Darioush: “Show Your Dreams to Others”

November 6, 2017. My interview with Darioush Khaledi took place on a momentous day. By the numbers:

  • It was the 49th wedding anniversary of Darioush and Shaphar Khaledi.
  • Twenty-nine years ago, on their 20th anniversary, the Khaledis visited Napa Valley and added love of the NoCal wine country to their enduring love for each other.
  • Twenty years ago, after a three-year global search for vineyard property in Bordeaux and California, their anniversary trip to Napa turned a dream into reality.

In 1997, the Khaledis happened upon and purchased the property on Silverado Trail that today houses the Darioush winery, corporate offices, visitor experience center, and family home. Despite the fires that raged randomly through wine country for several weeks in October — devastating neighboring Signorello Winery — the winery known simply as Darioush escaped serious harm with limited damage to the physical property.

Photo credit: Kathy Merchant (11.6.17)

Determined, Independent, and Adaptive

Darioush Khaledi’s successful career has been well documented in American public bios since the late 1970’s when he and brother-in-law Paul Varzin first bought a supermarket in Torrence, California. This quick summary offers a glimpse into the enduring character and temperament of a man who has excelled in construction, retail grocery, and commercial wine industries.

Educated as a civil engineer in his home country of Iran, Darioush was a natural entrepreneur. In just five years he built a construction company capable of winning major government contracts. Sensing (and experiencing) the growing challenges that led up to the 1978-79 Iranian uprising in which Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi was overthrown, Darioush emigrated to the United States in 1976 in search of stability and business opportunity.

Unable to return home to Iran after the revolution, Darioush again demonstrated the power of his entrepreneurial spirit. He (and Paul) grew one store into an empire of 41 supermarkets focused on filling underserved Hispanic neighborhoods. As the business expanded, so did his influence within the grocery industry. Darioush provided sector leadership for more than a quarter century as a director on the board of Unified Grocers, Inc., the largest retailer-owned cooperative supplier for independent supermarkets in the Western United States. Now retired from his company (K V Mart) and Unified Grocers, Inc. — the latter acquired earlier this year by Minnesota-based SuperValu — Darioush devotes his time to the winery and his many art and philanthropic passions.

Inspirations

So many of Darioush’s life pursuits were shaped by his childhood years and became threads throughout his life.

Not many people can say they sampled wine — never mind liked it! — when they were only 6 years old. Darioush’s family lived in Shiraz, sharing a name (but not provenance) with the grape Syrah/Shiraz. Like many locals, his father made wine in cement casks in the basement of their home. With a twinkle in his eye, Darioush describes sneaking down to the basement for a sip, using a towel to soak up some nectar of the vine because he was too small to fetch a proper taste from the casks. Clearly this was a harbinger of good things to come!

Darioush learned to play violin by ear as a young boy, instilling the love of music that he nurtures and supports today. For example, Darioush serves on the board of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and is the founder of Festival Napa Valley (2006), a 10-day music extravaganza featuring more than 100 name artists. One evening of the festival is held at the Darioush winery to benefit Juvenile Diabetes Research Association, a cause close to his family’s heart.

Living the Dream

As an adult, trips to France inspired Darioush’s love of red Bordeaux wines and launched a wine collecting journey. Working several Bordeaux harvests planted the seed of a dream to make wine commercially. By 1994, Darioush and Shaphar were keen to buy a vineyard property and focused their search on both Bordeaux and Napa. On that fateful anniversary day (November 6, 1997), they were headed toward William Hill winery along the southern section of Silverado Trail when Darioush noticed exposed layers of volcanic soil around the partially built foundation of a new cellar facility under construction. It was then known as Altamura.

The voice of the civil engineer commanded “Stop!” to examine the soil in closer detail. It was, in short, perfect. But the winery wasn’t for sale. Undaunted, Darioush met with George Altamura, and 10 days later became the new owner of 39 acres of vineyard property. Further evidence of the fate surrounding the purchase is that Altamura introduced Darioush to Napa winemaker Steve Devitt before the negotiations were even complete. Steve was hired on the spot and remains Darioush’s winemaker to this day.

The Darioush winery property is located a half mile south of the Stag’s Leap District on the Silverado Trail. It is a cooler, maritime-influenced, microclimate compared to other parts of the Valley. Altamura had been planted primarily to Chardonnay. Darioush grubbed up those vines to replant mostly Bordeaux varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot). A small block is planted to Syrah/Shiraz on what Darioush considers to be the best vineyard site. The cool climate allowed Darioush Winery to pursue an elegant style of wine with composure and grace. Today Darioush owns 120 acres of vineyard property in Napa Valley, Mount Veeder, and Oak Knoll AVAs.

“The door of our house is always open to you.”

This Persian proverb, prescient in this moment, invites visitors to the website and the winery. The winery’s sophisticated tasting room opened in 2004. Inspired by a palace complex at Persepolis (518 BC), and designed by architects Ardeshir and Roshal Nozari, the 22,000 square foot property houses corporate offices and the visitor experience center. In the manner of a French chateau, the Khaledis’ family home is also incorporated into the winery facility. Designers Kelly Wearstler (American) and Martin Margiela (Belgian) partnered with the architects to create “architectural elements (including) a grand staircase, interior stone columns with carved plinths, and throughout the structure stylized floral decorations such as rosettes and acanthus leaves.” (Napa Valley Register, 2004)

Visitors are greeted by 16 free-standing columns lining the long entry drive, stone “trees” signaling the grand tone of the experience to come. Yellow stone for the welcoming columns and winery property was quarried near the region of Persepolis and exported to both Turkey and Italy for cutting.

The winery’s extensive range of wines includes the flagship Signature Series “bridging old-world traditions and modern style.”  Varietal wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier. It also includes Pinot Noir from grapes grown in the Russian River Valley.

Rounding out the portfolio are these unique Darioush offerings:

  • Wines produced from new vineyard sites intended for inclusion in the Signature Series are called “Caravan” to signal winemaking experimentation and vineyard enhancements.
  • Duel is experimental, combining varieties into interesting blends. The current release is a Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon blend.
  • Darius II is the “crown jewel” of the Darioush estate. A Wine Advocate review of the 2014 (current) release Cabernet Sauvignon calls it “a serious wine, with a fragrant nose of graphite, blackberry, cassis and hints of toast and chocolate. Full-bodied, with an expansive, savory texture and a long, pure finish.”
  • When harvest conditions permit, Darioush produces a late harvest Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc with “deep character, grace and poise — so suited to share its name with Darioush’s wife, Shahpar.”

Visitor experiences include a portfolio tasting of the Signature Series, opportunities to learn about wine and cheese pairings (“Fine Wine, Artisan Cheeses”), and a “Culture of Wine Experience” with wine historian Nina Wemyss that features limited winery-exclusive wines paired with dishes prepared by the winery’s chef.

The Khaledi Family

Darioush and Shaphar have a daughter and two granddaughters who live just outside of San Francisco. Their son, Kashy Khaledi, has just started a new winery called Ashes & Diamonds after a career in music and media. Ashes & Diamonds celebrated its grand opening on November 5, the day before this interview and his parents’ wedding anniversary, and just two weeks after the Napa fires were declared contained. Napa winemaker Steve Matthiasson, and Sonoma winemaker Diana Snowden Seysses (also of Burgundy’s Domaine Dujac  fame), are co-winemakers. There was much to celebrate!

Perhaps foreshadowing this moment in time, Kashy selected a poem written in the 19th century by Cyprian Norwid (Poland) to scroll across the pages of the winery’s website:

Ashes and Diamonds

“So often are you as a blazing torch with flames

of burning rags falling about you flaming,

you know not if flames bring freedom or death.

Consuming all that you must cherish

if ashes only will be left, and want Chaos and tempest.

Or will the ashes hold the glory of a star-like diamond,

the Morning Star of everlasting triumph.”

Photos Provided by Darioush

Iconic Italian Wine Regions

The wines of Tuscany, Piedmont, and Bolgheri are perfect pairings for this holiday season! Enjoy a short romp through Montalcino and Montepulciano in Tuscany, a glance at the subtle differences in expression of the Nebbiolo grape in Piedmont’s Barolo and Barbaresco DOCGs, and a taste of Super Tuscans from Bolgheri. A short essay on how to read Italian wine labels takes the stress out of holiday shopping! Click here for the Essential Guide.

French Wine Explorers

Barolo and Barbaresco

The Nebbiolo-based wines of Piedmont Italy are some of the finest in the world. Enjoy this limited selection of wineries from Barolo and Barbaresco DOCGs. Although the French Wine Explorers “Treasures of Tuscany and Piedmont” tour is sold out for 2018, stay tuned for future offerings to taste these treasures in person!

http://www.wine-tours-france.com/find-nebbiolo-wines/

Tuscan Food and Wine Pairings

 

Pici Pasta

‘Tis the season to be eating (and drinking) well! The traditional food and great wines of Tuscany will add depth and warmth to your holiday entertaining!

Enjoy this piece written for French Wine Explorers, and check out the new tour of Tuscany and Piedmont in September 2018.

http://www.wine-tours-france.com/tuscan-wine-and-food-pairings/

Photo credit Pinterest

Napa Saved by the Vines

I was in Italy on October 8 when news of rampant fires in the wine country hit international media. Friends and family texted alerts and updates to make sure I knew “real time” what was going on. But ”real time” quickly became very confusing as the multiple fires, and stories about the fires across social and mainstream digital media, raged faster than the fires themselves.

I arrived in Napa yesterday (November 6) to interview Darioush Khaledi, who is chairing the 2018 Cincinnati International Wine Festival. I frankly braced myself for the worst, with pictures of the fires and resulting damage fresh in my mind. One of the early “real time” reports, cascaded throughout multiple media outlets, was that Darioush had burned to the ground. (Spoiler alert: it did not.) That incorrect news was swept up in early reports — sadly correct — that the Signorello property was lost. Darioush is right next door.

Exactly one month later, it’s a different story. If I hadn’t known about the fires — well, I might not have observed much difference. Driving to the property on Napa’s Silverado Trail from SFO was just like every other fall visit to the Bay Area. The skies were crisp blue, puffy white clouds announcing a future rain with striated wisps of gray, and there was plenty of traffic. Just like always. Until I got to the old dairy business on Highway 121, just west of Domaine Carneros. It was gone, multiple buildings melted into the ground, trees and underbrush turned to ash from tinder. I held my breath as I rounded the curves toward Domaine Carneros, letting it out only when I found the winery to be untouched.

Then all returned to normal. Until I turned into the driveway of Darioush.  The charred hillside where Signorello’s winery once stood made it all quite real. I am only including this one photo. I am not a professional photographer, and I couldn’t bring myself to go in search of further tragedy. So just this one:

Entrance to Darioush and the site of Signorello (to the left) lost in the Napa fires

To the many stories that have already been written about the fires and the aftermath, I would like to add perspective from my interview with Darioush Khaledi and winery president Daniel DePolo. According to Dan, “the fire was a humanitarian and housing disaster. Only six wineries were lost or seriously damaged. But 3,000 homes were damaged and people have no place to live. The vineyards served as a firebreak. Vines don’t burn.”

Indeed, the vineyards in Napa look just like any other fall harvest cycle with the leaves turning brown to prepare for winter. At Darioush, only the olive trees and landscaping was burned. “The fire skipped around randomly” as evidenced by the total loss of nearby neighbor Signorello. In Napa, the sturdy oaks and general lack of ground cover protected the Valley to the east of the pine-covered Mayacama Range. “We are all beyond grateful,” according to Darioush Khaledi, who with his wife Shaphar lives at the winery in the manner of French chateaux.

More good news: 80-90 % of harvest was complete for most vineyards. The plan at Darioush? Test the remainder of the crop, and if the grapes are tainted, they will be discarded. Dan DePolo believes this will be the Napa standard so that consumers can be confident in future purchases of the 2017 vintage.

Wineries may not have been physically touched, but business is down 50% during what would ordinarily be Napa’s peak season for tourism. That said, the Darioush tasting room was busy, the streets are bustling, and both wineries and restaurants are welcoming customers with open arms. The mood of the community is upbeat, full of well deserved pride for the communal response to a crisis (including firefighting crew from near and far). “Things are not back to normal yet. We lost a month of business. But you can’t really tell just by driving around.”

Kashy Khaledi, who is Darioush’s son, celebrated the grand opening of new new winery called Ashes and Diamonds just two days ago. In a perhaps prescient act, the new winery’s website includes a poem written by 19th century Polish poet Cyprian Norwid that scrolls across the bottom in stanzas on each page:

“So often are you as a blazing torch with flames of burning rags falling about you flaming, you know not if flames bring freedom or death. Consuming all that you must cherish if ashes only will be left, and want Chaos and tempest. Or will the ashes hold the glory of a star-like diamond, the Morning Star of everlasting triumph.”

Barbaresco vs. Barolo: What’s the Difference?

In my most recent article written for French Wine Explorers, I explore the subtle but important differences between Barbaresco and Barolo winegrowing regions and the resulting styles of wine. Spoiler alert: it’s mostly the Mother Nature factors, but there are a few winemaker choices and aging rules that also explain style differences. Enjoy the story, but more importantly, love the wine! Even better, join French Wine Explorers for the 2018 “Treasures of Tuscany and Piedmont” tour! Kathy Merchant

http://www.wine-tours-france.com/barbaresco-vs-barolo/

Italian Wine Labels

What’s actually in the bottle? Does the wine label tell you the place, the grape, or both? I hope you will enjoy my recent article, written for American wine travel company French Wine Explorers, to demystify the various ways Italian wine labels explain the product within.

http://www.wine-tours-france.com/italian-wine-label/

What Makes a Super Tuscan?

Enjoy this short piece on the history of Super Tuscan wines, featuring a profile of Ornellaia, published by French Wine Explorers.

http://www.wine-tours-france.com/super-tuscan/

Montalcino, Italy

Click on this link to enjoy a piece about the incredible wines of Montalcino written by Vino Ventures for French Wine Explorers.

http://www.wine-tours-france.com/montalcino-wine-region/

Montepulciano, Italy

Click on this link to enjoy a short piece about the great wines of Montepulciano written by Vino Ventures for French Wine Explorers!

http://www.wine-tours-france.com/montepulciano-best-wine/