Wine Consumer


America's Oldest Winemaking Family

WineConsumer, Kenneth Young

It was 1854 when Pierre Pellier arrived in San Jose from La Rochelle on France's Atlantic coast just north of Bordeaux. Pierre had a vineyard and made wine in the Evergreen district of Santa Clara beginning in the late1850s. When his son died in1874, Pierre taught the winery business to his daughter Henriette who married French immigrant Pierre Mirassou in 1880. Thus began the legacy of the Mirassous, "America's oldest winemaking family."

Over the past century and a half, five generations Mirassous have been instrumental in the growth and development of the California wine industry. Steven Kent Mirassou, Jr. is the sixth generation to continue the family winemaking tradition. Steven Kent Winery is named in honor of Steve's father who, although officially "retired", still provides consultation on blending and viticulture issues.

Steven Kent Vineyards was started in 1996 as a single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon program that was an offshoot of Ivan Tamas Winery founded by Steven Mirassou and Ivan Tamas Fuezy in 1984. Wente Vineyards bought out Mirassou's portion of Ivan Tamas in 2001 and changed the name to Tamas Estates. The Mirassou's then became sole owners of Steven Kent Vineyards.

"Our mission at Steven Kent has always been to make Cabernet Sauvignon from Livermore that is the equal in quality to any other Cabernet in the world," states Steven. "I think we have done a good job so far, but we have a lot left to prove.

Steven Kent produces about 7,000 cases annually, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2002 vintage is blended with a little Petit Verdot to produce darker color and more tannin. This wine is a perfect demonstration of how well the two varieties work together. Intense aromas of black plum and cassis fruit are underpinned by a layer of non-fruit aromatics in the nose. In the mouth, this wine is replete with layers of raspberry, blackberry, chocolate and creamy oak. Fine-grained tannins appear in the mid-palate and persist on the long finish.

Merrillie is Steven Kent's proprietary Chardonnay. Named for Steven's grandmother, the wine is barrel fermented in 100% new French oak and aged on the lees for 20 months. Rich and complex with loads of creamy fruit, butterscotch notes and balanced acidity, the 2003 vintage is a beautiful expression of great Chardonnay.

Most Steven Kent wines are sold through the tasting room or the two wine clubs. Collector's Circle members only are able to purchase four different wines made just for the club. Since only 175 cases of each wine are made, the Collector's Circle club is limited to 500 members. Future Release Program members are able to buy newly released wines at a discount before they are available to the general public.

In January of 2005, Steven Mirassou, Sr.'s cousins Daniel and Peter Mirassou contacted the father and son to see if they would be interested in acquiring the La Rochelle brand. La Rochelle wines were made by Daniel and Peter in the old family winery in San Jose. "The reason the brand was called La Rochelle was that the family sold the Mirassou label to Gallo a few years ago." Steve explained.

"The La Rochelle focus is a Burgundian one since the family vineyards are in Monterey County where we grow beautiful Pinot Noir and Chardonnay," Steve said. "La Rochelle is a tasting room and wine club brand currently offering six distinct single vineyard Pinot Noir wines.

"I found this to be an exciting proposition especially when contrasted with Steven Kent which is a Bordeaux house," Steve continued. "Acquiring La Rochelle brings a Burgundian brand to Livermore alongside our Bordeaux brand. This creates a whole new orientation for the Livermore Valley wine lovers as far as varietals are concerned."

La Rochelle moved out of San Jose and onto the Steven Kent property just in time for Harvest Festival in 2005. Tamas Estates is moving to a new tasting room on the Wente property and La Rochelle is taking over that site adjacent to Steve Kent.

The Mirassou mission of making world class wines in Livermore applies to La Rochelle as well as Steven Kent. "We now have the opportunity to work with some of the great vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands and Monterey that have been producing great Pinot Noir fruit for decades," Steve relates. La Rochelle winemaker Tom Stutz stayed on as consulting winemaker in Livermore. "We wanted to maintain consistency in style but now Tom is able to make wines using world-class equipment and the best available cooperage," Steve said.

La Rochelle wines are available the tasting room adjacent to Steven Kent, and through a monthly wine club. Club La Rochelle offers two bottles of 12 different wines throughout the year. "We will have release parties for each wine and members will be invited to come taste the wines paired with food," Steve says. "We will have six different vineyard designated Pinots; one from Oregon, one from Anderson Valley, and four from Monterey County." La Rochelle will also offer a Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Zinfandel, Merlot and Petit Sirah.

The acquisition of La Rochelle is personally fulfilling and gratifying to Steve. "When I worked at Mirassou as a child, I can remember feeling a strong connection to the family history," Steve said. "Even when I was working with my father and Ivan Fuezy, I had the hope of trying to get the Mirassou brand back at some point in time. While I can't get the brand back from Gallo, acquiring La Rochelle allows me to make wines again from the family vineyards in Monterey County."