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Michel Chapoutier

Michel Chapoutier took over the business from his father Max in 1990 at the age of 26, when he told his grandfather he wanted to stay in the business, but that to do so he would have to control the winery, and thus, effectively, kick his dad out of it.  The Chapoutier family can trace its history in the Rhône region back to 1808, but it was in 1879 that Polydor Chapoutier bought his first vineyards and started the actual business.  

The family motto is “Fac et Spera” – do and hope.  

Today the company, M. Chapoutier, owns nearly one-quarter of the vines in the Hermitage appellation. Michel has overseen a transition from a 550,000-bottle winery fashioning old-style wines into a 7 million bottles-per-year business. Chapoutier was also a pioneer in introducing braille on its labels, starting in 1994 with the Monier de la Sizeranne Hermitage wine. By 1996 this was expanded to include all wines bottled and sold by the Chapoutier winery, which for a time was the largest biodynamic winemaker in Europe. While Hermitage had historically been bottled as blends of various vineyard parcels, depending on the vintners' holdings, Michel Chapoutier took a Burgundian approach, producing single-vineyard, small-production wines from within the appellation. The family also makes wines in Australia and Portugal and other parts of France, and has both a negociant and an import business.  

Read Dorothy J. Gaiter's column on Michel Chapoutier.

I’ve read somewhere that you were the first person to get back to back to back 100 points from Parker? 

We are the winery that has received the most 100 point in the world.

That’s amazing. People have criticized him which I guess happens when you are the number one, most important critic.

That’s’ the thing that I was playing with. People were criticizing some winemakers because they wanted to do the wine for Parker and not for them, [their taste.] But Parker, his taste was going to more and more elegant wine. The people who sacrificed their wine for him, and when didn’t have a good grade, they were upset. I think it was a good thing that they were punished by this attitude.

Chapoutier

Les Granits - Saint Joseph (all photos credit  M. Chapoutier) 

They were lying to themselves.

The best game to do is to take the description of the wine graders and put … I did that. It was very interesting. You put that under some papers on the table and you put six different wines out. The idea is, you read [the descriptions], you taste the wine and you look for the category. Parker was the guy I had always the best result.

 

You are the largest biodynamically farmed winemaking company in Europe, right?

I don’t know in Europe … In the past I was in Europe but there is a big winery that is making biodynamic wine now. I don’t know if it’s real biodynamic also because there is not a definition of what is biodynamic.

Why biodynamic and not organic?

Because to understand it is chemical, organic, biodynamic. Chemical is, I have a headache; I want to take an aspirin. Maybe my first mistake is that I consider a syndrome like a disease. Organic finally is the same philosophy as chemical. The only one difference is I replace the chemical molecule with a natural molecule. Instead of taking the aspirin; aspirin is acid salicylic, I will use the willow bark, an organic substance. With the willow bark I will do herb tea to extract the molecule. It is aspirin but natural aspirin.

I am still confusing the symptom and the disease. In biodynamic then the question will be more important than the answer and the question will be why do I have headache? Is it because of blood pressure? Is it because of cholesterol? Then I will go to the spring, to the origin of the disease, and we will integrate one thing which is the energy. We consider for instance, that when you are tired you call the disease.

If you have no deficiency you are resistant to part of the disease. When you are tired, you can catch the flu. But if you are not, you will not catch it. If I would like to go more in the origin of the biodynamic it is quite interesting because the biodynamic philosophy was created by Rudolf Steiner. Rudolf Steiner is the guy who created anthroposophy but he used to be a theosoph. What was the theosophy? Theosophy was a way of thinking created by Helena Blavatsky in the 19th century.

This Russian woman left Russia because she was married to a very aggressive general and she wanted to run away. She passed all her life, studying the Shamanic civilization, white civilization. She wrote a book which observed that all religion and all civilization are the same religion. From Indian, from American, American-Indian, like Chinese, like the South Americans, all civilizations everywhere.

That’s interesting because when, if I should say to understand the biodynamic there is another way to understand it. I would say it is the occidental application of the Thales philosophy based on the energy. When I make some work with traditional Chinese medicine, it is exactly the same philosophy.

Really?

Finally it is the application of this thinking where, I mean the Chinese in the Thales way of thinking the energy is more important than the material. You know what is interesting, in the same time the quantum mechanics of discovering that the deeper you go in the material, the more you realize that there is only emptiness and movement and energy but no material. Quantum Mechanics is arriving now to give the answer on biodynamic philosophy.

You’re a deep guy.

No.

Chapoutier

Dorothy J. Gaiter: I’m going to ask you about André Arnaud these people and your love of Chapoutier and soil.

Michel Chapoutier: André was a farmer. He had three daughters, and the three daughters left to go to the city. This old couple, I was like their adopted child because I never spent holidays with my parents.

This was in the mountains, right?

In the mountains. I used to pass all of my holidays in the mountains. I was taking care of the cows and working. These people were amazing. They didn’t invest in their farm. I have known the farm work of the 19th century.

You learned how to do it.

We were cutting hay or we had a cow pulling the loads. The dried herb we were turning by hand not by tractor, all these things. I think one of the secrets of the story of my company is when I was in the field looking after the cows from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., there was nothing to do. It’s at this time that you work your capacity for imagination.

What did you think about?

Plenty of things. I think that you build your creativity. You need to be bored to be creative and that’s the biggest problem of the society of today. The children are no longer bored and if they are no longer bored they have no imagination.

That’s a very interesting thought. If everything is given to them … If things come too easily and their mind is preoccupied, they don’t have time to think and be creative.

The neurologists know that there is the left brain and the right brain. The right brain is the spiritual brain but also the site of creativity. If your left brain is always used and occupied by games and things like that, you never have time for your right brain to develop. I bought the winery of my grandfather when it was in bankruptcy in 1990. During ten years we never knew if we would be able to save this winery.

 A few times we were in this difficult situation. What surprised me each time was that I had an extravagant or original idea to find a solution. People were asking, “How do you have this idea?” Each time I told them, “Probably because all my summers I was in the field watching the cows; no games, no reading, nothing.” Just let your brain … how can we say that gap all day? The brain …

Travels.

Travels, yes.

One idea that you had that I thought was just amazing was after Parker liked your first wine, you were getting good press and some sales were starting, but you convinced your importer in the US and Japan and Great Britain to destroy the wines that they had and you sent them new better wines, not your father’s wine.

It was because I didn’t want to have the two wines on the market, the wine that my father made that I didn’t like. To convince them I just said, “I will pay for that. I don’t have yet the money, but when you buy my wine for 100,000 Euro you will pay me only 80,000, so 20% by 20%. I will pay for the old stock.

They did it.

They did it and they supported it. It was interesting because that  permitted us to re-launch our wines. What was funny was that after five years the business was going up, but not because of profits. The money was going back to pay for this old wine. I couldn’t tell that to my bankers because they would have the business in bankruptcy immediately. Then they started to be nervous, saying that, “We don’t understand this. You have more and more business but no profit.”

You’ve talked about wine and the earth in their place. Where does the winemaker fit in, in all of this? In the U.S. the winemaker tends to be a superstar. For a while now, they have begun to say that good wines are actually made in the vineyard. Where are you?

It’s important to consider that the vinegrower is the guy who is making, developing, the potential quality. I don’t want to say Échelle.

The ladder? The scale?.

The steps, yeah. Then I got the steps and the winemaker is the guy who can climb the steps but he can’t go farther, higher, than the last step. That means a good winemaker will transform 100% of potential quality, and one who isn’t good might transform only 20%, but no winemaker is able to create quality. The quality is only created in the vineyard.

I like to make the comparison. Previously in our society you have some impression that the winemaker is more important that the vine grower. Why? Because the winemaker’s position is very often in the office, when the vine grower is in the vineyard. The winemaker can be at a good place to have the good profession because he is the office next to the boss.

He is in the office.

In various cases, you see some winemakers who are vice president. You never see a vine grower or viticulturists who are vice presidents. Another example, in the company you have the sales people who are the people who make the money come in the company and the marketing people who pretend that the money is coming from them. What you see is because the marketing people are in the office when the sales people are on the street. The marketing people are always are at a good place to get a promotion for themselves.

Plenty of people think that everything is marketing. Marketing without sales is nothing. The money to pay for marketing comes from the income of the sales.

You took over your grandfather’s business in 1990 when you were 26? That was really young. You thought about becoming a chef but you went to wine instead. What was the first thing you did to the winery?

It was not in the winery, it was in the vineyard. In the winery we stopped using chestnut barrels.

What did you did in the vineyard differently?

We stopped herbicides and things like that. We immediately went to  biodynamic farming.

Chapoutier

Les Greffieux - Ermitage

Okay. At some point you had such a demand for your wines that you didn’t have the wine to satisfy that demand, I read.  And you refused to dilute what you had. You said that you were not going to do that.

I didn’t want to lie to me.

Very cool. Okay. What do you think of natural wines?

Some of that’s interesting but just the concept. Can we have natural wine, or can the wine be natural? That’s another way to ask the question.

…When you say we have to try to work with lower levels of sulfite, that makes sense, and everybody is working on this…For me the first question is why do people exaggerate so much against sulfites? There is too often too much sulfite, but sulfites are necessary to make wine. Then for the natural wines we can play at trying to make wine with no sulfites. The problem is that I would say nine times out of ten you have some deficiency like oxidation, volatile acidity.

A winemaker who makes a natural wine would be honest if he would have the courage to destroy the wines with defects. What I have a problem with is that the people who make the nine wines out of ten that have defects, they don’t destroy them. They put them in the market.

That’s the way it’s supposed to taste?

I can understand sometimes because they need the money or they face bankruptcy. But when they start saying that this is what it’s supposed to taste like, it’s like if you would say before the invention of the fridge, the butter was oxidized. The good taste of the butter is an oxidized butter. Before people were having eggs with sulfite taste because they had no fridge also. That is the original taste of the egg.

That means we would be obliged to have all this historical bad taste by snobbism. For me I’m sorry, the concept of natural wine is an interesting game or challenge to trying to work with less sulfites. When I see the result I say this has to be a snobbish fashion which is not very respectful of the consumer.

You’ve also talked about not improving or not affecting the vintage, not correcting it. What nature gives you, you bottle.

The idea is the terroir is the soil, the climate and the human. When you speak about climate; the climate is not only the micro climate, influence of the south orientation, influence of the sea, et cetera. It is also the characteristic of the vintage. If you put a vintage on the bottle, you are giving information about the signature of the climate. For me if you put the vintage on the bottle that mean that you are keeping the originality of the climate of this year.

When you make Champagne from a blend, obviously you don’t put the vintage on it because you try to have the same taste every year.

Consistency.

Consistency. If you put a vintage on the bottle, that means you are not looking for consistency. Difficult to say.

It is hard to say.

Yeah.

Yes, especially without Champagne.

Yeah, but maybe after two bottles of Champagne it is also difficult. That’s interesting because we said a few words about the marketing. The wine is not the marketing of the wine. The AOC wine, appellation wine, is not a ‘marketing of the ask.’ What I call ‘the marketing of the ask,’ it is what the consumer is asking I will give him. [What I will give him] that is ‘the marketing of the offer.’ When you go to a gallery you will not say to the painter, “I will buy your painting if you put a little more green here and a little more blue.”

You laugh but it is what the marketing people try to put in our head sometimes: ‘You should make a wine with a little more of this or a little of that, and you know in the negotiation for AOC, people want you to have more sugar or want that...’ Okay. If you do that you have brands, you brand the wine. But you don’t use the AOC system. What is ‘the marketing of the offer?’

‘The marketing of the offer’ is a project that we do without thinking of the consumer. We try to look for the purity and then the sales person or the journalist will explain it to the consumer. I have an example to illustrate that. My first music class I was with friends and we were more into rock music and the teacher wanted to teach us classical music. We laughed at him, and he made us listen to some classical music.

Then after, he explained the music. He caught our attention on certain points and at the end we liked the music. When the marketers say we have to go to the taste of the consumer, but the consumer doesn’t know his taste, the idea is to say, ‘no, you have to explain it.’ For me ‘the marketing of the offer’ is you make a product  which is pure, and if the consumer doesn’t understand it immediately, you take the time to explain.

Chapoutier

Parcelle Les Murets - De l'Oree - Ermitage

At the same time you’ve said that a good wine is a wine that you want to have a second glass of.

Exactly.

That’s a very basic thing, your enjoyment of it. Aren’t you worried that if people think that they have to have something explained to them that they won’t enjoy it on a certain level?

That’s at a certain level. But a wine has to be pleasing. That means the rise to the most concentrated wine was dangerous. There were some wines that were so impressive, but they gave you no pleasure. When you need to have a fork and a knife to taste a wine, you are no more in the notion of pleasure. It was especially because of this concentration,  because they want a deep color, that people forgot that some grapes like Pinot Noir and Bovale are not dark. Pinot Noir has never been deep. Like the Counoise.

When I say things to explain wine, it is sometimes to catch attention. You will have some people who will not understand. When I started I had no money so I had a second job teaching tasting courses to private clients. And it was interesting, because when they were giving these wines marks and those other wines marks, it enabled them to make a connection between them and the wine. Then they were interested.

Okay. That ‘explained it’ to them.

They said, “You are right. That’s smell is blackberry. You’re right that smell is this. That smell is honey. They go, “That’s amazing.” Then they say finally, “I love that.” There are plenty of things like people for instance, an example you’ll still find people drinking the coffee with sugar. If you don’t like bitterness don’t drink bitter, but the coffee permanently should be drunk without sugar.

When you say this to these people, they say, “I am free. I do what I want.” When you say, “Okay, we make a bet: try to drink your coffee without sugar for three days. You can never come back to sugar.” Then they say after, “How could I drink my coffee with sugar?” That means there is some…we know that there is some evolution of the taste that if we help you to discover them you will love it.

You have to.

The sweetness is a taste of the children. People are so scared to age that they are scared to cut their taste with the sugar. Normally we should run away from sugar when we start to be adult but they are scared technologically to cut the connection with sugar.

You’ve talked about fruit. Fruit is to wine what disco is to music; a lovely quote.

I like to say that because people were so much obsessed by the fruit and to have the maximum of fruit what they were doing was to bring down the temperature of fermentation. If you consider that wine is an aromatic symphony, the yeast of the fermentation will transform the sugar into alcohol with their personal aromatic notes, like a symphonic orchestra. The diversity of yeasts will result in a diversity of the aromas. [Here, Michel argues that some selector yeasts are used to maximize the fruitiness of wines at the expense of complexity, length and ageability.]                       

…. We need to have disco wine. The life with only opera would be boring. I like to say and with my different political function in the wine industry I will say that everybody who makes expensive wine should have the obligation to make first price [entry-level] wine, because we have to take care of young people. We have to take care of people who don’t have enough money to buy expensive wine.

Tell us about your ranges. You were talking about having wines that are affordable to young people and people without a lot of money. You have a full range.

Yes, and each trend has to be working in different way. Single vineyards and the Cru are coming from my vineyards. Then we will have the Cru which are more-volume Cru. Then here we will enter contracts and buy grapes to vinify.

That’s interesting because we have as condition of our contract consulting with the people with whom we work. Then we have some contracts for the wine where people are making the wine for us with our methods. I work with certain wine makers in their wineries and we follow their vineyards and they do the wines for us with our contract and our philosophy. That’s important because that permits us to have an affordable price. Because these people usually have their vineyard paid for and their winery paid for.

You have a single vineyard range and then you have a wholesaler grower range? Then you have an import company? You said that you wanted to fight against French chauvinism …

We do import and now that I am the president of Inter-Rhône, [the professional association representing the A.O.C. wines of Côtes du Rhône and the Rhone Valley], I’m work on a new project which is to send the children of wine makers to other wine countries. We are working on this. When they are 14 or 15-years old we want them to go to live in California, in Washington state or in Australia in a wine family. We want them to open their mind, to learn English and to have an open mind. What’s helped me a lot is because I lived with a wine family in California.

Really? Tell me that story.

I was staying at Grace Family Vineyards. With Dick Grace and Ann Grace. I think it was about ’82, ’81. That was the time when Craig William arrived at Phelps. André Tchelistcheff, was still present and still smoking as much as ever. I loved the daughter Andree. She was so pretty. Now, you know it was…

That was a good period in California.

Yes, and that opened my mind. That obliged me to realize that in California they were so much in advance in the wine making process that the best weapon of the historical [vineyards of the Old World] or Europe was the [living microbial life] in the soil. Because the vine is building itself, it’s own environment. The bacteria around the roots are digesting the soil, and decade after decade, century after century. They transform the soil to make it better and better for the vines.

In Europe we have many more centuries of this process than the New World. When I said that in Australia they don’t like but it is true…The vine is doing its own soil. The vine is improving its own soil.

Chapoutier

Le Ermite - Ermitage

It’s amazing. You said that in Hermitage you’ve got 4 geological eras in that one location. That must be pretty exciting to see the taste that comes from this fossil and that fossil.

It is for that that I wanted to do single vineyards because, that was the discussion we had quite often in California. Plenty of people consider that the terroir was only the climate. Now they are in agreement that terroir is soil, climate and humans. I wanted to show that if you had the same climate, the same vine growing, the same wine maker and you could compare the same vintage, when you change soil you change style of the wine or taste of the wine.

Of course that is right only when you are working with wild genes, because if you take selector genes you lose a part of this signature.

Now, when you were looking to expand Northern Rhône was very expensive, so you decided to do casting calls of soils elsewhere.

Exactly.

That led you to Australia and Africa as well, right?

For now we have Portugal. We are making some investment in Portugal but we’ll do also in Spain.

The problem of wine is that with the evolution of the climate [becoming hotter] you have more and more wine with a high level of alcohol for you to drink. That’s only one of the big questions for the future; what are we doing with the level of alcohol? How can we work to have a lower level of alcohol? You can make wine at 15, 16% of alcohol later.

They are not fun to drink a lot of them?

No.

They are hard work?

Yeah. I think that this, there was a fashion in certain places and we see that they stopped to be trendy… They still sell but they’re wines which are sold to age but they are not drunk. That’s a real question that wine makers should think on. What can we do to stabilize the percentage of alcohol in the wine? We need to have some disco wine, 10% of alcohol, high level of carbonic gas. I like carbonic gas because it is antioxidant. Yes, it’s an antioxidant that means that you will work with less sulfites. 


Dorothy J. Gaiter conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal's wine column, "Tastings," from 1998 to 2010 with her husband, John Brecher. She has been tasting and studying wine since 1973.



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