February 6, 2007

Paul Masson

And the man behind the brand is...
Paul Masson

In 1878 a Phylloxera plague attacked European vineyards, decimating the grape harvests. All cures were ineffective. The remedy was in America where the toughness of the root-bark of wild vines withstood parasitic infestations.

19-year old Paul Masson, from the Burgundy wine-growing region of France, staked his future on California. Many of his countrymen were already there. After a drought in 1863 many California cattle ranges were planted in grape vines. Masson reasoned he could get part-time work and finish his education.

Which is exactly what happened. He joined the vineyard of Charles LeFranc who, with two daughters and no sons, no doubt welcomed a husky, broad-shouldered man bred of vintners. Masson enrolled in nearby Santa Clara College.

By the 1880s California was on the verge of overproduction. A grower needed only the best wine to stay in business. The best wine required the best grapes. And the best equipment. Masson decided early on to be a Champagne master.

Masson sailed to France to buy the finest equipment available. He returned for a splendid harvest - 10,000 bottles in 1884. The output doubled in 1885 and trebled in 1886. Their first champagne was a hit in 1887. From then on no wine left a Paul Masson cellar for at least three years while it aged.

Masson married one of the LeFranc sisters and the winery became the LeFranc Masson Wine Company. In 1892 his father-in-law died and he introduced the first "Paul Masson Champagne ... 'Special Dry' and 'Extra Dry.'" It was a champagne in the great French tradition from dark pinot grapes.

Masson, with an inventory of millions of bottles undergoing natural in-bottle fermentation claimed a large share of the American luxury market with the famous names of France. In 1900 he returned to his homeland for the first time in 12 years to enter his Pinot Champagne in open competition and won. In 1905 Masson began dynamiting the foothills around Los Gatos to plant the first full Pinot Vineyard in America.

The flamboyant Masson, famous for his sybaritic lifestyle, was known around San Francisco as "Duc de Cognac." His continued honors for Paul Masson Champagne brought California wines respect around the world. Masson never missed an opportunity to entertain and serve his wines. Even if it wasn't his party.

In 1918 wineries began to disintegrate with the advent of Prohibition. Only six wineries in the United States were licensed to make wine for sacramental and medicinal purposes. Paul Masson was one of the six. The price of grapes, however, soared as millions of European immigrants bought them to make legal home wines. Since grapes didn't ship well cheaper grapes were planted.

After his wife's death in 1932 Masson began to lighten his administrative burden by selling the original LeFranc property. In 1936 he sold his prized LaCresta hillside vineyard to Martin Ray, a young stockbroker who carried on Masson's zealous operations under the Paul Masson name. The new ownership was still presenting Masson with gold medals until he died in 1940 at the age of 81.

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