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Jadot in Oregon: Another French Invasion?
By Michael Apstein
May 28, 2014
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Jadot’s seemingly sudden expansion into Oregon was, as Pierre Henry Gagey, President of Maison Louis Jadot, one of Burgundy’s top producers, describes it, “a perfect storm,” though a good one in this instance.

Their recent (August 2013) purchase of the 20-acre Resonance Vineyard in the Charlton Yamhill AVA was not, as it turns out, in the works for years, according to Gagey.  Rather, he describes it as “Having the right people available at the right time.  For something like this to be successful, you need the right people.  The timing was perfect because Jacques (Lardière) had just retired after doing 42 vintages for us (at Jadot) and was ready for a new project and to accept a new challenge.”  Moreover, he notes that his son, Thibault, had worked the harvest at Domaine Drouhin Oregon the previous year and would be the perfect person to manage the new venture should it become successful.

A Way Forward for Jadot

A clearly enthusiastic Gagey explains, “Maison Jadot has the DNA of an entrepreneur.”  He emphasizes that although their focus has always been, and will continue to be Burgundy, that region has its limits.  Gagey describes the prices for top vineyards in Burgundy as “crazy.”  He adds that even if one were willing to pay the stratospheric prices currently demanded for them, parcels in those vineyards rarely come up for sale.  Problems also exist at the other end of the Burgundy spectrum even though prices for these less prestigious vineyards are “less crazy.”  Gagey notes that it is difficult to make a profit from wines from grapes grown in the lower-level appellations, such as Bourgogne Rouge, no matter how good they are, because the price reflects the AOC and not the quality of the wine. 

Gagey sees their Oregon project as a normal way to go forward, “to expand the company,” as he puts it.  “If the wine (in Oregon) is good, people will pay for it,” in Gagey’s analysis. Indeed, if all goes well, he foresees buying additional vineyards in other Oregon AVAs and making wines that express the distinctive and unique terroir of Oregon just as Jadot does in Burgundy.

“We Found a Good Place”

The Resonance Vineyard, planted mostly (90%) to Pinot Noir, has always been organic (it was also biodynamic for a while) and has never been grafted nor irrigated since its inception in 1981, according to Gagey. Although the Carlton Yamhill AVA is a bit more remote and off the beaten track compared to Oregon’s better known ones, such as Dundee, he thinks it has great promise. Gagey and Lardière visited the property a few times to get the “lay of the land” and tasted wines going back more than a decade before deciding to purchase the vineyard. They will focus on Pinot Noir, grafting the small amount of Gewurztraminer currently planted over to that variety, and may add Chardonnay in the future.

Though Lardière bubbles with excitement when he speaks of the project, you sense his anxiety at being in Beaune, where I interviewed him, while his newly fermenting wines were in Oregon.  It reminded me of a new parent away from his or her child for the first time.  Nevertheless, he is clearly pleased: “We have found a good place,” he says.   Lardière points to the age of the vines, describing the ones planted in 1981 as “starting to be nice.” Most New World winemakers would characterize 30-year-old vines as old.  He is clearly experimenting—the new owners even made a rosé—noting that, “we plan to make one wine, maybe two wines, we don’t know yet.” For now, Lardière is vinifying parcel by parcel in an effort to understand the vineyard, its different exposures, its different drainage, and its different soils. “The variables are enormous,” Lardière admits. “It will take a decade, at least, to understand the various plots in the vineyard.”

Although the conventional wisdom is that the yields should be about 2.5 tons per acre, Lardière is skeptical and wants to see what the vines “want to do—maybe 2.8 or 3 tons is the right answer.”  With a typical Gallic shrug, he wonders whether the yields might differ depending on the clone, Pommard, Triple 7 or Wädenswil.  He notes, philosophically, that they really won’t know the right answer for years to come.

The Focus is on the Place

Lardière emphasizes the fundamental difference between Oregon and Burgundy, “You have to accept that there will be more power in Pinot Noir from Oregon than from Burgundy.  But I am not out to make Burgundy," he said. "This is an opportunity to open more ideas about Pinot Noir.”   In typical Lardière fashion, he says he wants to “search for the spirit of the place to understand the vineyard.”  He admits that one of his challenges will be to limit the power of Pinot Noir so as not to obliterate “the spirit (of the vineyard).”  As was his philosophy in Burgundy, Lardière says that he wants the land to speak.  “The focus always needs to be on the place," he said.  "The less the focus is on the winemaker the better is the wine.”

He is particularly pleased with his decision regarding the harvest this year.  Lardière performed an early harvest—two, in fact, a week or two apart, as an experiment—because he wanted to avoid heaviness and capture the elegance of Pinot Noir. It turned out to be an excellent decision since it meant he brought in the entire crop before the rains hit.

Jacques Lardière’s boss, Pierre-Henry Gagey is adamant, “We are not looking for a big wine.  We are seeking elegance. I want to be sure that our wines from Oregon have a French touch.”

Jadot will label the wines they produce in Oregon, as they do in Burgundy, after the place where the grapes grow, the name of the vineyard.  These wines will not be sold under the Jadot name.  If a particular block in the vineyard does exceptionally well and the grapes produce unique wine, Jadot may opt to bottle it separately, but still under the place name, Block 5 from Resonance Vineyard, for example.  Nor does Jadot intend to cull the best barrels from their cellar and bottle them under a “reserve” wine label, as is often the custom in the New World.  

A First Step

Jadot’s purchase of Resonance Vineyard is clearly only a first step to test the waters in Oregon.  Gagey says that they do not plan to build a winery until they are convinced of the quality of the wines. They are lucky (another example of timing and people) that one of their neighbors, James Frey who owns Trisaetum Winery, has excessive capacity in his winery and is letting Jadot use it.  It’s a good deal for both Jadot, which can focus its energy and money on the vineyard, and for Frey, who gets Lardière’s insight.  Gagey cites this as just another of the many examples of how the Oregonians have been welcoming and ready to help.

Not an Invasion

Véronique Drouhin, whose family started the French investment in Oregon’s Dundee Hills AVA more than twenty years ago with Domaine Drouhin Oregon, says, “We proved that you can make beautiful Pinot Noir in Oregon, so I’m thrilled to see our friends buy here.”  Though a flock of top-notch Burgundy producers—Louis Michel, Dominique Lafon, and Jean Nicolas Méo—consult or have plans to consult in Oregon, there appears to be no stampede by other Burgundian producers to buy there.  Louis Fabrice Latour, the head of Maison Louis Latour, another leading Burgundy producer that has purchased estates and vineyards in Beaujolais and Chablis over the past few years and likely has the resources to invest in Oregon as well, indicates that they have no plans to invest there when he says, “I prefer to invest in France.” 

Despite Drouhin's recent additional purchase of 280 acres in Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills AVA, Véronique Drouhin believes there will be no massive investment in Oregon by the French similar to the invasion of the Champagne producers in California in the 1970s and 80s.  She points out, “The harvest in Oregon and Burgundy usually overlaps. You can’t be in two places at the same time.”  Drouhin is successful in both Oregon and Beaune because they have more than one family member making the wines. 

Jadot has all the prerequisites for success in Oregon as well because Lardière is practically family, Frédéric Barnier is already doing an admirable job in Beaune as Lardière’s replacement there, and Thibault Gagey is poised to oversee the new operation.  In the end, as Gagey says, it comes down to “having the right people at the right time.”   A perfect storm, indeed. 

Email me your thoughts about the French influence in Oregon at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter@Michael.Apstein