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When Stephen and Denise Adams started dating 32 years ago, they bonded over a shared passion for good wine and for all things French. Their honeymoon was a 60-bottle month at a rented château in the village of St. Émilion (one bottle at lunch, one at dinner). They started buying French antiques and paintings, which they sent back to their home at the time in Santa Barbara, California. Stephen suggested making it an annual ritual to renew their vows among the vines of southern France.
And so they have, but they did much better than that. In 2004, a French friend who happened to be a real estate lawyer showed them a 19th-century château with 44.5 acres of grand cru vineyard in the village of St. Émilion. The Adamses weren’t looking to make the leap from wine drinking to winemaking, but their friend figured they wouldn’t be able to resist Château Fonplégade, named for its 13th-century stone fountain and meaning “fountain of plenty.” He was right. “We were lucky it had such a beautiful name,” says Denise. “We could have ended up buying a place with a dumb name like Château Jones.”
The inside looked like hell, says Denise—“shag carpeting and pink tubs!” But the bones were solid and perfectly proportioned. A three-story, squarish central structure was flanked on the left by a slightly higher tower topped by a tall slate roof. The austere nobility of it contained everything the Adamses had each loved about France before they met and fell in love with each other.
And all of it was made from the warm local lime stone that, as everyone knows, also makes the best terroir for growing Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes. “We still repeat our vows every year, but we never dreamed we’d actually live here,” says Denise. “But the minute we saw this soil, and the neighbor hood with all the first growths, we knew we could do something worthwhile. We weren’t going to work really hard for naught.”
The winery adjacent to the château used to be a stone horse barn with dirt floors. It’s now lined with hightech vats—the Adamses recently ripped the roof off to install new ones—and oak barrels that are rotated automatically so they don’t have to be opened to stir the lees (air is the enemy of wine). Don’t let the newfangled technology fool you; the Adamses very much believe in making their wine the (very) old-fashioned way. Biodynamic is the current term, and it means not just avoiding pesticides and herbicides but also “farming the way our ancestors did when they didn’t have computers or clocks,” says Denise. So, for example, she fertilizes during a descending moon, buries manurefilled female cow horns in the vineyard, and braids the overgrown vines by hand instead of cutting them back (which would only stimulate unneeded nutrientsapping growth). “This is not some ’60s woowoo concept. It’s farming at its highest and purest level.”
Very few winemakers do things this way. It’s tons of work, and it’s very expensive. It also means the château’s small output of 3,800 to 4,200 cases a year is well below what the previous owners pumped out, when quantity trumped quality.
It took the Adamses some time after buying the château before they turned their full attention to its interior. The vines took priority, and there was much to redo. When the moment came, they called on a husband-and-wife team from Ojai, California, Steve and Brooke Giannetti, who go back a long way with the Adamses. The Giannettis have worked on several homes for the Adamses over the years, including the one they had in Santa Barbara some 20 years before.
For all their deep attachment to French savoir vivre, the Adamses aren’t trying to go native or beat the French at their own game. That never works any way. Underneath the château’s limestone skin beats a laidback California heart. Fabrics are pale and light. Stiff silktaffeta curtains were replaced by supple lin ens. A red abstract painting in the dining room sounds an unexpected modern note. The imposing exterior also belies what’s inside. It’s still a château, of course, but it’s a lot cozier than you’d guess, with only four bedrooms. Every room in the house gets used.
“The building is gorgeous, but Denise wanted it to feel organic and not too starchy and pressed. The idea of the earth is so important here that we tried to bring the landscape into the house,” says Brooke. So trees in big zinc planters dot the dining room—“we do that a lot in California,” she says. Branches fill vases instead of the cut flowers favored in France, and heavy stone bowls are filled with fruit.
When it came to furnishings, the Giannettis had a running head start. The Adamses just took all the French stuff they had sent to California many years before and shipped it back again. One of these acquisitions greets you just inside the front door. It’s a big, cumbersome stone table, and I don’t want to think about how many stamps it took to bring it back. “We got to shop in Denise’s beautiful showroom,” says Brooke. But with a heavy California edit. “To do everything in brown French antiques is a bit much, so we refinished some of them, and didn’t use others.” Indeed, what gives the whole interior its peace ful, easy feeling is often what you don’t see. Among the items the Adamses sent back was a large wrought iron chandelier dripping with crystals. “It’s a beautiful piece, but there was something that wasn’t right. It was too ornate,” says Steve. “So we got out our wire cutters and just started clipping off crystals, like we were clipping a box hedge.”
Denise loves to cook, and the château’s simple kitchen feels like it gets a lot of loving use. There’s a good range tucked under the big limestone hearth and a sturdy oak table under a French ceiling lantern that also made the round trip to and from California. The kitchen was the warmest place to be on the damp October day I visited. On the table was a mas sive platter laden with the bounties of the terroir. The eggs came from the château’s chickens and the radishes, beets, and carrots from its garden.
The harvest had just been brought in, and the exacting work on the 2019 vintage was about to begin. Preparations for the annual harvest lunch for the workers and their families were in high gear. (The menu each year, by popular request, is hamburgers, which, after a light chastising by Denise, the French now pick up and eat with their hands.)
It would be slanderous to imply that the château’s easygoing Yankee owners have taken a breezy attitude toward the heritage they’ve acquired. Far from it. Shortly after buying the château, the couple began searching for an old bottle of Château Fonplégade (the sale of a winemaking estate never includes older bottles in the cellar). They found a 1928 vintage in Belgium. One look at the engraving on the label told the tale: “I said, ‘Steven, we’re missing a tower,’” says Denise. Further research confirmed that a mirror image of the leftside tower had been burned during World War II.
Fonplégade got its longlost tower back four years ago. The Adamses had the existing one copied “down to the millimeter,” says Denise (they even used the quarry that the original stone had come from). When she first arrived, Denise wondered whether they would be welcome in the old neighborhood. “The French have such tradition and values. You imagine yourself as an intruder, and I didn’t want to be that. But when the French saw that tower going up, something happened. They saw that this has nothing to do with economic gain. They really saw our hearts.”