Fortune Chevalier was born in 1815 in Belle Isle, France. His family was not in the wine business and he apprenticed as a stained glass craftsman. Together with a group of similar craftsmen, he went all over France repairing the various castles and churches damaged by the frequent wars of the time.
In 1850 he sailed for San Francisco with some helpers and a large stock of window panels. His idea was to establish a business of window construction and repair. He hoped that when his helpers were fully occupied with stain glass window work, he would be able to steal away and pan for gold in the Sierra foothills.
It turned out his helpers had the same idea and they abandoned him once they arrived in California. Fortune ended up in Placerville and later in Sacramento, settling into the trade of wine and spirits. There were tens of thousands of thirsty miners and Chevalier established F. Chevalier and Company with the intent of satisfying his own thirst for profit
The F. Chevalier Company
Chevalier became the sole agent for Old Castle Bourbon Whiskey and imported Grappe dOr Cognac. In 1872 he moved the business to San Francisco. Three years later he took a man named Comte into partnership, a man who had experience in the wine business.
As Chevalier settled into business in San Francisco, phylloxera, the dreaded vine pest, began killing the vineyards of Europe. In a short time, every native European vine succumbed to the insect. This resulted in a scarcity of French wines and cognac in the 1880's. The cure for this disease was to replant the vineyards with the European grape grafted on the native American vines whose roots were immune to the insect. This cure took time.
This scarcity caused a wine boom in the Napa Valley. In 1880, Napa County had about 3,500 acres in grapes, and 40 wineries. This number grew to 18,000 acres of grapes and 166 wineries over the next decade. Chateau Chevalier was built at the end of this boom in the wine business. There is evidence that Chevalier was making wine and brandies at other wineries in the Napa Valley before the completion of the Chateau.
Chateau Chevalier was big news in 1891. The Saint Helena Star, June 24, 1891, carried the first story on the construction of the Chevalier winery:
Monday Charles York, foreman of G. F. Chevaliers Spring Mountain place, showed us plans of a fine new cellar which is now in course of construction for that gentleman. It is being built of grey stone, trimmed in pink and the front is an E shape.
It will be two stories high and 79 x 56 feet in size. M.G. Bale is doing the woodwork and Pithie and Birkett are the stone masons. The work is progressing rapidly, the walls to the second floor being up.
The building will be completed in about six weeks when it will be filled with the very finest oak cooperage, the whole to cost in the neighborhood of $10,000.
This Spring Mr. Chevalier erected a fine barn costing $2000. It is 66 x 24 feet and a ceiled and oiled inside. Next year the gentleman, who spends most of his time in San Francisco, expects to erect an elegant residence. Mr. York informs us that Mr. Chevalier is constantly making improvements and will soon have one of the finest places in Napa County.
There are 40 acres of land in the place, 25 of which are covered with healthy vines from which a fine quality of wine will be made.
The winery building was completed in 1891, the year Fortune Chevalier turned 76. His son, George was well involved in the business at this time and appears to have been in charge of the winery operation. About 40 acres of grapes were eventually planted. The roads were lined with olive trees and extensive gardens were constructed. The gardens had complex paths along terraces, pools for swimming, and many stone stairways, sometimes leading no where in particular, contributing to an exotic ambiance.
Fortune Chevalier died in April, 1899, at the age of 84. The winery continued to operate, but the plague of Phylloxera began to beset California; and if that wasnt enough, there was the gradual onset of Prohibition as more and more counties and regions became dry. George Chevalier sold the winery and ranch to San Franciscan John A. Grennan. The winery then changed hands several times before Berkeley oilman H.H. Hart purchased it in 1918.
The property became known as Harthaven and the owners had no desire to make wine. The vineyard home, pictured right, burnt to the ground in 1936. The vineyards continued to be tended and the grapes sold to local wineries. It remained a quiet country retreat until the second wine boom that began in the late 1960s.
In 1970, the Bissonette family purchased the land, replanted the vineyard, and in 1973 made the first wine in the Chateau since Prohibition. A few years later, Chateau Chevalier wines were again being sold throughout the country. The first floor of the winery was used for winemaking while the second floor was converted to a residence. In this new incarnation, Chateau Chevalier prospered. Its wines were good and several vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon were great.
In the early 1980s Chateau Chevalier was acquired by John and Gil Nickel. Already a success in the wine business with Far Niente Winery in Oakville, the Nickels set out to renovate Chateau Chevalier. In 1986 the vineyard was re-planted, mostly in Cabernet Sauvignon with a bit of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The vineyard terraces were artfully redrawn, but the rootstock used was AXR-1, which is a hybrid between European and American grape species. Unknown at the time of planting, the grape pest Phylloxera had undergone a mutation and had learned to thrive on the AXR rootstock.
As the vineyard came into production, its fate became more and more clear as vineyards in Napa and Sonoma began to decline from the disease. Faced with a re-plant of the recently replanted vineyard, and with new demands on their time from other interests, the Nickels reluctantly decided to part with the property.
Chevalier was acquired by Spring Mountain Vineyard in 1993. Replanting began slowly in 1994, culminating in 1998, by which time the entire property had been renewed. It has been replanted mostly to Cabernet Sauvignon. There is a small planting of Merlot as well. The vines were planted a meter apart in the rows giving a vine density of 2,000 vines per acre, about four times as many vines per acre as planted before.
In 1993 a major renovation project was begun on the old Chateau. Most of the exterior wood and trim was replaced. The twin towers on the winery were completely rebuilt and the residence in the interior was removed. The interior of the winery, which is pristine redwood, has been returned to a state much as it was a century ago. With a new roof and gutters, the Chateau is in excellent condition and will remain so for a second century.
After the restoration, Spring Mountain Vineyard stored a portion of their large 1997 vintage of red wine in the old cellar. Grapes from the vineyard are used for Spring Mountain Vineyard wines.