ST. PETERSBURG — In only its third year, St. Petersburg's young wine festival already is attracting wine world royalty.
Arriving as one of the honored guests of the Museum of Fine Arts' Wine Weekend St. Pete, Feb. 8-10, is no less a grand personage than Jean-Charles Boisset of Napa and Sonoma and Burgundy, France. Not a true king, perhaps, but as head of Boisset Family Estates, he oversees so many dominions in France and America that he has nearly as many titles as a Hapsburg.
Boisset's flag flies over the historic domains of Burgundy and Beaujolais and landmark legends of old California to a parallel planet where rabbits and bulldogs make Earth-friendly wines. So do very young twin girls.
In the process of romancing Napa and Sonoma, he fell in love with Gina Gallo, a true American winemaking princess from one of our own vintner dynasties. And last year they moved into a palace that belonged to Robert Mondavi, another monarch.
Although Boisset would reject a crown, he does see himself as an ambassador for the wine regions of the two countries. Or at the least, a dashing agent in the service of wine's majesty. Indeed, he favors a smoking jacket, attended the California Skyfall premiere and drives an Aston Martin. (The family car is a Maserati Quattroporte.)
It's in that capacity Boisset comes to St. Petersburg trailing clouds of Art Deco glamor, possibly bringing along his wife and their twins, Honor and Grace. Certainly Boisset will bring cases of his family's best wines to the grand VIP and sponsors dinner on Feb. 8. The evening is open the public but the tickets are a whopping $800. For those with less to spend on the fundraiser but want a taste of Boisset wines, there are auction items that feature it at the weekend's main event on Feb. 9 at the Renaissance Vinoy. (More information in box accompanying this story.) Tickets for the dinner-dance and live auction are $285. There is a brunch on Feb. 10, also at the Vinoy. Last year's event raised $200,000 for the museum.
Boisset is working on the final details of the opening night feast with friend and fellow Frenchman Dr. Jean-Francois Rossignol and his wife, Patricia, one of the organizers of the museum event. Tyson Grant, executive chef at Parkshore Grill in St. Petersburg, will prepare the six-course meal.
"It will be the kind of meal you would eat at midnight in Paris," Boisset says. "Or midnight in Tampa Bay.''
To pair with a menu of classic 1930s French cuisine, Boisset can choose from a delicious range of his wines, from the white Burgundy of Chassagne-Montrachet to the reds of Vougeot and Gevry-Chambertin, and on and on.
Boisset enjoys playing a Euro dandy, a lucky wine heir who has become a mega-merchant in his own right. Yet underneath the silk and velvet is a surprisingly earthy love and knowledge of terroir that comes from growing up in Burgundy, the wine region that parses its vineyard geography as finely as possible.
"I grew up in a village of 160 people," he says. "I can't remember my parents ever closing the door." That tiny town is Vougeot in Cote de Nuits, where monks planted the first grapes in chalky silt more than 900 years ago.
As the wine family expanded, Boisset was sent to explore America, carrying a Burgundian's focus on pinot noir. It is the most finicky of red wine grapes, almost impossible to make well in bulk. Boisset slowly expanded into cabernet, California's first love.
Boisset was smitten with America and its potential for wine-growing. He returned for secondary school, living with a family friend in Washington, D.C., and again after college for grad school in California. In the process, Boisset was infected with an American savvy for marketing and packaging, applied with dynamic energy and a disregard for tradition.
Also starring in Wine Weekend, co-sponsored by the museum and its Margaret Acheson Stuart Society, are Shari and Garen Staglin, another of Napa's first couples. The Staglin Family Vineyard on the fabled Rutherford Bench produces rare chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and other reds from certified organic vineyards.
They are in such high demand the wines are largely available only to a select mailing list. The Staglins will be the guests of honor at the grand dinner and live auction Feb. 9 at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort that is the centerpiece of the weekend.
Chris Sherman, the former Times' food critic, writes for Florida Trend among other publications.