A pivotal moment in my life happened in the Burgundy region of France. At a lovely dinner in Beaune, I was chatting with Philippe Drouhin, Estates Manager of Maison Joseph Drouhin, when he asked me where I saw myself in 10 years.
I quickly answered: “I’ll be part of a great winemaking team.”
I then froze, shocked at myself. This was the first time I’d ever declared this particular dream out loud…and I’d just announced it to a member of Burgundy wine royalty.
Philippe’s initial reaction was surprise, but then he smiled, lifted his glass to me, and replied, “You’ve chosen a wonderful profession.”
Lifting my glass in turn, I toasted him — and his family’s kick-ass wines — for inspiring me to look to the future.
I met the modern-day members of the Drouhin clan in Burgundy back in November 2017, and learned that their history is pretty darn entwined with that of the Burgundy wine region itself.
By 1880, a grapevine-root-munching aphid called phylloxera had all but ravaged the Chardonnay vineyards of Chablis, where 22-year-old Joseph Drouhin was born and raised. Wanting to make his mark in the wine industry, Joseph moved south to the city of Beaune, where vineyards were healthier and futures seemed bright.
For his Maison Joseph Drouhin, he purchased a rambling warren of 13th-century wine cellars that had been built on the remains of a 4th-century Roman fort, and which had belonged to the Dukes of Burgundy and various Kings of France prior to the French Revolution. (Upshot: Beaune has seen some things.) Joseph purchased grapes from vignerons (grapevine growers) and made high-quality wines with them, soon turning his namesake business into a financial success.
In the 1920s, Joseph’s son Maurice took the company helm and began buying vineyards the Drouhins could call their own; his first purchase, the Clos de Mouches (“wall of the honey flies,” aka “vineyard of the bees”), still produces some of the finest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes in Burgundy.
Maurice also served as the négociant (grape broker) for Domaine Romanée-Conti (DRC), which remains the most revered wine estate in Burgundy, with pinot noirs that can fetch $20,000 a bottle at auction. Back in 1944 he was offered the dazzling opportunity to purchase part of DRC, but missed his chance — because he was busy hiding from the Nazis.
During World War II, Maurice joined the French Resistance and became a liaison officer for General Douglas MacArthur — until May 1944, when the Gestapo caught wind of his espionage and sent an execution squad to his house. Fortunately, he was tipped off by phone before the Germans reached him, and managed to escape through his own wine cellars to the Hospices de Beaune, a famously clay-tiled Catholic hospital for the poor. The Hospices’ mother superior helped hide Maurice in the cellars for four months, passing notes between him and his wife Pauline that enabled them to keep the business running.
Basically, not all heroes wear capes: some wear habits.
Maurice’s nephew Robert lost his parents when he was just seven years old, and went to live in Beaune with his Uncle Maurice, who adopted the boy as his own. In 1957, Maurice had a stroke — and suddenly, Robert found himself the third-generation owner of Maison Joseph Drouhin.
Robert quickly set about becoming a wine pioneer. In the 1960s he began purchasing long-neglected Grand Cru and Premier Cru Chardonnay vineyards and bringing the production of crisp, aromatic, stainless-steel aged Chablis back to life. He used his grandfather Joseph’s 18th-century Chablis estate, the Moulin de Vaudon, as his base of operations in the area, and today Drouhin’s Chablis wines bear a special Drouhin Vaudon label. (His family also uses the house as a vacation home, which is exactly what I would do.)
He also introduced the concept of la lutte raisonnée (“the reasoned struggle”) to the family’s 200 acres of Burgundy vineyards. This approach to sustainable viticulture encourages farmers to carefully observe the health of their land and vines and make more judicious use of pesticides — if they’re used at all. He also set up an enology laboratory and hired the first female enologist in Burgundy, Laurence Jobard, to run it.
The youngest of Robert and wife Françoise’s four children, Véronique, loved to hang out with Laurence in the lab as a little girl, learning about pH, Brix, soil and juice samples. She had longed to be a concert pianist, but soon realized she wanted to be an enologist instead. Diminutive only in stature, Véronique is now one of only a handful of female winemakers in Burgundy — though she’s also known for the wines she makes in America.
In 1979, inspired by the 1976 Judgment of Paris that put Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon on the world map, Robert Drouhin organized a blind tasting of New World and Old World Pinot Noirs. The surprising winner was Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, a winery run by the legendary David “Papa Pinot” Lett.
Intrigued by this oenological upset, Robert and Véronique traveled to the Willamette in the 1980s, and fell in love with the land and its Pinot potential. In 1987, Robert put Burgundy’s stamp of approval on the still-emerging region by buying 100 acres of Dundee Hills vineyards and putting Véronique in charge of winemaking at Domaine Drouhin Oregon.
Today the Dundee Hills estate has sprawled to 225 acres, and having visited twice between 2008 and 2011, I can assure you it’s a gorgeous place with elegant wines that could easily transport you to France. But the Drouhins seem to be doubling down on Oregon for its own sake: Since the 2013 purchase of the 279-acre Roserock Vineyard in Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills — planted with both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir —Maison Joseph Drouhin is now one of the largest landholders in the Willamette Valley.
Meanwhile, Véronique is also the winemaker at Maison Joseph Drouhin, and is based in Beaune. Each month, she has wine samples from the Oregon estate sent to her via overnight air, and only travels to the Domaine for a few weeks each year. Somehow, she also found time to raise three children and name some of her wines after them.
Robert, who has one of the world’s greatest heads of white hair, officially retired in 2003 as head of the company. Now in his mid-80s, though, he’s still very much involved; in my experience, men of his generation don’t really do retirement.
The modern-day Maison Joseph Drouhin remains a family-owned and -run operation. Veronique’s oldest brother, the lanky, 6’7″ Philippe, is the Estates Manager in charge of the vineyards. In the 1990s, already into organic farming, he became one of the first Burgundy viticulturists to practice biodynamic agriculture, which considers farms (or in Philippe’s case, vineyards) to be living organisms within a whole ecosystem.
Quiet and thoughtful, Philippe spends most of the year hard at work in his vineyards. But during the dormant winter, he can often be found vacationing in Southeast Asia or seeing Dweezil Zappa play his father Frank’s songs in concert. Freak out, man.
The middle Drouhin son/brother, the charming, affable and New York-based Laurent, is export director for the U.S. and Caribbean. His enviable job is to represent his family’s wines (both from Burgundy and Oregon) at restaurants, seminars and distributor tasting events, taking occasional breaks to play rounds of golf — to which he generally brings a bottle of Pinot Noir.
Laurent has a gift for explaining the terroir of Burgundy and all of Drouhin’s wines, which represent a whopping 90 different appellations across Burgundy. This may seem like a lot, but it’s actually pretty standard for a winery in the region, which includes a mind-boggling 677 different appellations and sub-appellations.
The youngest of the fourth-generation Drouhins, the funny and enormously knowledgeable Frédéric, is now president of the company. As the family’s chief wine emissary, he’s often called upon to give lectures about Maison Joseph Drouhin, as he did at the 2016 World of Pinot Noir seminar, recorded for the Grape Radio podcast. His impressive wine palate is rivaled only by his taste for/opinions about food; when asked his thoughts on ketchup, he confidently declared it a “garbage” condiment. Vive la France!
I met the fourth-generation Drouhins when I was fresh out of wine school and wondering what exactly to do with the rest of my life. These siblings’ dedication to wine, history, tradition, sustainability and family ignited a spark in me that I was just starting to acknowledge. Meeting them and seeing their world inspired me to declare (out loud to Philippe) that I want to be a winemaker — and one who makes Pinot Noir, at that.
But it’s not only Drouhin Pinots that caught my attention — I was also excited by their Chardonnays and Gamays. I’ll soon share my favorite Drouhin wines with you, so please stay tuned!