It is quite possible that, more than any other profession, the wine industry, whose faithful emissaries passionately extoll the virtues of the irresistibly engaging, historical footprint of the vine that speaks to the essence of the human spirit and its relationship to the natural world, is disproportionately layered with eminent storytellers whose tales have often been forged by their profound love of the land and a given site’s capacity for delivering the ethereal.
In the heart of the Napa valley, on the outskirts of Yountville, an intensely dedicated proprietor, enologist and steward of the vine by the name of Christian Moueix, 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 second of a two-part feature)
SlaveToTheGrape: In the early nineteen-eighties Robert Mondavi introduced you to Robin Lail and Marcia Smith, daughters of the California wine pioneer, John Daniel Jr. This would prove to be a very significant chapter in your relationship to winemaking in California. Can you describe this encounter and its ultimate outcome?
Christian Moueix: Mondavi I had met on many, many occasions because he was the one to visit France and to be of course comparing his wines to our French wines. We did many tastings together in the ‘70s and he would ask me technical questions. Can you imagine returning from California in the late sixties and beginning to work in Libourne in 1970 the kind of life change it meant for a young man? So, I had the dream of returning to California. I returned on a few occasions in the seventies. I told Bob that I was looking for a vineyard in California.
I came to prospect seriously in 1981. Bob told me, “by the way Christian, I may introduce you to two women who have a beautiful vineyard and they may consider a joint venture.” That’s the way I was introduced to Robin Lail and Marcia Smith. We got along very well right away. Even though I was much younger, I reminded them of their father in terms of being kind of old-fashioned. We signed the joint venture in May of ’82.
I admire them. I see Robin from time to time. They were very confident because I wrote what I called at the time, The Philosophy of a Joint Venture which was my firm proposal and the first sentence was: I need twenty years to produce a good wine. How many Americans will go into a joint venture if you tell them such a thing? I am really grateful to them for being confident in my talent if I dare to say (laughs) and my ability to produce a wine in twenty years. I had two rules in that first proposal: no irrigation, no acidification. I hope I will be an example for many growers in California who keep irrigating as much as they can. On the other hand acidification was such a huge process at the time. I think that most top wineries have given up acidification and that’s why the wines are more friendly than they used to be – in Napa at least.
STTG: Your Yountville, California venture, Dominus Estate has evolved into a Napa valley icon crafting world-class, Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated wines from the historic Napanook vineyard. What for you are the defining, qualitative elements of this estate?
CM: The concept of no irrigation for me is philosophically very important. If you irrigate, the roots congregate around the surface because you hydrate them at the surface. If you don’t irrigate, the roots search for moisture and burrow deep into the soil as a result. We have dug down many times and have seen that the roots are at ten and sometimes even up to fifteen feet deep into the soil. This is how you achieve the taste of the terroir. If your roots are on the surface you can’t have the real taste of your terroir. It’s basic but people often don’t seem to understand this notion.
The vineyard at Dominus fully expresses its terroir. There is no question that it is one of the beautiful vineyards in the valley. In addition there is a kind of climatological equilibrium between Calistoga that is too hot and the fog that comes up from the bay to the south. It is really a sight in the valley that is in balance between Yountville and Oakville.
STTG: For the design of the current winery facilities, you made the decision to employ the services of two renowned, Swiss architects, Herzog & De Meuron. Can you speak a bit about why you chose this firm and give us a sense of the credentials of these two men?
CM: I did not know the architects. This was really Cherise’s choice. I had previously considered other architects before Cherise entered my life exactly twenty years ago. I had considered older architects including I.M. Pei. She responded that my approach was missing the point and that I needed to work with architects from my generation and that the dialogue should be one between peers whereas I would have had to address I.M. Pei as master (laughs). With Herzog & DeMeuron, we are very good friends, we socialize. She knew them because she ran a gallery and attended the Basil fair every year where she was exposed to their work. They were younger of course at the time and she saw that they had great talent. We offered the project to them and since they were wine lovers they showed immediate interest. We became very good friends.
From a technical perspective I knew exactly what I wanted; from an aesthetic point of view I had no idea. At the time people were building flashy wineries. My only demand was that the winery be invisible and that it emanate from the soil. They executed this masterfully; it seems to have pushed up through the soil like a mushroom!
STTG: Let’s switch gears for a moment from Christian Moueix, artisan winemaker to Christian Moueix businessman and industry analyst. How do you view the global wine trade today compared to say twenty years ago and where do you see the industry headed in the future?
CM: I have never really considered myself a businessman as it were. I have a good farmer’s sense of things and I don’t like to be too risky in my approach. What worries me today is the globalization of wine where all wines are made in the same way as if from a recipe. This approach is detrimental to the vineyard itself obviously. There are winery owners who know very little about wine who enlist vineyard and wine gurus with the singular goal of achieving 99 or 100 points from (Robert, sic) Parker. They don’t care about anything else. This creates an environment where wines resemble each other more and more. What worries me in this approach is that the vineyards are increasingly neglected. This is valid both here and in Bordeaux.
Ultimately, the wheel turns. We are going to see this in Bordeaux where with three difficult vintages in a row a lot of people, even big châteaux are going to suffer. These cycles last roughly thirty years and we currently are dealing with lean vintages. It is good for people who think we make good wines every year.
As an example, in the spring of 1972 I was having lunch with a top Médoc producer, who was one of the first to develop reverse osmosis which for me, by the way, is a catastrophic technique for wine production because it allows you to mask all the mistakes that have been made at every level. Anyway, he said to me, “you know, today with our technical abilities we can no longer make bad wines.” I said, “ Wait a bit. If we have a poor summer, we’ll make bad wine.” 1972 was one of the worst vintages we have ever seen! It began to rain virtually the next day. It rained right up to the harvest and we made terrible wines.
While we have made some advances in the last forty years in the world of enology, when nature is against us – as in 2013 for example – we are almost completely helpless. It is undoubtedly easier at a certain age to be more philosophical at times like these rather than let one’s emotions take over. In the end, this is just part of a cycle.
STTG: When you reflect upon your professional accomplishments, what are you most proud of?
CM: In France, I followed in the footsteps of my father who was an exceptional man. I honestly believe that I wasn’t as effective as him frankly. I tried to sustain the business (in the transition, sic) between my father and my son Edouard who will possibly have a better business sense than me.
Honestly, what I’m most proud of today is Dominus. I started from practically nothing. The terroir is outstanding. In the beginning what is gratifying is that I borrowed the money. My reputation and that of my family helped of course as well as a few friends like Van der voort and Abe Simon in particular. Parker also gave me good scores from the beginning. But at the end of the day, as I sit here in my office, everything I see around me is beautiful. This is really the unique achievement for which I deserve a bit of recognition (chuckling).
STTG: Lastly, in a few words, what is it about wine that so inspires you?
CM: My primary objective is the pursuit of harmony – to create a product that seduces and that at times exudes class. But above all, wine for me is a way of communicating with people. First, hopefully, I have rarely put my name on a bottle of wine that was not well made – within its category of course. This for me is extremely important. I never want to attach my name to a bad wine.
Wine is like a message in a bottle that I send out to people who are going to drink it – maybe not in Timbuktu – but in Palaiseau or Chicago for example. They are going to be able to open the bottle with confidence. It is a love letter of sorts and to think that I am going to give joy to people whom I will never know is for me an extraordinary opportunity!
Furthermore, this is the only way that one can compare us to an artist. When I hear winemakers being referred to as artists I say, wait a minute, we have such little merit compared to a poet, a painter, etc. We don’t need talent, we need to apply ourselves and respect nature.
To think that this is a message that is going to make people happy completely captures my philosophy about wine. It is truly fantastic to send this message out to the world and for me a great pleasure! This is how I see it.
Slave to the grape – worse fates there have been!