An Education at the Lycée Viticole (March, 2011)

Early on in our stay in Cahors, we were asked to speak at the Lycée Viticole just outside the city. This is an extension of the University in Toulouse, focusing on enology, viticulture and the marketing of wine. Our task was to present our winery “in English” to the students as part of their English courses.

Picking Wild Daffodils Outside Cahors

We had been invited by Marie Delphine Lebreaud Faure, the English instructor, to her house for tea to discuss the program earlier in the week. She along with her husband, David, and their daughter Choelia live in a very charming village in the French countryside. The meeting also included Cécile (also from the Lycée Viticole) with her husband and daughter as well. With classic French hospitality, we enjoyed homemade Madeleine cookies, desserts and brownies (much to our girls’ delight) paired with a wonderful passerillage wine (a sweet wine made from overripe/raisined grapes (varieties Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng)). Our meeting consisted of talking about wine, the school, the history of the region, and picking wild daffodils. What we learned was that it is entirely possible and most probably desirable to mix “business” with pleasure in a relaxed atmosphere.

Teaching at The Lycee Viticole

Our “teaching” debut some three days later was an education in itself…for us. Ms. Faure had provided us a list of topics to cover about our winery, ranging from soil and vineyards aspects to business and marketing styles. The one rule was that we should speak only English.

In preparation, I was going to talk about the vineyards and winemaking, and Maggie would talk about the business and marketing. Simple, as we do this all the time in the tasting room or with tours in the cellars and vineyards. What we didn’t take into consideration was the stylistic and cultural differences of wine between California and France.

The class consisted of 20 or so students, many with family vineyards and wineries. We had expected that the students would all be local from the Cahors region. However, to our surprise, they were from across France with several being from the Champagne region. All but two of the students wanted to be winemakers, most often thinking of returning to their families’ wineries or starting their own small production. The remaining two were interested in marketing.

Ms. Faure from The Lycee Viticole

Although the level of English varied among the students, they seemed to be absorbing much of what we were saying. Every once in a while, Ms. Faure would ask students to explain, in English, what they had just understood from one of our comments.

But it became evident very quickly that we come from two different wine cultures. France, with its traditions and centuries of experience and California with its sense of business and open opportunities meant that we often approach wine differently. One of my basic beliefs is that in order to stay in business in California, especially from an unknown appellation, you have to be creative on the marketing side. Thus when I said to the students that it is easy to make wine but difficult to sell it, the comment was met with some resistance. Instead, the prevailing thought was that making exceptional wine was the difficult part. If you make exceptional wine, then it will sell itself.

There is validity to this concept of, “If you make it, they will come!” But having watched great wineries come and go throughout California who did not have an understanding of marketing and could not get the attention of the “movers and shakers” of the wine industry, the ability to market your wine to your consumers is of the utmost importance. And this is especially important since the overall quality of wine is increasing, and hopefully someday, all wines will approach “exceptional.”

But the fact remains that in France, there seems to be more of an idea that the new, young winemakers with new ideas are the ones producing some of the most exceptional wines. This does not mean that Chateaux with 300 years of history aren’t producing exceptional wines, but there’s a spotlight on the “new” ideas coming in. California has no Chateau with 300 years experience to compare with the new-comers. Our market is challenging in this way that many new winemaking concepts are simply just absorbed into the “New-World” way of approaching wine without much fanfare.

Along this line of thought was the discussion with the students about “formula wines” in California. “Formula wines” are wines that have flavoring added to them. Although this is an extremely small portion of our industry, it is technically possible to do this. Most commonly we see chocolate flavoring added to after-dinner wines. These types of additions are strictly forbidden in France.

My point was that having these types of “innovations” sometimes lead to new products. This in turn may help utilize excess wine on the bulk market, thus helping all vineyards in California by producing more demand for grapes, keeping pricing from getting too low, etc. The conversation got deeper into the wine industry than I had planned including comments that even having wine aged in new oak barrels can be considered adding flavor. To which I added that even blending different varieties of wine together is altering the flavor.

For me, the interesting aspect of this was that such a minor part of California’s wine industry, the addition of flavors, should spark such an interesting discussion. In California, it wouldn’t generate a one-sentence opinion. But the concern in France seems to be more on purity of character and terroir, and California’s is based more upon market and the consumers’ needs.

We finished up our discussions with a sampling of our 2008 Signature Malbec. Maggie and I tried our best to draw out opinions on the wine (by harshly but honestly critiquing the wine ourselves). The wine wasn’t meant to test their palates, but it was instead meant to have them practice talking about wines (good and bad) in English. This hits very close to home for me since I had to learn the same skill, to critique wines in French, over the last two months. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

Ironically, it became more of a discussion about style and terroir. Given the students’ reluctance to talk mixed with a gentile politeness, one comment finally surfaced, “Is this Malbec?” A very appropriate comment indeed! The fact is that California Malbec is not Cahors Malbec. California Malbecs are soft and round with lower acids (to generalize), but Malbecs from Cahors are more tannic and higher in acid with more power. And then we delved into styles and aspects of different markets and what could and would sell. Then to wine clubs (which are almost non-existent in France), and purchasing patterns of the French and more.

It was a great afternoon for us. I’m sure we learned as much if not more than the students. Our style of marketing, although extremely successful in California, would probably not work in France. What we consider to be the future for small boutique wineries in a competitive market (with sales direct to consumers (like tasting rooms)) may not be the future for France. Our wine industry challenges are not identical to France’s, and the systems are different. But most importantly, we can learn from one another, taking the best aspects of each system and incorporating it into our own.

We wish the students of the Lycée Viticole a fruitful life of producing exceptional wines, and we thank Ms. Faure for this incredible opportunity to learn more about the passion of wine in France.

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