Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Geneviève Janssens: veteran Robert Mondavi winemaker

Photo: Mondavi chief winemaker Geneviève Janssens

Geneviève Janssens, the chief winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery, and I share a common experience that had a profound impact on our careers.

We both first visited the Mondavi winery as tourists and has the good fortune of meeting Zelma Long, then a Mondavi winemaker and subsequently a legend in California winemaking. Geneviève told me of her encounter in an interview during the Vancouver International Wine Festival, where she represented the Mondavi winery.

My experience preceded hers by two years. In March, 1975, after a trip with my children to Disneyland, I decided to spend a day visiting wineries in the Napa Valley. My wife and I arrived, three children in tow, at the Mondavi winery without an appointment. It was not needed at that time because wine tourism in the Napa was in its infancy.

We were offered a tour led by Zelma Long, whom I had never met. Such was her charisma and enthusiasm that we were positively aglow when we left the winery. While I had previously visited wineries in Australia, her tour fired a new interest in wineries. I began visiting Okanagan wineries the following year. There were just a handful and the wines were a far cry from the excellent Mondavi wines. Nevertheless, it was the start of my romance with Canadian wineries that led me to write 17 books championing a dramatically improving wine industry.

“I had a similar approach to the Robert Mondavi winery,” Geneviève told me. “I came there just as a tourist in 1977. I was an enologist, of course. The world knew the winery and Mr. Mondavi for his innovation and leadership and his desire to put Napa on the map among the world’s best wines.”

She continued: “I had a tour – not with Zelma, but with a tour guide. I was so impressed by the tour that I asked to talk to the winemaker – and Zelma Long came. I had a good hour of chat about winemaking. I thought it was so special and wonderful I said, ‘If you have a job for me, I will come.’ Two months later she called me, and here I am, 40 years later.”

From the Mondavi website, here is a biographical note on Geneviève:
Born to a French family in Morocco and raised in France, Geneviève’s formal wine education began under the tutelage of the legendary “three fathers” of modern enology – Jean Ribereau-Gayon; his son, Pascal Ribereau-Gayon; and Emile Peynaud – with whom she studied at the University of Bordeaux, France. After receiving her National Diploma of Enology 1974, she returned to her family’s vineyards in Corsica and France, which she managed from 1974 to 1977. Concurrently, she also owned and operated her own enology laboratory in Provence and served as consulting enologist to many French chateaux in the mid-seventies.

Working for Mondavi appealed to her for at several reasons.

“The Napa Valley is where I thought it would be the best for my passion,” she says. Robert Mondavi treated employees, including women, with respect.
“In Bordeaux [in the 1970s], my only career would have been in a lab,” she suggests. “Now, it is changed, but in 1977, it was better for my career to come and work in the Napa Valley, and for Robert Mondavi because of his vision. It was a big vision.”

Another attraction was the opportunity to make wine with grapes, notably Cabernet Sauvignon, from Mondavi’s To Kalon Vineyard, one of the most storied terroirs in the Napa Valley.

To Kalon – Greek for “place of highest beauty” - was planted originally in 1868. In the 1890s, a winery called To Kalon was producing and selling highly regarded wines nationally. Then the Napa’s first phylloxera infestation devastated vast areas of vineyard. To Kalon went bankrupt in 1899 but struggled on until Prohibition in 1920 forced its closure. The winery was revived briefly in 1933 but was destroyed by fire in 1939.

The area called To Kalon was part of a 2,000-acre estate that very nearly became a housing development. The Mondavi family, which operated the Charles Krug Winery, bought 325 acres in 1958; and more subsequently.

Robert split with his brother and father, who were producing bulk wines, to build his own winery in 1966 for the production of world-class wines. The litigation went on for years but Robert eventually ended up in control of about 550 acres of To Kalon. Today, Mondavi’s parent company, Constellation Brands, owns about 450 acres of one of the Napa’s finest vineyard sites.

“Constellation maintained our traditions,” Geneviève says. “They are supporting the winery to make the best wine. They know it is very important for their portfolio.”

Constellation acquired control of Mondavi in 2005 and has since invested significantly in replanting the vineyard, to correct plant virus issues and to get absolutely the best varieties growing here. Zinfandel, Syrah and Pinot Noir were removed. The vineyard now grows just Bordeaux varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.

The finest red from the To Kalon Vineyard is the Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, a wine structured to age. “The Reserve can age 60 years,” Geneviève says. “We had our 50th anniversary recently and we opened bottles of 1966, 1968, 1970 and they were still delicious – all the Reserve.”

The Cabernet Sauvignon being tasted at the Mondavi tasting during the Wine Festival is the 2015 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($40), a wine that shows the ability of To Kalon grapes to make more “popular” wines.

“The beauty of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is the fruit and the texture,” Geneviève says. “The wine is not made to age more than 10 to 15 years.” 

During some of the tasting sessions, the winery also will pour another outstanding example of To Kalon fruit, the 2016 Oakville Napa Valley Cabernet Franc. Grab this wine if it is also in the festival’s on-site wine store.



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