years ago and he brought them to fruition. He looked at the soil, the climate and the sustainability of growing new grape varieties, starting with Viognier, in the Edna Valley. John recognized both the challenges and the potential, noting that the price of the land made it possible to create a profitable business, which was also part of his vision.
John grew up in a family who appreciated wine. His father, Dr. Seymour Alban, introduced wine into their daily life in Southern California, serving it with meals and tasting varietals from all over the world. John and his father began visiting tasting rooms throughout California to learn about the varietals being produced in each region. The focus in California at the time was primarily on Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
John decided to travel to explore other wine regions of the world. He started backpacking in Europe, exploring grape varieties and tasting local wines. This informal education amazed John. He was fascinated by the diversity and long history of winemaking in Europe. Today John continues to seek out new wines to taste wherever he travels. In the early 1980s, he decided to study viticulture and enology at Fresno State University.
John remembers the birthday celebration with his friend Dan Stromberg on May 14, 1985, that changed everything and brought his future into focus. The birthday tradition they shared included presenting wines to one another that neither had experienced. John brought a Pinot Blanc Reserve produced by Chalone Winery in Monterey County and Dan presented a Condrieu from Chateau du Rozay in the Rhone region. John was astonished by the rich, powerful, exotic wine.
Condrieu is a wine appellation in the northern Rhone known for the white wines made exclusively from Viognier. The wines are produced in small quantities in seven parishes: Limony, Chavanay, Malleval, Saint-Michel-sur-Rhone, Saint Pierre-de-Boeuf, Verin and Condrieu. Condrieu vineyards are grown on steep hills and often worked by hand along a nine mile stretch of the Rhone River. There are at least 2,000 years of wine history in these vineyards with topsoils of chalk, flint and mica. The distinctive terroir is influenced by the combination of soils and the dry warm climate. However, there are also strong northerly winds that blow through the Rhone, often creating serious damage to the vines in the state of bloom. The average grape yield is low, resulting in wines that are both rare and expensive to produce.
Viognier with the appellation title AOC Condrieu Selection des Grains Nobles must be produced from grapes harvested in multiple passes down the rows of the vineyard. The date of harvest can begin no earlier than eight days after the standard harvest.
However, just as John was discovering the Viognier wines, the grape was on the verge of extinction. There were only a few hectares planted in Condrieu, but nowhere else in the world. The area was not yet receiving the financial support it needed to survive. The following year, 1986, John applied for a fellowship and set off with his savings and a few credit cards to visit Condrieu to learn everything he could about Viognier. He knocked on every winemaker’s cellar door looking for work and answers to his questions. He was turned away by all the wineries but one – Domaine Pinchon. It was founded by Emile Pinchon with only 1.5 hectares. Emile’s son Jean had joined his father at Domaine Pinchon. He didn’t want to answer questions about Viognier so John closed his notebook and launched into his vision. “Look, I’m going to bet that I know your greatest fear. You think that I’ll go back to California and plant a big vineyard exclusively in Viognier. Just to be upfront with you, that is what I am going to do whether you answer my questions or not. I am going to plant Viognier in California. I am going to try to make Viognier in California. The irony is that that could be the best thing that happens to you. Because no one in the U.S. has ever heard of Condrieu, no one has heard of Viognier. So I figure that one of two things is going to happen. People are going to taste my wines and they are either going to like them or they won’t. If they taste my wine and it’s crummy, they won’t ever bother with it again. But if they do like it, the only way to tell them about the wine they are drinking is to tell them about Condrieu. And if they like it, you know what they’ll buy next? It’s going to be Condrieu. Because that’s what Americans do. I represent an opportunity.”
Jean Pinchon took the risk and invited John into his cellar to learn about Viognier. There is much more to tell but I will do that in the future on our website when I post the Legend of John Alban and Alban Vineyards. John did return with 12 cuttings of Viognier from Condrieu which he propagated into thousands of vines. John was one of five individuals who introduced Viognier into the United States virtually simultaneously and independently of each other. John planted over 30 acres of Viognier at that time; the other four individuals planted a total of about 5 acres combined.
Please join John Alban in an interview with wine writer and historian Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible. He shares his history and vision for San Luis Obispo County. The interview was recorded on August 8, 2022.
*Starring Role in the award-winning documentary film, The Amphora Project – Past Forward – 8,000 Years of Winemaking in Clay Vessels, released by the Wine History Project in December 2022.