Big Easy, Big Wines
It only takes an old photograph or two to get Sandra MacIver talking about her extraordinary New Orleans childhood. In her office at the Matanzas Creek Winery in Sonoma, MacIver is sitting with a picture book of Longue Vue, her grandparents' magnificent New Orleans estate. She mentions a Life magazine article on American grande dames that featured her flamboyant grandmother, Edith Rosenwald Stern, heir to the Sears department store fortune, and recalls family parties attended by Eleanor Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Pablo Casals and Jack Benny. And the time a young artist named Andy Warhol knocked on Longue Vue's door. He had met Mrs. Stern at a charity event the night before and wanted to interview her. "My grandmother hadn't a clue who he was," MacIver recalls. "She just wanted to know why all the food for the party had been served out of Campbell's Soup cans."
MacIver (pronounced mac-EE-ver) is currently working to ensure that her family's illustrious New Orleans home and history are tended every bit as carefully as the world-class bottles of Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc produced at the winery she founded 23 years ago. MacIver, who recently sold Matanzas Creek to Jess Jackson's Artisans & Estates group, works there now as a consultant. She explains, "Jess, who is an old friend, called one day and said, 'Name your price.' We did, and he said, 'Done.'"
With the sale of Matanzas Creek, MacIver is able to turn her attention more fully to Longue Vue and to transforming the 45-room Classical Revival-style mansion into an important public institution and philanthropy center. A key part of Longue Vue's $7 million, 10-year restoration plan is the renovation of eight acres of gardens designed in the 1930s by pioneering landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman (one of the creators of the New York Botanical Garden). MacIver feels that her grandmother would have approved. "More than anyone, my grandmother defined my identity," MacIver says. "Consciously or not, I've been guided by her philosophy, which holds that if you put your energy into doing quality work, interesting things happen."
Interesting things have certainly happened to MacIver since she left New Orleans in 1967 to study art history at Mills College in Oakland. She not only became "an instant hippie" but also developed a keen interest in California wine. "We'd have chicken curry with Wente Chardonnay," she says. "Maybe it was a horrible pairing, but I was hooked. I'm good friends with the Wentes now, and I tell them, 'It's your fault! You got me into this!'"
In 1971, MacIver and her first husband, David Steiner, a law school dropout, purchased the ramshackle 100-acre La Franconi dairy farm in Sonoma. MacIver vowed that she would one day produce the world's finest wines there. "They were days of great optimism," recalls MacIver, who lived in a glorified shack on the property in those early years. "We had this fantasy that we'd plant a vineyard, our friends would come and work with us, and everybody would be happy. Well, it didn't happen that way. Nobody was happy. I lost all my money, and my marriage fell apart."
But instead of giving up, MacIver dug in. She found the resources to buy more vineyard land, planted Merlot and Chardonnay, hired winemaker Merry Edwards and in 1977 officially launched Matanzas Creek Winery, using her own calligraphy to decorate the distinctive labels. By the 1980s, she'd married Bill MacIver, an outspoken Texan and former military man, and Matanzas Creek had a wall of awards and 10,000 cases in production. (Its output is currently about 40,000.) In 1993, the MacIvers introduced the critically acclaimed Journey wines. The newest Journey entry, the supple and tannin-rich 1998 Merlot, won't appear until this fall, but already customers are clamoring for it. In other words, MacIver's youthful optimism has paid off. "These are the first really happy days of this industry," she says.
Even as Matanzas Creek flourished, MacIver maintained her deep connection to Longue Vue--and it's easy to understand why. On a recent afternoon there, in the shade of the estate's oaks, MacIver held a lunch for friends, family and Longue Vue staff members, prepared by Dominique Macquet, the chef and owner of New Orleans's acclaimed French Quarter restaurant Dominique's. The menu, a series of elegant dishes accented with down-home flavors, featured an appetizer of spicy crawfish salad on toast and Smithfield ham and asparagus hors d'oeuvres on brioche, paired with the melon-scented 1998 Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc. The second course, sea scallop salad with green beans and apple-smoked bacon, was balanced by the silky 1998 Chardonnay; the main course, hearty roast lamb loin with saffron ratatouille couscous, was matched with Matanzas's Merlot from the 1997 vintage. The meal concluded with a gratin of Louisiana strawberries and the 1994 Matanzas Blanc de Blancs, a sparkling wine available only at the winery.
As the meal progressed, visitors continually lined up to tour the house, the gardens and the family art collection, which includes works by Picasso along with scrappy line drawings by young Sandy and her three brothers. The newly opened Discovery Garden, oriented to younger visitors, is also a big draw. "I feel at peace in my grandmother's gardens," MacIver says, "not just because they are part of my family's home, but because they inspire so many others."
MacIver definitely believes in the power of gardens. At Matanzas Creek, she and landscape designer Gary Ratway created a fragrant Provençal-style lavender garden surrounded by ornamental grasses, rare perennials and unusual sculpture. But it's not just a beautiful garden. MacIver, the latest in a line of entrepreneurs (her father introduced television to the Deep South and founded Utah's Deer Valley ski resort), turned her plants to profits. The two million lavender stems harvested annually are used in a successful line of products that includes soap, lotions and bath salts.
Despite so many accomplishments and so much acclaim, MacIver has a few more goals in mind. In her new role as consultant, she will continue to develop the winery she built and will do her best to see that Matanzas Creek's gardens become a destination in their own right. She'd also like Longue Vue to become a place where artists, educators, students and the charitable minded can gather. And, she says, it wouldn't be so bad if they learned about great wine there too.
David Hochman is a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly based in Los Angeles. Hochman profiled Ann Colgin of Colgin Cellars in the March issue.