Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Derenoncourt and Montesquieu: A Match made in Biology?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines symbiosis as "a close, prolonged association between two or more organisms of different species that may, but does not necessarily, benefit each member."  A symbiotic relationship exists between Stephane Derenoncourt (noted winemaker and wine consultant) and Montesquieu (a west-coast-based, Bordeaux-style negociant), especially as it relates to Stephane's "US account."

Stephane, the Ryan Seacrest of the wine world, is as famous for his winemaking skills as he is for the reach of his influence.  Beginning with his work on the right bank of Bordeaux, Stephane has leveraged that success into consulting appointments the world over.  It is, however, the work on his own account in the US that is of interest here and how he has worked with Montesquieu to the mutual benefit of both (organisms?).

Fulfilling a long-standing dream, Stephane, at an event held at Rutherford's Auberge du Soleil on February 9th, 2009, introduced the world to his Derenoncourt California wines.  The wines, sourced from grapes grown in small, high-elevation, cool-microclimate, volcanic-soil plots, included a Cabernet Sauvignon (Caldwell Vineyard, Block 13), a Cabernet Franc (Caldwell Vineyard, Block 15), a Merlot (Stagecoach Vineyard, Atlas Peak), a Syrah (Hudson Vineyard, Carneros), and a second Cabernet Sauvignon, this one from Andy Beckstoffer's Red Hills Vineyard in Lake County.  Writing about these small-production wines in the June 15th issue of Wine Spectator, James Laube remarked that these 2006s "... are as good as any from that year and as uniformly consistent stylistically as any wines I have ever tasted."

You can make great wine but you have to get it out the door before next year's vintage shows up; and that is where Montesquieu comes into the picture.  Stefan became acquainted with the company after meeting its President, Fonda Hopkins, at an event in Bordeaux.  He was intrigued by the business model -- connecting the best artisanal winemakers to a discerning customer base through an activist personal wine broker -- and joined the company as its chief wine buyer in 2006.  Getting Stephane on board was a huge coup for Montesquieu.  First, and most obviously, was the cachet associated with being able to say that Stephane Derenoncourt (the Stephane Derenoncourt) was your chief wine buyer.  Second, Stephane, because of his contacts and clout, could open doors that were previously closed to Montesquieu.

Montesquieu has benefitted significantly from this relationship; as has its customers. The quality of the juice they now have access to has increased dramatically from both US and international sources.  Wines from Derenoncourt proteges -- such as Greg Viennois, head winemaker for Michel Chapoutier -- and contacts -- Clos de la Terra, Heidi Barrett, Andy Beckstoffer -- are now readily available to Montesquieu clients.

From Stephane's perspective, he has access to a vehicle for US distribution of wines from estates that he is working with internationally.  These small estates, or side labels from more notable names, might not otherwise have ready access to the type of market served by Montesquieu if left to their own devices.  Further, Montesquieu has been integrally involved in the Derenoncourt California program.  While plot and grape selection is Stephane's purview, he is ably assisted in the winemaking process by Hèlène Mingot, the Montesquieu winemaker.  Distribution of the final product is the responsibility of Montesquieu with the exception of product sold on the Derenoncourt website which, by the way, was developed with the assistance of Montesquieu.

Perfect.  Symbiosis.

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