The other day I had a chance to ask Dave Phinney and Eugenia Keegan, two Americans making wine in Maury, why they were so excited about grenache.
Phinney: “You know I think winemakers really like grenache, but it never reaches it’s potential in California. There it’s weak, almost pink, it’s not hot enough to fully ripen. Here we can make a really exciting wine.”
Keegan: “People have made great wine from grenache in Chateauneuf du Pape and Priorat, but in the US people buy wine by variety and I think a lot of people come here driven by the desire to create a new category in the American market. As Dave said, I think winemakers do really like grenache and we feel it can make great wines here and we’d like to see it have a place on store shelves and restaurant lists. There is a huge amount of grenache here, most of it old vines and the price is affordable when compared with the Rhone or the new world.”
A few days later, I was out with the Calvet crew, this time picking the first harvest from vineyards Keegan had bought last year. She has been in the wine business 35 years – mostly in California and Oregon – but this was the first time she had harvested grapes from her own land. These were small plots, totaling less than 2 hectares (about 4 acres) of old vine grenache. The yield was small and Keegan wanted to make sure every grape was picked, but with Marie leading the crew, she needn’t have worried.
Back in the winery, processing has begun. The Calvets have a very sophisticated de-stemming machine that can be tuned to the size of the grapes going through so that you lose the desiccated over-ripe fruit and keep only the good stuff. Once through that process it rolls down a conveyor belt where Jean-Roger, his father, Eugenia and two employees were picking off bits of leaf and stem and the raisins which most people keep to increase concentration but Eugenia didn’t want. The berries then go whole into the fermentation tank. There was a spot open on the sorting line, so I put down the camera and jumped in to get my hands dirty. In no time at all I was a seasoned veteran with a sore back and Eugenia had the cleanest fruit in town.
The guy from Napa is big in Maury. He owns 108 hectares (238 acres) of vineyards and a large state-of-the-art winery where he makes big powerful wines for the American market. He made his name in the US with The Prisoner, a zinfandel-based blend that grew from the initial 385 cases to 70,000 when he sold the label and inventory to Huneeus Vintners in 2009.
When I asked Phinney to what he attributed the success of the Prisoner he replied:
“Good winemaking.” He smiled and added: “Of course we were in the right time and the right place and it wasn’t an overnight success. It took 10 years to really establish the brand, but if you have the right wine, at the right price, in the right package, it will sell.”
When I said it really sounded like a triumph of marketing, he said: “I’m not interested in that. I want to make the best wine I can and if I do the rest will take care of itself.”
This is the message and he’s very disciplined in sticking to it with only slight variations. He’s in Maury because of the amazing potential of this terroir. He’s intent on making the best wine he can by respecting the terroir and, is confident that in the long run it will be profitable.
Here, he’s applying his opulent, concentrated, high alcohol style to the old vine grenache that dominates the vineyards to make wine for the American market. The initial label, D66, has now been joined by Shatter, a wine made from vineyards farmed by members of the Cave Cooperative. Phinney and his team selected and managed the vineyards and invested in a renovation of some coop facilities. They then purchased the wine from the coop, bottled it here and sell it in the US in a joint venture with Joel Gott and Trinchero Family Estates. Not your typical negociant deal, but spread the numbers over sufficient volume and the profit potential comes into focus.
Talking with Phinney he seems almost uninterested in the business end of the business, but his success would seem to belie that image. He came to Maury because the vines, soil and climate promised the right conditions to make wine in the style he prefers. And it didn’t hurt that the land prices here are like a rounding error in California. He bought vineyards that were going to be torn out because the families that owned them could no longer work them and certainly that eased the retirement of some residents. The village government was more than happy to welcome him, but rapid expansion in a place where change is usually slow to come, makes some people uneasy. Whether it’s jealousy or foresight remains to be seen. His Maury property and production are growing rapidly and new ventures have been launched in Spain and Italy with more locations to follow. But ask him about the business or marketing side of wine and he’ll respond: “Respect the terroir, make the best wine you can, and the economics will follow.”
I felt like a reporter at a political convention: stay on message Dave.
Thursday marks one year to the day since I arrived in Maury, a chance to indulge in a bit of reflection. I came here because I had to change and because I thought I could make a book here. The book was to be the story of what happens to a traditional rural village when new money comes in to build wineries and make new “International” wines from the old vines that for centuries have been farmed by local families and delivered to the coop to make strong, if mostly undistinguished table wines and a well known fortified sweet wine that is drunk as an aperitif. I was interested in exploring the downside of globalization by drawing a portrait of a village undergoing radical change from rural and isolated to a “wine experience” where tourists flock to bask in the glory of the latest cult wines. I expected to find that locals were being driven off their land and out of their homes by rising prices. I thought the younger generation would be abandoning the village for the city because they could no longer envision succeeding their parents in the family vineyards. I expected corporate hotels and cute B&B’s to be on the drawing board. So what has happened here? Not much.
Change happens but here, everything happens very slowly. Certainly there is new money being invested in the region and that will have some effect in the years to come, but for now the effect is benign. Dave Phinney, (aka: the guy from Napa) has bought 100 hectares of vineyards that were scheduled to be torn out either because they were not productive enough, or because the family had no one left to farm them. That’s about one million euros into a local economy that sorely needs it. Yes, he’s built a winery that seems designed to keep people away and yes, he makes blockbuster, high alcohol, wines for the U.S. market and he will sell them because Phinney is a master marketer. But who is this hurting? Do other winemakers feel they have to keep upping the ante by making bigger wines to match? I don’t see it. The French don’t feel as if they’re being exploited, on the contrary, they argue that all publicity is good and all Maury winemakers stand to profit if the town becomes better known in the wine world.
This is arguable of course, but the mayor, an incurable optimist, believes that change can be managed. He foresees a time when as much as 50% of the vineyards might be owned by outsiders and a free interchange of skills and ideas benefits everyone. That’s a tall order but Charley has the combination of warmth and charisma that makes you want to believe. We’ll see.
There are others here now and they all add something a little different: Marcel Buhler has gone from being a Swiss banker to an organic wine grower. Katie Jones is getting good press for her wines. Eugenia Keegan just bought some vineyards. There’s a group of Mexican vintners just over the hill and Chapoutier from the Rhone just released his first Roussillon wine in the US.
All of this activity has taken place in the last ten years but there aren’t many obvious signs of change in the village. There are about thirty independent wineries in town and more often than not you’ll find multiple generations working together. The coop membership has stabilized with about 130 growers and a goal of making equal amounts of sweet and dry wines. I’ve recently been working with a marketing committee there composed of three men and two women all in their 20’s.
So change is slow and the book I envisioned is not going to happen, well it might be done some day but not by me. I think the impact on the village of the new wineries of today is twenty years away from being evident. I don’t have that kind of patience. Instead, I’ll provide a source for that writer down the road: a portrait of the village as it is today, a look at some of the surrounding area, and a discussion of the only game in town, making wine. The interesting thing about this for me is how much personal taste and philosophy determine the final product. Every winemaker will tell you that the wine she is making truly expresses the terroir from which it comes; yet there are huge differences in wines from the same place. I realize that even a small difference in location, even within the same vineyard, can make a difference in the wine, but the more profound differences come from the mind of the winemaker.
Here’s how Larry Walker put it in an email:
“Maury Grenache will produce what it is told to produce within certain limits. Those limits are very flexible and are set by the will of the winemaker: how ripe do I let these grapes get? How long do I leave them on the skins? How long in oak and what % of new oak–and there are a lot of other details but those are the Big Three: grape ripeness, skin contact, barrel treatment.”
I’ve produced a first step book through Blurb that I originally thought I’d use as a portfolio sample to try to persuade tourist and trade organizations to sponsor the book by agreeing to buy a substantial number of copies. Now I think I’m just going to produce the book I want to make and then see if anyone’s interested in publishing it, which is kind of how this whole thing started.