In the Languedoc region of France, Thomas Duroux eyes the dark red soil at the base of a thicket of arbutus trees. "These trees, this earth," he says. "This is what you need for a great, great wine." At least that's what California winemaker Robert Mondavi is betting on. For the last two years Duroux, a scientist working for Mondavi, and David Pearson, the company's representative in France, have scoured hundreds of acres of land in this southern region looking for the perfect spot for Mondavi's most ambitious project to date. Within 10 years they hope to have a wine to rival the finest Bordeaux and Bourgogne on the market. "The stakes for Mondavi are huge here," Duroux says.
The venture is a gamble, and not only because Languedoc has a poor reputation for producing good wine. French fears about globalization have made all big U.S. companies potential targets for protest. Last spring local environmentalists drummed out an American businessman bent on opening a racetrack in the region. But Mondavi means to succeed where other foreigners -- including some other big winemakers, who brought modern techniques to Languedoc in the early 1990s but soon picked up and left -- have not. By planting its own vines, Mondavi means to show that it's here to stay -- and become the first American company to make wine from scratch in France, the way the great French makers have always done it.
But planting those roots has been tough. Word that an American company was interested in 50 hectares of protected land brought immediate opposition from the environmental group Arboussas Defense. Boar hunters worried that Mondavi's plans threatened their game, and the Communist Party took to calling Mondavi's product "Coca-Cola wine." Local growers complained that the American behemoth would drive them out of business.
"Initially it was really bad," says Pearson from the Mondavi villa on the outskirts of Montpellier. …