It is quite possible that, more than any other profession, the wine industry, whose tireless emissaries passionately extoll the virtues of the vine – the irresistibly engaging history of which speaks to the creativity of the human spirit and its relationship to the natural world – is disproportionately populated with eminent storytellers whose tales have often been forged by their profound love of the land and a particular site’s capacity for delivering the ethereal.
In the heart of the Napa valley, Christian Moueix – an intensely dedicated proprietor, enologist and steward of the vine – is one such emissary. His family’s deep, industry roots and historical properties on the Right bank of the great wine-producing region of Bordeaux, along with his love for California’s Napa valley and the world-class estate he owns and maintains there, make his one of the most unique and compelling voices in the world of wine today.
I recently spoke with him about his family’s history, his perspective on the wine industry and the philosophy that animates his place in it.
(This is the first of a two-part feature)
SlaveToTheGrape: You have deep roots in the right bank region of Bordeaux. Can you talk about the family’s history in the area?
Christian Moueix: My grandfather arrived in 1931 at the time of the Great Depression because they could not make a living in the central, Correze region of France where they were poor farmers. That’s how we arrived in Libourne, in St.-Emilion. It’s always difficult to realize that at that time, the vineyards were worth nothing, which remained true until 1970 more or less. Whenever you lose money year after year with something, you are happy to get rid of it for nothing. So, even speaking of my father when he told me that he acquired LaFleur Pétrus in 1950, Trotanoy in ’53 and Magdelaine in ’52 I said, “dad, how did you have the money, you were a young man?” It was worth nothing. Well, it was not nothing but a small amount.
My father, as a young man in the thirties began selling his father’s wine and he was so talented for selling wine that he opened his wine merchant business in 1937 in Libourne becoming a very astute wine merchant, selling the wine from the neighbors and developing the business, foreseeing in the fifties that the future of the business was in the estates and not in being a wine merchant. Even in my youth, I remember very clearly, the wine merchants were the kings. The top six or seven in Bordeaux would meet and say, “okay, this year we pay this price for the first growth, for the second growth.” There was no choice. The growers would sell at that price or they would keep their wine. Today, we beg the top producers for ten more cases. It’s a big circle and it may change again, who knows?
STTG: The 2012 harvest seemed to be one of good to very good quality in Bordeaux, particularly for the Merlot-driven wines of the right bank. In contrast, the 2013 harvest saw some unnerving weather events in the form of violent storms, heavy rain in late July and early August as well as sporadic weather in September. Can you contrast the two vintages across your domains in the region?
CM: We have had three difficult harvests in a row, ’11 and ’12 and of course ’13. 2012 was uneven but there was the possibility of producing I would say, average to good quality. I am always more severe (in my assessments, sic) as you know.
When the season is difficult, Merlot always has an advantage because it is picked roughly two weeks before compared to the Cabernet varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon. We have a chance to save the crop two weeks earlier when the season is poor. In 2012 there are probably some very good wines in Merlot and some good wines in Cabernet but it was more difficult for Cabernet. For 2013 it’s definitely too early to say. It was one of the most difficult vintages of my long career with as you say, violent storms, heavy rain. In a way, when some people complain I say, “hey, if that terrible weather had happened in a beautiful crop then that would be sad but we have only half a crop and we will finish probably with one-third of a crop so it’s not the same kind of disaster. At least for the big châteaux they are the lucky ones; for the small growers it’s a financial disaster and many of them will not survive three small crops in a row with this one close to a disaster – especially for those hit by hailstones.
I think that some Merlot wines will be of decent to good quality but with tiny quantities. The bloom was so uneven, spread out over two to three weeks that I decided to cut all the late clusters making for half a crop already. Then if you cut the third of the clusters that were late you have only one ton an acre before selection so it’s a tiny quantity. And of course, a difficult vintage is more costly not only because we produce small quantities, but because you need to spray more (against disease, etc.). We sprayed fifteen times which is a world record for us and very expensive. People will say, “we produce such a small quantity it needs to be expensive.” But that’s not what you want to hear as a consumer. It’s an average quality and they don’t want to pay as much as for good quality. So it will be a very difficult spring next year.
STTG: Merlot is unquestionably a dominant voice in the wines from this area, so much so that right bank, Bordeaux producers are at times referred to as Merlot specialists. Why is this variety so at home there and what is its typical expression in the area?
CM: It’s not easy to answer. I would say that it’s some question of (vine density, sic) why do we have ten thousand vines per hectare in the Médoc and six thousand five hundred on our side. It’s the result of centuries of experience. Even in my lifetime I got rid of so much Cabernet Franc. It is very difficult to find the right clone and it’s herbaceous one year out of two. Cabernet Sauvignon on the right bank doesn’t get ripe. It’s a question of adaptation through centuries. I cannot say scientifically why Merlot is better on our side than Cabernet honestly. We are slightly more continental even if it is only by thirty or forty miles. So, our climate on the right bank is slightly warmer. I think it is more than one degree during the year. As you see there is no clear answer to that.
STTG: You attended the University of California, Davis in the late sixties to study enology and viticulture. Why did you choose to come to California for this training rather than complete these studies in France?
CM: I was an engineer in France. I was still quite young – I think I was seventeen or something like that – which was kind of unusual. I didn’t want to join the family company that early. What were the choices? There were three great universities for viticulture: there was Germany that was more for white wine, there was Rosemount in Australia and there was Davis so that was kind of a clear choice. Besides, we were very close friends with a family that we loved at the time that was in the wine business, the Van der voort.
Henry Van der voort was a great friend of my father’s; I was friends with his sons who were my generation. That was kind of a safety (net, sic) to have friends in San Francisco. Henry was so nice to me and like a second father. I had in fact three fathers: I had my father, Henry Van der voort and later on, Bob Mondavi who really protected me. So, it was an easy choice to come to Davis.
…to be continued
Slave to the grape – worse fates there have been!