As I was being introduced, winemaker Jean Luc Thunevin for a split second looked a little apprehensive. “Bonsoir, Stephanie, enchantée,” I said as I reached out to shake his hand. A giant smile crept onto his face and with a hearty laugh he turned to his translator and said in French, “Looks like there’s no need for you after all!” As it turns out, one of the most famous — or should I say, “infamous” — winemakers in recent years does not speak a word of English.
“I was from a good bourgeois French family in Algeria who moved back to France after the independence. I was in a private school and all but just absolutely useless,” he shares candidly. “I left school at 15. It wasn’t for me. And English? Even worse. It just can’t stick to my head. I’m not smart enough for that!”
Despite his comedic, self-deprecating nature, this man is, in fact, a smart cookie. The proof is in the bottle. “It took Mouton Rothschild a hundred years to get the Premier Grand Cru Classé label, but it only took me 20! I must be doing something right,” he says half-jokingly about his recent ranking, awarded in 2012.
From lumberjack to army man to bank employee by day and DJ by night before becoming a restaurateur, his story is by no means the regular path for winemakers. “I was a DJ for three years!” says Thunevin. “And not because I am passionate about music … it’s because I wanted to meet girls! I wasn’t the best-looking guy but then I realized that the girls found me cuter because I was the DJ. But it was the Seventies and the music was great and we used to have slow dancing … I would even put on a really long, slow song so that I could leave the booth and dance with a girl. My boss wasn’t too happy about that!”
Thunevin is beyond candid. He is natural, easygoing and lives in the moment. Unlike many winemakers who may have a specific spiel, everything he says is frank and from the heart. “Robert Parker dubbed me the ‘bad boy’ of wine because I was doing things differently; the fact is, I had no other choice!” he explains, talking about his “garage style” method of making wines in small batches from low yields using new oak barrels when he started in 1989. The garage reference actually comes from the successes of small businesses in Silicone Valley.
“My wife and I had a restaurant and I became interested in wine while serving and waiting on tables. After some years of being a trader, we really wanted to have our own vineyard. We poured our entire savings into it and had no funds. Everything was done by hand. We sowed the earth ourselves, picked the grapes, carried them in small batches. We just didn’t have the money for machines and tractors. As it turns out, it was the best way to do it!”
His first vintage of Chateau Valandraud was released in 1991 and earned 91 points from Robert Parker and his “black sheep” story made waves in the wine community. Four years later his 1995 vintage earned 95 points and was extremely coveted, being priced higher than some established Chateaus in Bordeaux. “I wasn’t thinking like the others simply because I couldn’t work like them. When they would think of 6,000 bottles a hectare I’m thinking 3,000 bottles, but I’ll try to make it the very best 3,000. I was confident in my product and my salesmanship so I just worked hard at selling those bottles at a higher price.”
As it turns out, the Ridley Scott movie A Good Year is loosely based on his story, of this little-known, plot-making, extraordinary wine. During the master class in Wine Story that evening he explained that, in fact, his second wine is not really a second wine in the traditional sense because all the grapes are of equal caliber. “Sometimes an excellent year of Virginie de Valandraud will be better than a classic year of the Chateau,” he says matter-of-factly. We tasted eight wines that evening, including a really pleasant Blanc de Valandraud, which Thunevin explained he has nothing to do with. “White wine is too precise and complicated for me; I leave that all to my wife!”
Each vintage was distinct and exactly as he had mentioned. In some cases the stunning 2009 Virginie de Valandraud, I found, outshined some of the other Chateau Valandraud vintages. Earlier I had asked him to describe his wines as people, to which he replied, “I’m not clever enough for that!” But a few glasses in, relaxed and in his element, cracking jokes around the table, he declared this wine as “adorable, sexy and explosive. This is the girl that has a beautiful bosom and is extremely intelligent and witty! An absolute pleasure to be with.”
The 1999 Chateau Valandraud was also outstanding, a little more refined, elegant but equally alluring with cozy notes of sweet coffee and mocha, leather and black cherry … like a beautiful woman with a little more maturity and sophistication, worldly and all the while being warm and inviting with an infectious laugh, reminding me a little of Nigella Lawson. When asked about this vintage, Thunevin simply shook his head, grinning, and said “Ouf!”
Just like his wines and methods, the evening was unconventional for a wine tasting. No buttoned-up, stiff, overly intellectual analysis of the wines; we all drank and laughed as Thunevin amused us with his mischievous anecdotes. Flanked by wine enthusiasts such as Sherwin Lao, Alicia Sy and Paco Sandejas, we spoke about wines being likened to presidential candidates (fourth-growth wine with a good marketing rep), luxury cars (Aston Martins and Rolls-Royces) and, of course, the most important tipsy question of the evening: which wine has the most generous bosom? It was, in reality, a little less eloquently asked than that, but all in jest, in this played-up, bad-boy spirit and in good fun.
The truth is, Jean Luc Thunevin is a hardworking family man who loves life and people. He is one of the last few self-made men of this century and tries never to forget where he comes from. “I used to think I was rich when I had 100,000 francs,” he recounts. “But now I know I’m truly rich because I owe 10 million to the banks!” His successful enterprise is not a one-man show, as most journalists like to put it, but truly a labor of love between him and his wife and a manifestation of their ambitions and dreams as a young couple. In fact, Chateau Valandraud is derived from his wife Murielle Andraud’s family name and Virginie is his daughter.
“2004 was an interesting year for us. It was a poor climate and I worked hard to do something about it — from 6 a.m. to midnight we worked on those grapes. Ça passe ou ça casse — it’s make or break,” he shares. “It was a very tannic wine and Robert Parker did not rate us. He refrained from giving a bad score, so simply didn’t rate us in the barrel tasting. We cried. We literally cried. That year I decided to leave the winemaking to my wife. I went off, focusing on the business end. 2005 Chateau Valadraud scored 95 points! And every year after that was amazing, culminating in the spectacular 2009, which we thought was the best we could ever make! Then 2010 was even better! So yes, it was a good thing I left it to my wife! Turns out she’s a better winemaker than I am!”
***This article first appeared in The Philippine Star***