“Let each generation tell its children about your mighty acts; let them proclaim your power.” Psalm 145:4
Every once in a while I get on a trail. This time the trail is the word “generations”. Like the wisp of a rabbit’s scent carried in the wind, then wildly sniffed out in hyperventilating fashion, I can’t seem to shut it down. Perhaps it’s from recent exposure to 8th generation winemakers in France that’s stoked this obsession or that both of our children are maturing into adulthood, at lightening speed – growing more curious about family history and its influence in their lives as their futures unfold. Whatever it is I keep reflecting on the newest generation of winemakers that we’ve had the pleasure of meeting in the past year, many the children of winemaking families going back as far as seven generations. It is these winemaking “kids” that defy their generation’s stereotype.
Rarely do I see the word “generation” used in terms of passing down to the next generation. There’s usually an after-the-fact, official, demographic/psychographic label attached to all people born within a specific range of time and then they are labeled: Lost Generation, Baby Boomer, Snake Person, etcetera. What kind of bugs me is the influence and impact that these generational labels impose – massive segments of our population ironically live up to them, including my family and me, because we’ve all allowed these labels to morph into habits. But habits are meant to be broken, and I wouldn’t have thought it possible, that is until last October when we arrived to the wine regions of France.
We had a blast on our trip to France, returning for the third time in 20 years, we wondered if it would be the same? There were some noticeable changes since 1995 and 2011, but fortunately these did not include the wine and food – both are still world class and grounded in the training up of new, young vignerons and chefs, the offspring of generations past, who still willingly uphold tradition and carry a deep reverence for all things French – especially wine, food and the appropriate time of day to enjoy each: lunch 12:30 pm – 2:30 pm and dinner 8:30 pm – 10:30 pm. “No monsieur, in France we do not eat dinner at seven o’clock, but I can make a reservation for you at 9:00 pm”, we were scolded. On this trip the most noticeable change for me was the driving experience; our rental car had GPS. I thought for sure this was going to be a plus as I’m still tormented by our roadside near divorce in 1995, on the D954, when GPS wasn’t an option and I totally failed as Frank’s far-sighted “co-pilette”. He lapped a roundabout six times while I frantically searched a microscopic printed map for an exit to yank us out of the tortuous vortex. I finally learned the secret – search for the largest metropolitan city past our destination, then when entering a roundabout look for that city’s name, point the car in that direction and voila, World war III averted. But now, on this recent trip, we had GPS, which automatically exonerated me from any liability should we, in the unlikely circumstance, find that the nice British woman whose voice we came to fear, would misdirect us. For twenty days Frank’s blood pressure escalated as he debated and argued with the voice coming out of the dashboard. GPS was not going to ruin our memory making!
Due to our own early 2015 harvest, adequate staffing for the winery, and air miles to burn this spontaneous trip unfurled – a rare but perfect storm to join up with our daughter Gina in beautiful France. She was 45 days into a trip-of-a-lifetime, post graduation, harvest internship at a family owned winery in Beaujolais and then planning a late October, two-week backpacking “tour de France” with several other recent graduates and then on to Portugal and Ireland. Packing for her trip was difficult: peak summer arrival would eventually turn to 30°F nights and misty, foggy rain as fall approached. She needed a suitcase big enough to pack for two seasons; I loaned her my new large rolling pullman. The mother in me wondered how she was going to backpack around France with this behemoth of a suitcase but she insisted she would just leave it in Beaujolais, at the chateau where she stayed, and then swing back by there to pick it up when it was time to fly home.
We arrived to Lyon, France last October 15th. Excited to see Gina and visit the place that we’d only experienced through her brief blog (agirandavine.wordpress.com) we arrived at Domaine de Briante (domainedebriante.fr) by noon. Her gracious hosts, Romain and Lauren, were at appointments offsite and had already invited us to stay our first night in their 17-room chateau and bed & breakfast inn. First things first, we drug our sleep deprived bodies and heavy suitcases up two flights of stairs, had a quick Gina-guided tour and set out to find a wine shop, boulangerie, and charcuterie. We brought home a local wine, goat cheese, Comté, rabbit and duck paté, melt in your mouth salumi, and a crusty baguette and picnicked around the enormous table catching up – fifteen minutes into it we were staring at an empty bottle. We made up for it that night as Romain and Lauren broke out the last five vintages of their Gamay. It was a fairytale come to life as we petted Inox, the pure white retriever Gina wrote about and photographed in her blog. The persistent pooch who only understood French became Gina’s best friend, running buddy, and her equal in terms of actually speaking French. Gina worked the summer harvest in the cellar alongside Lauren, a new mom and winemaker, and the daughter of the Faupin family – a major French supplier of machinery and products used in all aspects of production from vine to wine. Romain worked for Francois Frere barrels and recently joined the Faupin family business. Like Lauren, he is also “second generation” wine industry – his family owns and operates a winery in Alsace. We truly enjoyed our short 24-hour visit with them, touring their winery where Lauren makes luscious Gamay Beaujolais in barrel, tank and amphorae from vines grown at the base of Cotes de Brouilly. They are an inspiring, hard working, young family doing well with a passion that’s been passed down to them. The next morning we said our good byes. And, wouldn’t you know it, the future itinerary would not allow Gina the luxury of returning to the chateau to retrieve the 50-pound suitcase, that we nicknamed “the beast”, and that lost a wheel en route. The three-wheeled “beast” filled our entire trunk.
The first ten days of our 20-day trip were spent touring with Gina. Our togetherness included three more regions steeped in generational history with viticultural areas established as early as (and some records reveal even earlier) 2nd century AD in Burgundy and the Rhone Valley, and 5th century AD in Champagne. Everywhere we went the cold, crisp autumn air ushered in bright yellow, amber and crimson vineyards – a stunning landscape in which to meet 2nd to 8th generation winemakers and coopers. After leaving Beaujolais we spent two days in Côte Rôtie (Syrah Viognier) and Condrieu (Viognier) before heading back up to Burgundy where Romain set us up with a tour of Tonnellerie Francois Frere barrel cooperage, in Saint-Romain, a fourth generation cooperage that began in 1910. Now that I’ve spent 15 years grumbling over $1,000 per barrel for Francios Frere barrels I wanted to see, first hand, what all the hoopla was about. I have to say we were fascinated – from the forest to the cellar this company is tops in the industry. After touring their pristine cooperage and witnessing their highly skilled workers (who rarely turn over) in action and the obvious camaraderie and respect for one another, from the sales and marketing department to the entire production team, we could see their vision for excellence handed down through four generations of Francois’. Humbled, I vowed never again to sound off again about the cost of these new barrels.
The older we get the younger the vignerons get; this was never more evident than in Burgundy where these “kids” are making some of the most famous Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the world. Impressed even further by generations spanning over 200 years we met two aspiring young winemakers in the Burgundy region. Close to the Francois Frere cooperage in Saint-Romain, in the gorgeous Côte D’Or, is Domaine Henri & Gilles Buisson (domaine-buisson.com) where young thirty-something Frédérick (Fred) Buisson handles a wine thief like a sword. He showed us around his old cellars where his grandfather and father made wines and where the Buisson family has been tending vines in that area since the 12th Century. We spent the afternoon tasting through numerous “super cool” (pronounced “sue-peh que-el”) appellations: Volnay, Meursault, Saint Romain, Corton, Beaune, Auxey Duresses, and Pommard. Sporting youthful energy and a too-young-to-be-a-French-winemaker boyish grin Fred dipped in and out of barrels depositing the elegant 2014 Pinot Noir amongst our glasses. Swirling, sniffing, and spitting (all over the floor) we realized we were in a special place as he searched high and low in the cellar to show off his best of the future. We wound up in the small tasting room where Frank, Gina and he talked about viticulture and winemaking the entire time. They bonded over Fred’s natural approach to wine growing (no pesticides or herbicides) & winemaking (native yeast, low SO2, long, slow, cool fermentations, gravity flow) resulting in noticeably higher quality wines. I hung out in the corner just watching them all “Yeah, yeah, yeah” each other whenever their noses weren’t buried in a glass – they were all speaking the same language.
Gina was beginning to see how this generational thing could be very super cool. Forget that in America she’s labeled a Snake Person; in France she’d be known as a second-generation winemaker. Next stop: Maison Capitain-Gagnerot, where we met up with yet another barely 31-year old winemaker named Pierre Francois Capitain. A family operation since 1802 Pierre, 8th generation vigneron and the son of Patrice, their viticulturist, recently acquired a parcel in Saint Romain and is making a name for himself. We were very impressed with his passion for his craft, the superb quality of the wines he’s producing and his respect for the generations before him as evidenced in the stories he shared about his family’s rich wine growing history and his desire to carry the torch.
Further north, in Champagne, we met Elodie Marion, a young, second-generation winemaker and daughter of Bernadette Marion-Bosser, at her small tasting room in Hautvillers, France, where 17C monk, Dom Pérignon discovered how to keep bubbles in a bottle. We were fortunate enough to also rent a small apartment above her tasting room. Elodie was already a wine grower, passionate about both the vineyard and winemaking. She studied viticulture and oenology in Beaune and is currently growing Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier on Premier Cru classified soils. She makes Brut, Rosé, Extra-Brut and Vintage Champagne. The real inspiration is that she has taken over the reigns from her mother, loves what she’s doing and is making exceptional Champagne – one generation passing down to the next.
It was here in Hautvillers, near Reims, in Champagne that we parted ways with Gina. Her three budding winemaker friends, two from Germany and one from South Africa, arrived in the dark at 5 a.m. to take her, and her small duffle bag and backpack, on a two week driving adventure visiting Biodynamic vineyards through the Loire, Bordeaux, Jura, Provence, and Spain while Frank and I, and the 50 pound, three wheeled “beast” headed for Chateauneuf du Pape.
We thoroughly enjoyed the last 10-days on our own, the places we visited, the winemakers we met, the amazing food we ate, and gorgeous wines we drank, all leading up to the endearing experience of us lugging around the 50 pound “beast” all the way back to Placerville. Although Frank and I were inspired by the respect the French have for passing down their rich wine and food heritage to the next generation it got us thinking about our own priorities with the generation tucking in behind us – our kids and grandkids to come. It wasn’t until this recent trip to France that we ever seriously thought of ourselves as first generation winemakers or truly considered the responsibility that goes along with that. Of course, as winery owners, we’ve always dreamed of one day passing the wine thief to one of our children (or to the adult children we threaten to adopt if our own abandon us) but what we really realized, more than anything else, is that no matter what the unknown future holds we concluded that the greatest thing Frank and Teena can pass down to the next generation might not be tangible; it may be our story.
Santé and blessings in 2016!
Frank & Teena Hildebrand, Narrow Gate Vineyards