A fundamental difference between many European winemakers and North American winemakers was pointed up in a new article in Decanter Magazine in which Bordeaux highly regarded Château Beychevelle proudly announced it plans to build a glass walled winery, "to show there are no secrets to be hidden in great winemaking." Pardon my yawn, but this comment from the architect of the new structure, Arnaud Boulain, is a bit underwhelming. The announcement firmly plants Beychevelle, and by extension much of the rest of Bordeaux, firmly in the 1970s.
In the 1970s, many Europeans were amused that North American wineries were opening their doors and their cellars to tourists. On my first trip to Bordeaux in 1986 one château owner asked me how American wineries got any work done with tourists running around the property. He was shocked when I told him that wineries like Robert Mondavi were selling a significant percentage of wine on their property. He said, "we do too but we don't have tourists."
Château Beychevelle has always been one of Bordeaux' most consumer friendly properties - I've visited it several times and taken groups with me on tours. The property is unfailingly polite and relishes its (self-styled) reputation as "the Versailles of Bordeaux." It's not surprising that Beychevelle is a (relatively) early adopter of an open design, but it's still decades behind much of California.
Over the years I have visited hundreds of wineries and continue to see this dichotomy between Old World and New - the New World properties have been happy to show what they are doing and when you visit, you often get a strong sense of a winery as a working property. By contrast, much of the Old World chooses to maintain a cloak not so much of secrecy as mystique. Even those that allow visitors often lift the veil from winery areas that look more like museum tableaux than living workshops. It is a similar aesthetic that has us New World consumers focused on what grapes are in a wine and European consumers more concerned with where the wine is from.
The heart of the Médoc is about the same distance from Bordeaux' city center as Napa Valley is from the downtown San Francisco. California's Highway 29 and France's D2 have a lot in common but if you want to see how wine is made and get caught up in the passion of vinous creation, you'll still want to get a car and drive Highway 29. A winery is more than a museum.