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Generational Shifts in Family Wineries
By Andrew Holod
Apr 10, 2024
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As a first generation American, the idea of a family business that spans generations or even centuries, feels nearly unimaginable to me.  In Western Europe, there are dozens of wineries which have existed for 100 or more years and several which date back multiple centuries.  Each major winemaking country can claim some extremely old wineries, such as Germany’s Schloss Johanisberg (1100) and Schloss Vollrads (1211); Italy’s Barone Ricasoli (1141) and Frescobaldi (1308); France’s Château de Goulaine (c. 1000), and Spain’s Codorníu (1551).  These exceptional and extremely old wineries have survived wars and pestilence of both vineyards and owners/workers including the plague, phylloxera and nearly unimaginable changes in the world around them.  The resilience may have to do with insular culture within a winery where few changes in grape growing and winemaking happen over time.  Another answer may be that incremental, intergenerational changes have led to positive adaptations and reactions to both the market and environmental conditions.

While young wineries with just a second or third generation taking over may not be experiencing the privations of war and pestilence, they face their own challenges of continuity.  I've spoken with a handful of winemakers, who also all grow their own grapes, about these challenges in the last few months.  I’ve interviewed Lou Rochet, winemaker at Château du Grand Bos in Graves, Bordeaux, France; Rodrigo Calvo at Bodegas Arrocal in Ribera del Duero, Spain, and Ben Casteel, winemaker at Bethel Heights in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA of the Willamette Valley in Oregon.

Château du Grand Bos dates back to the 1500s, though there is history of grape growing going back to Roman times and notes about the winery's quality as early as 1868, in the modern era.  The current owner Andre Vincent bought the Château in 1988, after selling a Château in St. Estephe and "retiring" to Graves.  The winery had not been producing wine since the 1950s.  After a renovation of the buildings, he both planted some new vineyards, and bought existing plantings of older vines.  In 1992, after the addition of some modern winemaking equipment, he produced his first harvest.  His daughter Marie Vincent-Rochet joined and took over management of the Château in 2007.  Her daughter Lou Rochet, joined as winemaker producing her first vintage in 2018.

The winery encompasses 42 hectares, just over 100 acres, which are roughly equally split between forest and vineyards, around 5% of which are young vines not yet in production.  They Farm around 60 Acres composed mostly of traditional varieties including Merlot, Cabernet sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Semillon, with younger plantings of Muscadelle, Sauvignon Gris, Petit Verdot and Malbec.

Lou says one of her challenges when taking over the winemaking role was convincing her Grandfather that she was able to sustain the production at the winery.  She went on to say, “My biggest challenge was finding a balance between respecting family tradition while making innovations and changes necessary to meet the expectations of new generations of consumers.  Ultimately, the most complicated thing is to convince the different generations of the need to change practices on our farm.  For example, initiating the conversion to organic/biodynamic agriculture....  Despite the fact that my grandfather was rather concerned by this environmental vision (he did not use weedkillers or pesticides and used products that could be used in organic agriculture), he didn't understand the usefulness of this approach….”

With these challenges in mind, the oldest of the wineries I’m writing about, in my opinion, is focused on traditional styles, with modern tweaks and updates, to make the wines both more marketable and more environmentally sustainable.  I might say a refresh to the existing style, so that consumers who try the new wines are not alienated by the newer wines.

One wine which represents the new ideas Lou is working with is her “En 3 Temps” red blend.  It is a blend of both traditional varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and less traditional ones such as Petit Verdot.  Perhaps more controversially it is a blend of 3 vintages.  The wine is composed of one-third Cabernet Sauvignon from 2019, one-third Petit Verdot from the 2020 vintage, and one-third Merlot from the 2021 vintage.  Each of the varieties were treated identically, with all manipulations completely performed by hand, from harvesting to destemming.  No electricity was used in the production of the wines once the grapes entered the winery.  The wines were fermented in upright barrels with one head removed and produced with the minimum of sulfur.  For me this wine shows the gravel-tinged, small black fruits and sapid/sappy notes I associate with Bordeaux reds combined with both the finesse of Merlot’s structure and the floral tone of Petit Verdot.  It offers a unique expression of the Graves terroir and is immediately accessible.

Bodegas Arrocal is currently run by brothers Rodrigo and Asier Calvo. They have taken over daily operations from their parents Rosa Arroyo and Moises Calvo. The family farms around 200 acres of vineyards using organic methods which have been certified in 2023.  They grow Tempranillo, which is the best-known variety of the region as well as the traditional white variety, Albillo.  They also grow more modern additions to Ribera del Duero such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  It might be important to note that their area is cooler than most of the wines from the region, with their dark, ripe fruit notes and vanilla tinged, oak-scented bouquets would lead one to believe.  There is a risk of frost as late as May and as early as September, highlighting the fact why Tempranillo or the “little, early” grape is key to the region.  Furthermore, the higher elevation sites in the region see dramatic day/night temperature shifts, leading to a unique combination of dense fruit underlain by fresh/balanced acidity.

I've previously represented this winery as an import representative in the United States.  And while I thought I knew the winery’s history, I learned that their history stretched further back than I knew.  While interviewing Rodrigo for this article, I found out that the Calvo family have a history as grape growers going back nine generations in the village of Gumiel de Mercado.  One of their grandfathers helped found a cooperative in the village which closed in 1987, while the other grandfather was the last to use lagares (open air, foot-trodden processing/fermentation stone containers) to produce local wines in 1969.

Even though the family has a long history of growing grapes, they only started producing and bottling wine in 2002.  They had a contract to grow grapes for another winery, which fell through due to very moist conditions and an infection of odium in the vineyard.  Rather than leaving the grapes to rot on their vines, they chose to harvest and ferment the fruit themselves.  They built their winery in 2003.  In 2017, Rodrigo’s younger brother Asier finished enology school in Oregon.  Then, in 2018 the brothers, working with a consultant, started directing the winery.  In the 2022 vintage the brothers were producing all the wines themselves without any consultation, sharing winemaking duties.  They currently produce five wines, one white and four reds, with a total production of around 200,000 bottles.

Rodrigo said one of his biggest challenges in taking over from his parents was that his parents grew up in the 1990s with the idea that structure and concentration are the most important factors in wine production.  Looking predominantly at wineries like Pingus and Vegas Sicilia, the international press at the time seemed to value concentration and power over finesse or perfume.  He recounted that his grandfather would say that the more modern-styled wines from the region, produced from propagated, mono-clonal vineyards and aged in new oak barrels were “too sweet.”

Rodrigo’s response to the challenge revolves around several factors.  One is refocusing on traditional varieties for the region including what they locally call Valenciano also known as a Bobal, as well as Garnacha and Albillo.  These historic varieties tend to ripen later, maintaining good natural acidity and freshness.  They have also moved onto planting only cuttings from their own vines in their own sites to retain both local distinctiveness and a range of genetic diversity among their vines (which wouldn’t be the result of planting a single clone from a nursery).  Another aspect of their approach is to harvest the grapes earlier.  Rodrigo mentioned that they are often among the earliest—if not the very first—growers harvesting in their area.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they have stopped buying new barrels and stopped bottling wines with required aging such as Crianza and Reserva wines.

It seems clear that the focus at Bodegas Arrocal is on reestablishing traditional styles of wine, made with traditional grapes, predating the modern D.O. or appellation, which was created in 1982.  The focus of which is on freshness and drinkability.  They plan on featuring the three areas in which they grow grapes: sedimentary soils near the Duero River, higher altitude valleys, and high elevation hilltops—each of which offer different soils chemistries and microclimates.  They plan on aging all of the red wines in neutral oak for the same period of time and releasing them at the same time, as two-year-old wines.

One wine which highlights the new direction and focus of the winery is Arrocal Tinto 2021, their lowest priced red.  The 2021 had a lift and vibrancy in the nose which could be glimpsed in older vintages, but may have been obscured by the new oak.  This newer expression seemed to have a zesty currant and bramble berry tone with plenty of structure from acid and tannin, but also a silkier texture, which makes this wine immediately charming as a young wine.  I can’t recommend it enthusiastically enough, based on its exceptional value.

Bethel Heights winery was founded in the late 1970s by two families looking to move back to the land.  They bought 75 acres which were advertised as ideal for planting a vineyard.  When they arrived, there were 14 acres planted mostly Pinot Noir and they planted additional acres with own-rooted Pinot Noir, as phylloxera was unknown in Oregon at the time.  Their first vintage was in 1981, fermented in the farmhouse basement, followed by their first commercial vintage of 3,000 cases in 1984.

The families currently have about 80 acres planted, across three vineyards, mostly to Pinot Noir. Only about 15% of their vineyards are currently planted to white grapes, mostly Chardonnay and a small minority of Pinot Blanc.  They have farmed without herbicides since 2009, without tilling since 2012, and without any synthetic inputs since 2019.  They have 25 acres set aside as natural, wooded, riparian areas for drainage and wildlife.

Current winemaker, Ben Casteel recounted his frustration of a young adult making multiple passes through vineyards to reposition shoots, perhaps not fully understanding the reason for his efforts.  After working the 1999 harvest in Burgundy he returned to Oregon joining Rex Hill under Lynn Penner-Ash and working there for 5 years, eventually becoming the assistant winemaker.  In 2004 his father called him to discuss the future of the family winery. Subsequently Ben started back at his family winery as primary winemaker in the 2005 vintage.

I was lucky to taste through a range of wines of various ages with him when he was recently in Washington, DC.  I asked him about some of his challenges at Bethel Height and he focused on the challenge of maintaining a continuity of style of the wines they have produced for nearly 50 years given their aging, own-rooted vineyards, as well as new climactic pressures.  He acutely feels the pressure to make informed and wise decisions about possible re-plantings.

Understanding that recent warmer vintages in Oregon are neither one-time events nor should his response be to an extreme that will disallow sustainability of re-plantings, he is looking at all aspects of vineyards from rootstocks, varieties and clones with an eye on producing exceptional wines for the next 50 years.

One wine I tasted which struck me as exemplary of the complexity he coaxes from a tapestry of clones and vine ages was the Casteel Pinot Noir 2022.  Ben says in his release notes that the wine was composed of five blocks forming a north-south line, “born of many blind tastings at the blending table, not a conscious choice to pull from a specific vein of the property.  It’s comforting to know that the Casteel, in our view the best wine of the vintage, is coming not from our oldest vines, but from grafted vines ranging from 26 to 30 years of age.  As we begin the bittersweet process of replanting the original vines at Bethel Heights, there is solace in knowing that we have tremendous material still at hand, and the promise of what is to come from replanting into the future.”

For me this wine showed a deeply fascinating contrast between faint and fresh reduction in the aromatic form of a slight allium edge leading into deep, rich hummus/earth, perfumed forest floor, crushed purple florals, and juicy red fruit.  It is among the more complex domestic Pinot Noirs I’ve tasted in several years.  It is seamless on the palate and—while well-structured and seeming capable of gaining significant complexity with age—so delicious now that it may be hard not to drink it sooner.

It is indeed reassuring to me as a fan of deeply soulful wines that these younger winemakers are taking the challenge of succession seriously.  Each of them has brought a unique focus to melding their inheritance with deep, personal knowledge and a drive to create sustainable models to deliver unique, delicious wines in the future.  I encourage you to seek out the literal fruits of their labors.  

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