Time to Dream and Disconnect
Today our lives are busy, full of activity, but forever looking inward. It often feels we're running on a treadmill that just keeps speeding up. Looking outward and steping beyond the things, places, and relationships with which we feel most comfortable is challenging. Time to dream and disconnect seem like inaccessible luxuries. Yet for those of us who are awakened — for whatever reason — and step outside of the day-to-day, we gain perspective, mindfulness and the possibility to live a fuller life.
When we decided to move from California to Paris for a year, many in our family wondered why? “Why would you want to leave the contentment of your situation and move somewhere so foreign. You don’t have to,” they scolded. Moving of our own volition, will with no employer underwriting us raised lots of questions with the French government too. We were hardly welcomed with open arms. However, nothing could dissuade us. The pile of signed documentation and a sworn promise not to contribute to the ranks of French employment didn’t undo our life-changing decision. Our sights were set on escaping the monotony of routines back home, filling our minds with different attitudes, culture, and points of view.
“To truly see the world, and understand yourself, you have to step away from the day-to-day."
My personal journey with wine began two decades earlier when Julie and I married in Rutherford, California, a small town with a population of precisely 164 inhabitants. It was the most beautiful day. Our reception afterwards gazed out upon the natural beauty of Napa Valley’s vineyards and featured a number of local wines. We tasted big Cabernet Sauvignons, Zinfandels and full-bodied Chardonnays. They didn’t really charm us. The warm weather in Northern California’s inner valleys produces high alcohol wines with sharp tannins and their oaky punch is meant to temper their wild character. But, to this day, these wines don’t connect with me, entice me into their world, like I feel wine should.
It was when we traveld to France afterwards that magic of wine cast its spell. Immediately, we both fell in love with it. The beauty and delicacy of Loire’s Sancerre, Côte de Rhone’s Grenache, Mourvèdre and Cinsault and Provence’s beautiful Aix en Provence Rosé’s were like nothing two kids from Pennsylvania had ever tasted. It was the start of a love affair, that would come to change our family’s lives.
"The beauty and delicacy of French wines, makes you fall in love."
That first trip to France, and the European continent, would spur many others. Nonetheless, another 20 years went by before the opportunity of truly engaging with this new found passion for French wine, cuisine, culture and fashion presented itself. In those two decades I continued being lost in the wine wilderness, like many new explorers of the world’s wine. I tried everything, New World and Old World, but my tastebuds always came back to, yearned, for French wine. It was calling out to me, from some unknown region of my mind.
It turns out my love for French wine ran deeper than I thought. During the year we lived in Paris there I traveled to wine regions all over France — Bordeaux, Provence, Bandol, Champagne, Jura and Languedoc, to just name a few. But it was a fateful trip to Burgundy with a well-connected and passionate local as our guide, that transported me back thousands of years and indulged my desire to taste the very best that Burgundy had to offer.
"Sometimes passion, experience and intuition yield better results than technology."
I was fortunate to visit with many winemakers who, along with their ancestors, have been working the terroir for several generations. This was definitely not California. Everything was old world. Winemaking history was measured in thousands, not hundreds, of years. Technology was nowhere to be seen in the vineyards or the cuverie. Everything was done by smell, taste, touch and intuition: the experience of the vignerons guided the grapes from bud break to bottle. The parallels we did notice with California is Burgundians, like people from Silicon Valley, are incredibly passionate and entrepreneurial. They know what it means to work really hard. Their spirit is unbreakable in the face of many challenges and they are committed to being the very best in the world at what they do. I respected and fell in love with the people, terroir and wines of Burgundy. I wanted somehow to be part of this.
We never imagined our French obsession would lead us to Burgundy. Let alone in Pommard, one of the most revered wine-making villages in the world. Like all the greatest of opportunities, the chance came at a difficult moment -- as we were packing our belongings to return to San Francisco. I had only visited Burgundy twice before. The region was foreign to us. Paris we knew, but Burgundy?
"Opportunity seems to present itself in the strangest of ways."
Still, the rarity of the chance to make wine, our own wine, in Burgundy was something one dreams about. We immediately hopped on the TGV at Gare de Lyon and made our way to Pommard. It was July, that time of year in California when everything is brown, dry and parched. But in Burgundy the wildflowers presented themselves everywhere and the vines were full of life. I have never experienced a place so beautiful, peaceful and time blind. We might have been here in 1714 or 2014, aside from the dress and the automobiles it is difficult to tell the difference.
I tried the clos wines of Château de Pommard a year earlier and discovered the winemaker's hands-off approach produced wines of incredible elegance and length, but with all the boldness that Pommard is cherished for. This second tasting didn’t disappoint, nor did the chance to meet the man himself, Emmanuel Sala, the incredibly talented vinificateur who, I am blessed to say, is now our partner-in-wine. Naturally, I first met him in the cellar. He was wearing a French rugby jersey and, as a former rugby player myself, we instantly bonded over stories and injuries of ruck and maul. Born and raised in Burgundy, “Manu” first started making wine in Alsace. His viticulture travels then took him around France, before he eventually made his way back home to Pommard in 2007. He could be making wine anywhere he wants, but this place is his first love.
"Work becomes life when you collaborate with exceptional people."
Over the next several months, Manu and I talked and texted each other frequently. Our joint excitement for this special terroir and the opportunity to steward this sacred place long into the future, and protect it for the next 300 years, was grounded in a shared vision of what needed to be done. And much needed to be done. Many dead vines had to be replaced. Five hectares — one fifth of the Clos — the Émilie terroir, was old, diseased and yielding less than a half of hectare of production. It needed to be pulled out and replanted. The vineyard team lacked proper facilities and equipment. Large sections of the historic Clos wall were falling down. The vines were exhausted from four years of brutal, damaging hail. It is quite amazing how Manu’s team could make such beautiful wines despite all the challenges — a testament to their Burgundian savoir faire.
"Dreaming isn't just for Californians."
Both Manu and I shared the same dream: to transform the largest single-owned Clos in Burgundy into a sustainable and biodynamic ecosystem in harmony with the laws of nature, with the potential to produce some of the best wines in the world. With two other pending offers from large enterprises, we had little time to react. We had to make a decision that would affect our family forever —almost instantly. On our side was the fact that the estate had always been family-owned, since 1726. To the former owner’s credit, he wanted the estate to remain stewarded by a family.
Nevertheless, working a vineyard and making wine is completely different to my career in technology — a world I know, a world I understood. In Burgundy time is measured in years, decades, not the nanosecond clock cycles of today's computers. I live and work in the digital world. In Silicon Valley the gratification is immediate -- write a few lines of code and instantly your results are visible on the screen. Its the closest thing on earth to alchemy.
"A love for nature and terroir transcends winemaking being a job."
Making a great wine on the other hand, all starts in the vineyard. The average age of the vines today in Clos Marey-Monge is 65 years. The fruits of replanting the Émilie plot will be enjoyed by my children, not me. Winemaking is viticulture and creating a great vineyard takes a long time. Unlike the software engineer with just a keyboard, some knowhow and an idea – viticulture requires a team, a long-term outlook and physical labor. It’s very different indeed.
Living in California and in Pommard, I get to see both worlds at work. There is something so alluring about Pommard and the lifestyle that comes with living here — California should take notes. When I’m in Pommard time seems to matter less, as if it is being stretched to make more of it. The treadmill of life slows down to a gentler pace. You are transported back in time, which has a calming effect on your mind. It’s that suspension of disbelief where you can zoom out on your life and you can look backwards and forwards and all around you. Everywhere you go, you absorb a different perspective.
“Burgundy is mystical, in so many ways."
I’ve tried countless times to describe this experience and the mystical feeling of this place to people who ask. My mother and father kept asking me what life in Pommard must be like — they have no perspective of it, or how to understand it. I told them, simply, it must be experienced to be understood. Recently they visited and worked their first vendanges. They both encountered the mystical and meditative effects of Burgundy. All they could say was, “Wow”. Everywhere they looked, all I heard was, “Wow”. They fell in love too. It’s what you do when you spend time here.
To describe Burgundy to people who haven’t been here is difficult. I’ve tried countless times. The best I can say is come, visit, experience it, and enjoy all the gifts this place has to offer.