Recently, Dixie Redfearn lent me a book called “What Shall I do With My Life?” written by Po Bronson.
It is an inspirational book of stories of ordinary people who have made dramatic changes that have altered the direction of their lives, putting them more in touch with their true passions. As I talked with Jacques Mercier, the man behind Solune Winegrowers, I felt like I was in the middle of one of Bronson’s stories.
Solune Winegrowers will be Nevada County’s newest winery when it opens later this month. It is located past Peardale, just off of Hwy. 174. It is a joint venture between partners Jacques Mercier and Andrea Hamer. Jacques handles the winemaking while Andrea nurtures the vineyard.
According to Po Bronson, we expect dramatic, life-changing events to hit us like an epiphany, a cosmic bowling ball rolling a strike. Apparently that is seldom the way it happens. Instead, the new hand is dealt to us one card at a time.
We see only that card and we make decisions based on what we know at that moment. Fifteen years ago if anyone had asked Jacques if he expected to be opening a winery in Nevada County, he would have looked at you with a blank stare.
Jacques grew up in Quebec, Canada. There was wine at the family dinner table but it was never of much interest to him. Later, while he was living and working in Ottawa in the early 1990s, he went to a wine seminar with friends “for something to do.”
The first card hit the table. Why did some wines taste so much better than others? By his own admission, he has always been driven by why and how. It was no different with wine. Before long he enrolled in a wine sommelier diploma program. Jacques was fascinated by the taste of high quality wines but handicapped by their prices. What if he tried making it himself? Another card flipped over.
Ottawa is a hotbed of home winemakers and winemaking clubs. Maybe it is the high tax on alcohol that drives people to make their own; maybe it’s the long, cold winters.
In spite of a wobbly first effort made from a Riesling concentrate kit, Jacques was soon a member of three different winemaking clubs. Guided by why and how, along with a passion for quality, he was producing Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, even ice wine from Canadian grapes, as well as buying grapes from California.
The winemaking clubs were a melting pot of experimentation and competition. When they bought grapes from California, they would all start with identical “must” and compete to see who made the best wine. Each club sent its best wines on to compete against other clubs. He started winning some of the competitions. In 1994, his last year in Ottawa, he won “Best Of Club” honors for a Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Both wines went on to win gold medals at the provincewide Amateur Winemakers of Ontario wine competition.
In 1995 Jacques moved to Texas. While Californians don’t think of Texas as a fountain of winemaking, there is a surprisingly active industry there. But as he explained to me, “Texas can be a challenging climate for grape growing and I really had to step up my winemaking technique to make up for this.”
He had brought some of his Canadian wines into Texas, and during his first year there, decided to enter them in the American Wine Society National Competition. He won. In Texas talk, it was no big thing, just a little ol’ best of show award. He had made a raspberry wine in the style of the ice wine he had made in Ontario. It was the first time in 20 years that a fruit wine won Best Of Show honors at the AWS competition.
Speaking as a professional wine judge, I know the unfair bias of the playing field. It is hard to express how difficult it is for a fruit wine to beat out Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel in a straight-up competition. That must have been one stunning wine. If that weren’t enough, he won three gold medals and two silvers for the other wines he entered. Another card flipped onto the table. This time it was an ace. A light went on. “For the first time,” he thought, “maybe I could be a winemaker.”
While in Texas, besides co-founding the Wine Society of Texas (still in operation today), he earned a wine-judging diploma from the American Wine Society. Meanwhile, his day job required yet another relocation. One choice was California. He knew he had to take it because “that’s where the grapes are.” Jacques had met Andrea in Texas and they moved to California together.
The lifestyle, weather, wine and above all, access to quality grapes, made California ideal. Little by little their quest changed from finding great wines to drink to looking to find a place to make great wine.
“Going from noncommercial winemaking to opening a winery is a very long journey,” Jacques explained. “Looking way back, it was like I had a homing device, and at every junction I took the decision that nudged me in the right direction.” In 2001 they bought the 15-acre property in Peardale, in large part because of a three-acre vineyard that was already planted there. They had long-range plans but in 2004, when his job in the semiconductor computer chip industry required yet another relocation, this time to India, they decided the time was right.
Jacques had spent the last 15 years melding why and how great wines tasted the way they did. Although he had to learn about winemaking, he had the science part of his resume worked out. Before he ever took that first-two hour wine seminar, he already had a Ph.D. in applied and engineering physics and physical chemistry. He understood the rational, scientific approach. Wine filled in an artistic element that the computer chips of his day job could never approach. Becoming a certified wine judge allowed him to continue to turn over more unexpected cards. In recent years he has judged at events in California, New York, Montreal, Spain and Argentina and will judge in Switzerland later this summer. “Judging has allowed me to become familiar with many different styles of winemaking, as well as meet winemakers from all over the world. Even more important, it has helped me to make much more critical assessments of my own wines.”
Why and how remains foremost in the development of Solune Winegrowers. Andrea and Jacques chose the word winegrowers because they feel it represents the spectrum of the wine experience. Jacques explained, “When we make growing decisions, we’re really making winemaking decisions.” The first thing Andrea and Jacques did when they moved to Peardale was to dig up the vineyard and replant it with 20 different varietals. “We want to know what will do best right here.” They then plan to plant another seven acres. The goal is simple in its complexity. “We want to produce wines that express varietal clarity while offering intensity and balance.”
Solune Winegrowers will be open by appointment. Jacques said, “We want to encourage people to visit us. We plan to bottle small lots of many different wines so we expect to always have a new wine to offer.” They are planning to have an opening celebration later this month. For more information, visit the Web site http://www.solunewinegrowers.com or http://www.solunewinery.com or call 530-271-0990. Andrea and Jacques are looking forward to whatever the next card in their path reveals. Whatever happens next, they are sure to have a full house.
Rod Byers is director of marketing at Nevada City Winery, is a CSW certified wine educator, teaches wine classes at Sierra College and is a California State Certified Wine Judge. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 530-913-3703.
I first tasted Solune’s wines last summer as barrel samples. Jacques is an adventurous, creative winemaker producing distinctive, flavorful wines. I tasted them again last week (just before they were bottled) to see how they were developing.
2004 Cinq Etoiles, Estate Grown
A Bordeaux styled wine, blended with all five (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec,) varieties. Aromas of black currant, white pepper, tobacco and cedar. A stylish wine, elegant and medium-bodied.
2004 Tempranillo, Sierra Foothills
I’m looking forward to seeing more of this variety planted in the Foothills. Medium-bodied with moderate tannins, this flavor-loaded wine offers aromas of vanilla, red berries and spice.
2004 Barbera, Sierra Foothills
A very California-style Barbera. An intense wine with huge fruit, loaded with aromas of raspberries, black cherries and spice. Good acidity, soft tannins and a distinctly chocolate finish.
2004 Petite Sirah, Sierra Foothills
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” This wine offers lovely, even delicate, floral notes of perfume and spice on the nose while delivering a substantial punch on the finish, with solid tannins and nuances of chocolate and toasty oak.
Titan I, Sierra Foothills
This is their red blend. It’s complicated to explain the concept in a few words. What is easy to understand is how good it tastes. It is full-bodied, flavorful and robust. Ask them about it when you are there.
2004 Fleur de Lune, Estate Grown
A blend of White Muscat, Orange Muscat and Gewurztraminer.
Solune will have other white wines but this is the only one right now. Usually white wines would come first but at 3 percent residual sugar this might be considered a dessert wine for some folks. Whatever you call it, it is an intriguing blend of spice, fruit and perfume.
Every time you approach it you get a different picture. It is sweet but the crisp acidity keeps it balanced and fresh. Don’t let your “dry wine” prejudice prevent you from trying this delicious wine.
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