Wine

BURGUNDY – HOW COINCIDENTAL!

Velle winesIn last month’s episode, our wine scribe Jim Walker told us about the first Burgundian winery that he represented in Ontario. In this, his 50th blog for Gentleman’s Portion, he tells about two more and how all three became inextricably linked.

Domaine des Terres de Velle: While our business relationship with Alex Gambal and his Burgundy based Maison Alex Gambal winery (see A Burgundy Gambal) was less than stellar, it did have a silver lining. At about the same time that Mr. Gambal was jilting us, his marketing manager, Sophie Laronze and his talented wine-maker, Fabrice Laronze decided to part ways with Alex and form their own winery. They teamed up with their long-time friend Junji Hashimoto and acquired 11 separate plots of mature, but not well cared for, vines in choice areas of the Côtes de Beaune, about 12 acres in all. A little later they purchased a village parcel in Chassagne-Montrachet and two neighbouring premier crus in Meursault – Les Charmes and in Puligny-Montrachet – Les Referts. They established their winery at the entrance to the village of Auxey-Duresses and founded Domaine de Terres de Velle in 2009 (the Velle River runs through their property, hence ‘the lands of the Velle’).

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Junji Hashimoto sandwiched between Fabrice and Sophie Laronze

The partners were no neophytes when it came to producing first-rate wine. Fabrice studied oenology in Beaune and Montpellier and then toiled at a few Burgundy houses and at Marimar Torres in Sonoma, California. He joined forces with Alex Gambal in the late 1990s and helped Alex find juice and grapes throughout Burgundy, acquire vineyards and produce 10 vintages of stellar Burgundy that garnered well-earned international acclaim.

Sophie did marketing work for Maison Albert Bichot in Beaune and for the barrel-maker, Tonnellerie de Mercury before joining Fabrice at Maison Alex Gambal. Junji arrived in Burgundy in the late nineties after a sales career with Suntory, Japan’s oldest beverage alcohol distributor. He then worked for several top-notch vintners and attended viticulture school in Beaune.

When we learned that Sophie, Fabrice and Junji were starting Domaine des Terres de Velle, we got in touch. I knew that they were going to produce very serious wine and I really wanted at least one Burgundy producer in our vinous repertoire. They were delighted to hear from us and readily agreed to have us represent them in Ontario. And there was additional good news. Their prices were very reasonable and they shipped in six-bottle cartons (much easier to flog than the 12-bottle jobbies from Maison Alex Gambal).

It was extremely difficult paring down the 11 different Burgundies that the winery produced to a more manageable five to import for our wine club. But I want you to know that we were up to the task. We had Sophie ship the wines to Christian Esparza’s wondrous wine emporium in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and on a subsequent visit there we assiduously tasted them on behalf of our wine club members (work, work, work!). And here’s what we came up with, village wines all from the excellent 2009 vintage (wine club prices in brackets): four reds (Pinot Noirs) – Bourgogne Pinot Noir ($28); Auxey-Duresses ($34), Pommard ($52) and Volnay ($52), and; one white (Chardonnay) – Meursault ($51). Sophie, Fabrice and Junji created the ‘ Terres de Velle Sampler’ which contained two bottles of the Bourgogne Pinot Noir and one bottle of the each of the other four wines for those who like to try all the wines on offer.

Here’s how I described the Pommard:
Pommard labelThis is a classic village Pommard. I was smitten by it (I must confess that I am a huge fan of the wines of Pommard). It rested in oak for 12 to 18 months, 20 per cent new. It is an intense ruby with delicate aromas of blackberries, plums, raspberries, exotic spices and a hint of vanilla. In the mouth it is full of ripe fruit, complex and medium-bodied with really lovely tannins and good length. This wonderful red will go perfectly with pork dishes, although I’d wait a year or two before the feast (assuming I had the self-control!).

Our initial Domaine des Terres de Velle offering was quite well received by our wine club members. The less expensive Bourgogne Pinot Noir and Auxey-Duresses commanded most of the attention. We next presented eight wines from the 2010 vintage along with two sampler cases. Sales were good, but once again it was the inexpensive ones that garnered our members’ orders. It was essentially the same story with the 2011 vintage. But the 2012 vintage was another story. It was a very small crop and, to compensate, the Laronze’s sharply increased their prices. The village Burgundy that was $24 the bottle became $33 and all the other wines rose in price proportionately. Sales were not good. And 2013 was another tiny crop with more price increases. Sales were dismal.

Our wine club members had become used to the more modestly priced wines that we found for them in the Southern Rhône and Languedoc wine regions. Although the Domaine des Terres de Velle wines were reasonably priced for Burgundies, they were too expensive for most members. The hand writing was on the wall. Sadly, but amicably, we and the Laronzes decided to end our business association. I am pleased to report that they have since prospered without us.

Blair Pethel (2)

Blair Pethel

Domaine Dublère: While we were still doing business with Maison Alex Gambal and three years or so before we started with Domaine des Terres de Velle, one of Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club members recommended a winery he had discovered during a visit to Burgundy. Knowing he had a nose (palate?) for excellent wine and after doing a bit of research (glowing reviews from Robert Parker and many others), we got in touch with Blair Pethel, the owner of the winery in question – Domaine Dublère. After a few conversations it became clear that there was an excellent fit and thus we decided to do business together.

Let me tell you a bit about Blair Pethel. He is not your ordinary old world vintner. In fact, he’s not your ordinary anything. Blair was raised in Greensboro, North Carolina where his father was a minister and played the church organ and his mother was a social worker. He gave college a shot but decided that acting was more his thing. He was in the road production of Equus and then spent some time in California doing bit parts. He returned to Greensboro where he worked as a carpenter and then in a fast food restaurant. Then he somehow landed a job as a copy boy for the sports section of the Greensboro News-Record. After a year, Blair returned to college and earned a journalism degree. While there, the chairman of the music department overheard him playing the piano and offered him a scholarship. His musical studies took him to the Peabody Institute of Music at Johns Hopkins where he earned a doctorate. He also worked for Polo Player Magazine in Baltimore and became an avid player of the game. Then it was back to the News-Record for a year and somehow he found time to win the game show Jeopardy not once, but twice. Then it was off to London where he worked for a horse racing magazine and then the Knight-Ridder news service. Whew!

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Harry, Kit, Fran and Blair Pethel

So, how did he get into wine? Well, in 1987 he visited Burgundy and befriended Patrice Rion whose family had been crafting fine Burgundies since 1955. After many return visits he took a three month sabbatical to help with the 1999 harvest. During this time he met his wife Fran (Francesca) who bought into his dream of moving to Burgundy and becoming vintners. By 2002 they had saved enough to buy a 400-year-old house in Beaune and, after intense French lessons, moved into it with their two sons, Kit and Harry. Blair spent the next year doing hard labour with another vintner, Jean-Marc Pillot.

In 2004 Blair bought his first vineyard, a small plot of Corton-Charlemagne and in 2005 a slightly larger bit of land in Chassagne-Montrachet, a Premier Cru. The next year he acquired a winery in Savigny-Les-Beaune and converted it into a thoroughly modern facility. He also contracted for vineyards owned by friends and tended to them as a source of additional grapes for his new winery.

The first vintage of Domaine Dublère wines we introduced was 2006. It was certainly not an ideal year for grape growing in Burgundy, particularly for reds from the Côte de Beaune area. General consensus was that the whites were very good, but the reds depended on the skill, patience and attention to detail of the producer. We imported seven of the Domaine Dublère elixirs: one white, the Grand Cru Corton-Charlemagne, and six reds – Savigny-les-Beaune Village les Planchots; Pommard 1er Cru Les Poutures; Beaune 1er Cru Les Bressandes; Volnay 1er Cru Les Pitures; Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Les Champeaux, and; Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru. Prices ranged from $42 to $163 a bottle. We also offered a Cru Sampler – one bottle each of the 1er Cru and Grand Cru wines. They all came in six-bottle cases and a choice of cork or screwcap stoppers. Sales were wretched.

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Sophie and Fabrice with their treasures

While drafting this article, for some inexplicable reason, I developed a colossal thirst for a good flagon of Burgundy. So I descended into Arthur’s Cellar and after rummaging around for a while came upon a bottle of Blair’s 2006 Volnay 1er Cru Les Pitures. How appropriate. So I uncorked and decanted the little devil and sipped away. Here are my impressions: Volnay, admired for its delicacy and bouquet, has always been thought of as the most delicate of Burgundies. This one, aged in small oak barrels (a quarter new) for 18-20 months, was bright ruby with aromas of violets, gooseberry, cherry, spices and stewed prunes. I envisioned that it would be a fine partner for sophisticated poultry dishes or feathered game. For the more adventurous, it might accompany a couscous or a tajine with meat or poultry.

We carried on with Blair’s 2007 vintage. Sales were pitiful! It just wasn’t working. So I called Blair, stated the obvious and recommended that he try the Ontario wine agency to which Alex Gambal had defected. Blair made wonderful wine and it was fun while it lasted.

About a year ago Blair published the following note:

To the clients and friends of Domaine Dublère,

It is with mixed emotions that I write to inform you of the sale of Domaine Dublère to Domaine Terres de Velle in Auxey-Duresses, effective May 10. I will be retiring from winegrowing on that date, and with the exception of a short period helping with the transition, will move on to new projects.

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 16 years since my first vintage, and the time has certainly flown past. I appreciate beyond measure your support over the years, and your willingness to put your faith in an American winemaker in Burgundy, not the most commonplace of beasts. I have greatly enjoyed getting to know you all over the years, and have always enjoyed your visits and our conversations.

What this sale means is that there will be no 2017 Domaine Dublère wines offered. The managers of Domaine Terres de Velle, Fabrice and Sophie Laronze, are in the process of deciding which of my wines will be offered under their label. The same goes for the 2018s.

Fabrice and Sophie, aside from being my next-door neighbors, are also friends, and very talented and dedicated winegrowers who have an identical philosophy to me when it comes to work in the vines and the winery. I trust you will contact them not only to purchase my remaining wines, but to discover their range, which I am sure you will find remarkable. 

If you would like to order any of the remaining stocks of bottled Domaine Dublère wines, please let me know and I will send you availabilities – but we’ll have to hurry. Otherwise, I will just say again how grateful I am and always have been for your faithfulness and support over the past 16 years.

And now: Onwards and upwards! Best regards, Blair Pethel

In summary, we represented three Burgundy wineries. The first was Maison Alex Gambal, then Domaine Dublère and finally Domaine des Terres de Velle. Maison Alex Gambal’s wine-maker and marketing manager left to form Domaine des Terres de Velle. Ultimately, Domaine des Terres de Velle purchased Domaine Dublère and is the only one of three still in operation. It was all fun while it lasted.

Till next month, Cheers! Jim

Domaine des terres de velle (2)

Featured image: The entrance to Domaine des Terres de Velle winery in Burgundy

This is Jim’s 50th wine post on Gentleman’s Portion. Please “like” our blogs, if you have enjoyed our musings, or add a “comment” — clickable at the top or bottom of each story. The search function works really well if you want to look back and see some of his previous articles.

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