“We’ve retired and have already made the last vintage.” Over a year ago David and I received the call from Françoise and Philippe Gourdon of Château la Tour Grise. It was the sort of news that although not completely unexpected, it did completely shake the foundation of “our home” (as Françoise calls it) in the Loire.
They had been gradually downsizing the domain in hopes that one of their children would be interested in taking over. A little over half of the vines farmed in the peak years had been leased to like-minded vignerons leaving the best 8.5hA as a manageable “starter domain” for the next generation. When the last son made his final decision, a new way forward had to be found.
Obviously, all of this came to mind a few weeks back when I read the Jon Bonne article in Punch, “What Does the Future of California Wine Look Like?” a question he explores through the circumstances of the sale of Calera Wine Company. At one point in the article Bonne asks, “each time I go to France, not exactly a place known for rapid change, and witness the breakneck pace of new vignerons settling into the countryside, I wonder why California—font of innovation that it’s supposed to be—hasn’t matched pace.”
With humility, I’d like to offer this example which perhaps explains why France in general and the Loire valley in particular are hotbeds of innovative winemaking.
Calera owner, Josh Jensen, is similar in age to the Gourdon’s and also has three children he had hoped to pass his winery on to but who instead, as did Philippe and Françoise’s children, decided to follow their own paths in life. Plan B for Mr. Jensen was to sell his winery to Duckhorn Vineyards which is in turn owned by the private equity firm, GI Partners. Plan B for the Gourdon’s was to find a group of young, promising vignerons to lease the vineyards to and then to support them in their desire to produce great organic and biodynamic wines in the village of Le Puy-Notre-Dame.
Philippe Gourdon is emblematic of his generation of the “New Loire”. He was the driving force behind the campaign for AOC status in Le Puy (awarded in 2008). He’s been dedicated to biodynamics since 1999 (called the Pope of biodynamics in a recent newspaper article) and the patent-holder of several winemaking devises of his own creation which has earned him a second nickname among his peers, MacGyver. Always willing to lend a hand and give advice to newcomers, he and Françoise have worked for decades not just to make their own wine but to create a welcoming supportive community of like-minded winemakers that is now a magnet for young talent.
Mise will be working with two of these young winemakers. Pauline Mourrain and her partner Laurent Troubat created l’Austral thanks to the Gourdon’s. They had hoped to settle in the Roussillon where Laurent could continue work as a sailing and skiing instructor to finance their dreams of becoming winemakers but Philippe’s support and wisdom and vines were a once in a lifetime chance. They had to come settle in Le Puy. Similarly, David Foubert (Folle Berthe) was lured from winemaking in Jasnières by the chance to work the Gourdon’s vines and have a “hotline” to Philippe when needed.
And it’s not just the Gourdon’s. The spirit of community extends to over a dozen different winemakers working organically and biodynamically within 5 miles of one another. All in their 30’s and 40’s who after other careers have chosen farming and winemaking and the village of Le Puy in particular. As one describes it, “we have little land, no employees. We’re in the vineyards to work; our cellars are side-by-side so we see each other regularly. All of us are starting from scratch and financially, we’re all a little on the edge. When someone’s tractor breaks, he calls the others for help and we come. It’s great. And what’s more, they’re interesting people, who’ve already had a life. When you know them you say, they’re going to make great wine.”
I am in no way criticizing Mr. Jensen for the sale of his winery which he no doubt worked long and hard to create. He deserves every dollar he received for it. But, if you’re wondering why it’s nearly impossible for the next generation of winemakers to get a start in California, you’ve got to ask yourself what private equity firm is going to come running when your tractor breaks?
Where winemaking is mostly about creating Brands and Equity, the future will be fallow – cautious, calculated, controlled by “the landed”, as Jon Bonne describes them, and increasingly making wines only for those of means. If we want a more fertile future, there has to be a conscious decision to build more than brand recognition and create more than return on investment. We have to want to grow the community, the culture, the support to make it happen. It takes a village.