Not a story to tell, but a history . . .
In 1996, when Kellie and Mike Ballard purchased the property that was to become Savannah-Chanelle Vineyards, they assumed far more than the rigorous demands that any winery requires. The Ballard family also became the stewards of a legacy full of adventure, adversity, and ultimately acclaim.
No land for a younger generation
Motivated by the dream of owning his own land, Pierre Pourroy left his homeland for the new world by booking passage on the Steamship La Gascogne in January of 1887. In the late 19th century France a burgeoning population had made land both scarce and expensive, especially for young men such as Pierre. Arriving at the port of New York, Pourroy then endured an arduous train trip across the United States. He was all but penniless when he finally arrived in California, but he would soon begin to realize his dream.
After working as a sheepherder, a miner, and a manual laborer, Pourroy was down to his last seven dollars – money he raised by selling his watch. Unable to pay for his room and board, the proprietor of the hotel where he was staying convinced Pourroy to approach fellow Frenchman Jean Narcisse Aubry. Sweetening the proposition, the hotelier also informed Pourroy that Aubry had two beautiful daughters.
Aubry had purchased vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains after being forced to flee France following the 1852 coup d’etat. It was more than a fortuitous meeting. For Pierre Pourroy, it was the first step on his new path.
A wife, a brother, and a future
After joining Aubry’s winery, Pierre fell in love with one of the beautiful daughter’s, Marie Louise, and the two were married in 1891. One year later, Pierre’s brother Eloi joined the couple. He was soon married as well, and together the two couples were able to do what Pierre alone could not: They saved enough money to buy a full 80 acres to clear and plant their first vineyard. Building on the strength of their solid family foundation, after the death of Jean Aubry in 1899, Pierre and Marie were able to purchase the 200-acre estate in 1901.
A time full of promise
Pierre and Marie had eight children in their small house, and the work of a vineyard was hard and physical. But the land was beautiful and the times full of possibilities. Each day had it’s own reward, with time spent tending the vines, growing vegetables, picking apples and walnuts, and baking bread. The couple constructed a “four-banal” outdoor oven in the style of Pierre’s ancestral home in France. Marie used it almost continuously.
By 1916, a winery building was constructed. The Pierre C. Pourroy Winery was given bonded license #170. The winery prospered with a business model similar to that of the Savannah-Chanelle Winery today. Quality wine was made—especially noted was a “Claret,” a French–style blended red wine—and the family charged a day-use fee for picnics on the grounds.
Sadly, this bucolic paradise would soon be threatened.
“Prohibition has made nothing but trouble.” ~ Al Capone
The success of the Pierre C. Pourroy Winery would be short-lived for reasons far beyond the control of the determined Pourroy family. The Volstead Act, the informal name of The National Prohibition Act, was approved in 1919. Prohibition would have a devastating effect on the Pourroy family.
The act stated: “No person shall manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, or furnish any intoxicating liquor except as authorized by this act.” Unfortunately the act did not define what an “intoxicating liquor” was, and the details were left to the states to interpret individually.
For the Pourroy’s, and hundreds of vintners like them throughout California, this meant restricting sales to the ambiguous “altar wine.” After years of intense physical and monetary investment, a few pen strokes all but ended the wine business in California.
Yet Pierre and Marie soldiered on, even finding the resources to build the “Villa,” the large family home that was completed in 1923. Taking its architectural cues from the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris in Montmartre, Pierre commissioned the Villa to be built on a hill overlooking the vineyards. Yet the project went wrong from the beginning; Pourroy had to switch builders shortly after the project began. The original builder had no written plans, and subsequent craftsmen could only guess at what the Villa ultimately was to look like. Fortunately the project was successfully completed. As a permanent memento of the challenges of building the house, the Villa still carries the original misspelling of Montmartre etched above the entry way. Perhaps because the middle “t” in Montmartre is not pronounced, the builders did not bother to include it when carving the stone banner!
The challenge of rebuilding
Pierre re-applied for, and was granted, his winery license in 1936, three years after the repeal of prohibition. The entire wine industry in California had been dealt a crippling blow, and the Santa Cruz Mountains area was now just a shadow of the prosperous and promising region of thirty years before. Soon the country’s attention would turn to the more pressing matters of the war in Europe, and it would be decades before the wine industry in the region would again flourish.
Marie died in 1946, and Pierre would retire from winemaking in 1955. Pierre Pourroy would join his beloved Marie at his passing in 1960. With Pierre gone, it appeared his dream would also die.
The new dream emerges
In 1960’s, the estate was all but abandoned. Yet in 1971, Victor Erickson purchased 53 acres, the Villa, and the winery building. Five years later the Congress Springs label was created when Erickson teamed with the talented winemaker Daniel Gehrs.
Even though the property had been seriously degraded by years of neglect, Gehrs immediately made an impact with wine made from estate fruit. Dan’s 1978 Pinot Noir earned honors from The Wine Spectator. The 1985 vintage Estate Chardonnay would became the most awarded wine in California at that time, surpassing all other varietals according to the annual California Grapevine survey.
Even so, Erickson and Gehrs may have been a little too far ahead of their time. While the 1970’s were a time of growth in the California wine business, it was focused on the more famous regions of Napa and Sonoma to the north. Gehrs would leave Congress Springs to found his eponymous winery in Santa Barbara at almost the same time the Santa Cruz Mountains would witness the birth of another important industry in California – high technology. The Silicon Valley is easily seen from the Villa on the Savannah-Chanelle property.
A winery of rich and varied assets
Even through a history of adversity, Pierre and Marie set a course for the future on their estate. Two acres of Zinfandel were planted in 1910 and grown in the classic “head-pruned” fashion. These remain some of the oldest Zinfandel vines in California as witnessed by their rich, gnarled appearance. The estate Cabernet Franc vineyard was planted in 1919 and is thought to be the oldest vineyard of this grape variety found outside of France. The grape Carignane is also planted here. Known primarily for adding color and “grip” to southern French blends, Carignane from this site can deliver a wine of surprising depth and completeness in a favorable vintage.
The Chardonnay grown on the estate was first planted in 1977. The Santa Cruz Mountains are home to the “Mt Eden Clone” of Chardonnay; and Savannah-Chanelle boasts two acres of the noble varietal.
The Mt. Eden clone (particular variation) of Chardonnay has its own fantastic history: The winemaker/adventurer Paul Masson brought budwood from the Grand Cru vineyard of Corton-Charlemange in the early 1900’s, planting it first at the historic La Cresta winery. The clone was known for intense varietal character, but also very small yields. The pioneering vintner Martin Ray bought the La Cresta winery in 1936, and planted a vineyard of Chardonnay using the historic clone in 1943. This site would later become the world-renowned Mt. Eden Vineyards.
“Buy it!” ~ Kellie Ballard
When Kellie and Mike Ballard visited the property in 1996 they felt an immediate emotional connection to the estate. Mike was aware of the property from a friend who was making small amounts of wine at the facility. When the question was asked of the Ballard’s if they would be interested in purchasing the historic property, Kellie gave Mike her two word answer – buy it!
Today the Ballard’s divide their time between their home in Potomac, Maryland and the Savannah-Chanelle winery.