An American Girl in France
Woodrow Stephenson interviews Nancy Kerschen
Julien Cécillon and Nancy Kerschen are ‘living the dream’ as folks in the wine business often like to joke amongst each other. It’s a tough job, really. They are the husband and wife team behind 2011 start-up winery Domaine Julien Cécillon. Julien, a native of the Rhone area, and Nancy, an American and a scion of Houston’s notorious Kerschen clan, own Syrah vineyards in the Northern Rhone region of France. The couple met in San Francisco and bonded over their mutual love for fermented grape juice. After having worked in several renowned wineries in California, New Zealand and France, the couple decided to strike out on their own.
They were documented in the James Beard award-winning film series Dark Rye which chronicles their romance and Julien’s return from corporate life in the US to the winemaking traditions that go back a century in his family. Nancy, a trained sommelier, was hesitant of a life in France, but quickly fell hard for the charming Frenchman and the beauty of the Rhone Valley.
Now, that the young romance of the first vintage has worn off, we catch up with the couple whom seem to be settling into a lifelong love and passion that is part humbling work and intuitive discovery. Their 2012 and 2013 wines are now in bottle and available to a limited list of allocated customers in France.
[UPDATE: Since this article was written, they now have distribution in New York City, but are still seeking an importer or distributor in Houston. Also, check out their Facebook page for pictures from the latest harvest and listen to Nancy in this podcast.]
What’s it like being the new kid on the block?
On Julien’s maternal side of the family, winemaking goes back 11 generations, the tenth is Julien’s uncle, named Jean Louis Grippat, who was a very well-reputed winemaker. Because Jean Louis had two daughters, neither of whom wanted to continue the family tradition, when he retired in 2000, he sold everything, all of his land, his equipment, etc. Julien was still in school and had no idea that he, too, would become a winemaker. So in answer to your question, we’re in a unique position as newcomers, we’re free from familial pressure and our decisions are mutually formed. One of the benefits of being a Franco-American couple is that we bring two different cultural backgrounds to the table, which are reflected in our style and the choices we make. Nevertheless, we still aim to preserve some of that rich local history through decisions we make in our vineyards, the cellar, and on the label. And we’ve noticed there is a lot of solidarity between small wineries, all of whom are very reassuring, and who’ve helped us move forward.
How tough was the first vintage and the journey of the wine from vineyard to bottle and salespoint?
We took over some land in late 2011, just after harvest, so we had a whole year to get ready for our first vintage. Since we’re small producers, we were able to be very attentive in the vineyards and had the time to think about each step more carefully than if we had started with more land. From a logistical standpoint, it was more complicated in figuring out the details of harvest, but it was also incredibly exciting. Since we age our wines in barrel between 12-18 months, it definitely felt like an eternity between harvest and bottling. But with that said, by the time we released our first bottles, we had already developed a network of interested buyers from restaurants and wine shops, so were fortunate not to have any trouble selling.
What challenges did you experience during your first vintage and what challenges do you face today?
2012 was challenging because throughout the summer, it rained about every 3 days or so. This meant we had to be more selective with the grapes at harvest, choosing only the healthiest ones, and ultimately producing less wine than expected. Another obstacle we both faced then and continue to struggle with today is juggling vineyard/cellar work with our part-time jobs, which are necessary for the time being in order to pay the bills. As we’ve been increasing our volume with every vintage, we’re getting closer to cutting out our part-time work and beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
What are the different roles that you both serve in the vineyard and cellar. Is this a team effort all the way?
It is absolutely a team effort. At first we both wanted to do everything, which is great in theory. In practice it can lead to inefficiency and arguments, neither of which we have time for. Luckily, we have complementary skills and after trial and error, we’ve figured out what they are more precisely, although our roles aren’t limited to a specific set of tasks. For example, Nancy might be more detailed-oriented in the vineyards, while Julien tends to be in the cellar, and so we adapt accordingly. While we have different styles of working, our vision for the vineyards and the wine is shared, so it makes for a harmonious synergy.
Any plans to bring your wines to the US in the near future?
Yes, we sell our wine in NYC through an importer called Verity Wine Imports. We want to sell it in TX as I’m a Houston girl, but so far haven’t been able to meet with any importers. (If you know of any, let us know!)
Life in the Vines
Please tell us about the mistral wind and how it affects your vineyards throughout the growing season.
The Mistral is the name of the wind that blows throughout the entire Rhone Valley, starting in Lyon in the north and going all the way down to the Mediterranean, increasing in power as it travels further south. It’s strength can be mind-harrowing and is known to drive more than a few men mad (and women upon leaving the hair salons). But from a winemaking perspective, it’s our friend, as it dries off the vines after a good rain and helps protect them against mildew and oidium.
We do everything in our power to use preventable measures in order to limit chemical treatment. We check on each vineyard everyday in order to be as proactive as possible. As of now, we are sustainable producers. While we work principally using organic materials, for the health of the vineyards, but also for our own health, we are not officially classified as organic. We are, however, also interested in biodynamism in the vineyards and cellar. This is a method that dates back to the 20s, which goes a step further than organic and has to do with working in conjunction with the lunar calendar. Our ultimate goal is to produce high quality wines that are the best possible representations of the terroir.
It’s a matter of organization and prioritizing. It’s easier said than done, and we’re learning more as we go, but since we work as a team, we can help each other to achieve a sense of perspective in our work.
The weather is the number one element that can make or break a vintage. While there are decisions to be made in order to work with the weather, it’s essentially the only element that is out of our control. And as vines are a living, growing thing, it’s absolutely necessary from day to day to make on the spot decisions regarding what actions will be taken in the vineyard and when. Most of the time, it means being able to foresee potential outcomes and taking calculated risks accordingly. And as we’re betting on Mother Nature, she’s always going to win, but sometimes we win with her.
What else grows around the vineyards in your area besides grapes?
Wild cherries, pears, apricots, walnuts, chestnuts, daisies, and violets!
The Romance of the Cellar
Syrah from the Northern Rhone is serious stuff. Inky black and prone to gamey flavours and big tannins. How do you attempt to coax out the characteristics you like in Syrah? And what are the characteristics you are seeking?
We’re aiming to create a wine that tells you where it’s from and proud of its roots (pun intended) in this case displaying the flavors and aromas typically found in the Northern Rhône: violets, black pepper, raspberry, and smoke, for example. As you said, it’s serious stuff. We like that about Syrah from here, the robust, powerful side, but we also need to make sure that it’s in touch with its softer side, too. We do that by not over-extracting, by letting it age in neutral oak barrels over a long period of time and by vineyard techniques that permit the vines to dig as deep as possible.
It’s funny, but if you compare Julien and me, we’re very complementary. I’m blatant and to the point, and Julien is more subtle and discerning, and as it turns out, we’re looking for that kind of balance in our wine.
What is the philosophy in the cellar and for the élevage (aging) of the wine?
What we’re aiming to produce is a well-structured, yet elegant Syrah, not one whose beauty is masked in oak. We’re able to do that by aging the wine over a long time in French neutral oak barrels in order to gently integrate the tannins with the fruit and minerality of the wine. We’ve found the result to be a more refined and well-balanced wine.
Do you produce any wines from white Rhone grape varietals? I personally love wines made from the Northern Rhone’s Rousanne and Marsanne; they are delicious and so unique that they are practically from another planet.
Actually, we do produce white Saint Joseph and we’ve had quite a bit of positive feedback, likening the complexity and certain flavor profiles to a Burgundian white. We only make 1 barrel of it, so we only sell within France and each client has a limited allocation. Julien likes to compare it to a pretty woman with lots of suitors. This year, we’re also going to make some Saint Peray wine, using both Marsanne and Roussanne grapes, but no plans as of yet, for Crozes white, although we’re open to the idea.
How important have your friends, families, and neighbors been to your first harvests and start-up of the winery?
They have been absolutely essential along every part of the way in terms of the outpouring of moral support, problem-solving, vineyard help, and (from the growers) the generosity in terms of equipment and space. Winemaking is a labor of love, and luckily we both have the passion and excitement for it, but it would never be possible without our community of friends and family, equally in France and the US, motivating us through their encouragement and enthusiasm.
The Tough Questions
There’s a French adage that goes ‘It’s better to be envied than pitied.’ But, when you go to the bank to ask for money, it’s better to be pitied than envied.
You mentioned your part-time day jobs. You teach English to French people and also work as a tour guide for North Americans who come up the Rhone on cruise ships to see the wine country. Do you have any good stories from either of those jobs?
I once had Jim and Judy Barret from Chateau Montelena and the famous Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 on my tour. They were very discreet, it was only through chatting about wine that I figured out they made wine and was shocked to find out that they were who they were. I asked if they had spoken to any French about their thoughts on Californian wine. The answer was no. I asked if I was doing a good job explaining vineyard and cellar work. The answer was yes. Also, had my 10th grade chemistry teacher, Mrs. LeGrand, from Kingwood High show up on a tour, too. That was surreal, explaining how wine was made to my former Chemistry teacher. In France, nonetheless.
What’s it like having to get jalapeńos from the local Subway sandwich franchise because you’re a Texan and you can’t get jalapeños in your small town on the Rhone?
You know, every time you move somewhere, you ask yourself, “How long can I live here without jalapeños?” For me, it’s been an ongoing active hunt with its ups and downs. Fortunately, France is now experiencing a Tex-Mex trend and you can find most essential ingredients at any grocery store in the ‘ethnic’ aisle. Excluding jalapeños.
Alas, when Subway controversially moved into our town of 10,000 in 2013, it wasn’t long before I procured my jalapeño dealer, as one is wont to do. A few months after, I found some really good ones (La Costeña brand) at a grocery store about 25 minutes away. Naturally, when I shop there I clear the shelves so they won’t discontinue their stock. As of today, despite the expected trials and tribulations of my quest, I’m able to say that I have secured my jalapeño supply through diverse sources. But, who knows what the future holds, we can only hope for the best.
by Guest Author