Elaine Chukan Brown is one of the USA’s most renowned wine writers, speakers and educators, with a particular interest in social justice, diversity and empowerment. Previously the Executive Editor (US) of Jancisrobinson.com, Brown contributes to numerous publications and has won numerous awards.
Here, Elaine is in conversation with Jean-Charles Boisset, who grew up in a winemaking family in the village of Vouegeot in Burgundy. He moved to California in the early 1990s, and bought his first winery, Lyeth Estates. Since then he has created a portfolio of 28 wineries across multiple French regions and California, and has also developed lines of perfume, jewellery, and glassware, the latter with Baccarat. But while he is at ease with the world of luxury, he is deeply committed to the environment, and is on a mission to instil a love of nature into all who visit his wineries, and to encourage other wineries to become organic.
Here he discusses his philosophies of life, nature and energy.
Elaine Chukan Brown:
Here in California you are known for the hospitality programs in your wineries. Raymond is famous for it as well. DeLoach is such a welcoming, beautiful gift of nature to visit as well. Buena Vista you’ve really transformed into a destination and a look at the history of California. I think sometimes that your profound ability to really pull in the consumer sometimes means people overlook how much you’ve done in farming. You have a very strong commitment to both organic and biodynamic farming, and we’ll talk about that more in a little bit.
Could you tell us more about what does hospitality mean to you; also, how do you connect these two things, farming and hospitality, to make a complete business?
Well, merci beaucoup, Elaine, for this incredible outline of our properties.
I was very fortunate to be born in the heart of Burgundy in Vougeot. My best friend at the time, still today, of course, was Mother Nature. We played hide and seek in the Clos Vougeot vineyards, in the cellars, and this was a very deep connection I had early on. And to your question on hospitality, as far as welcoming people, my parents started in the living room, receiving people around the table, and welcoming them with a glass of wine, a piece of cheese, a lovely piece of bread and fresh vegetables and we would say: “this is wine, this is our world, welcome to our table.” I’ve always thought it was essential to make amazing wines, to respect Mother Nature, to make people feel comfortable. A winery is a cultural destination, a place where we can communicate a lot of values.
I’ve always thought it was essential to make amazing wines, to respect Mother Nature, to make people feel comfortable. A winery is a cultural destination, a place where we can communicate a lot of values.Jean-Charles Boisset
In anything we do, we feel the famous Japanese word ‘omotenashi’—ultimate hospitality. One, we always need to put the people first. We need to welcome guests with a warmth and an energy that is vibrational. Finally and ultimately, we make wine, so the sensory is always at the epicentre.
We need to live our life with the idea of being in some shape or form a theatre and within a theatre you create multiple acts and in each of those acts you create a crescendo.
Elaine Chukan Brown:
One of the things about Raymond; you are one of the larger in terms of overall acreage or hectares. You farm a substantial amount of biodynamic vineyards. And one of the choices that you’ve made at Raymond is to create this Theater of Nature to help visitors understand the importance of biodynamic farming. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?
I was very fortunatethat my grandparents were all school teachers. So French education tends to be learning a lot by heart, eight hours a day, with a lot of homework. It’s very tedious and it’s not fun. My grandmother always said, “Jean-Charles, if you ever think about being educated in the US, they do it through case studies. You learn by doing, you learn by having fun, and by learning by having fun, you absorb a lot more.” And this is why I went to the US system. I followed this advice, which obviously I acknowledge and agree with.
I feel what is important when you want to communicate a message is not to be too hard core, not to be too didactic. So first and foremost, I feel people come to a winery to have a great time, discover great wine. So of course, let’s give them that too. Let’s have them have a lot of fun and provide an area where they can laugh, smile, be loud if they want to.
So that’s the second most important thing we believe, besides the quality of what we provide to our guests. The third, how do we distill—softly, elegantly and in a subtle manner—education? And you’ve noticed Raymond has many rooms, the library room. You learn all about the history of wine and you can taste over 48 different vintages of Raymond. In that chosen library room, you have another room called the Rutherford Room. You can learn about the 16 AVAs that we make of Napa Valley. And you look at the soil profile, the map, the history, and you could taste five wines or the 16 of them and learn about what is the difference between Calistoga, Oakville, Yountville, Rutherford.
The Theater of Nature is a two-acre area that we could have planted with Cabernet and made a lot of money out of it. But we said no. Let’s bring our guests to the Theater of Nature, to what nature is all about. Most of the people coming to see us live in New York City or live in big cities where it’s full of concrete. We think our role is then to engage them into Mother Nature through the practices we have in the vineyard. All our vineyards, no exception, all certified organic and biodynamic.
We broke out nature into five parts. That’s why we call it a theatre, because we all play a unique role on Earth. We all contribute to very unique things. So, we start with the soil. We start with the principle number one of terroir philosophy, soil management: what is soil? Why is it so important?
Then we move into the vineyards, then we move into the insects that populate our planet. And often we want to react very quickly. We see an insect and we want to kill it. Everybody has a beneficial impact to Mother Nature, even the insect. So, we talk a lot about that from bats to birds to worms to obviously bees and the chickens and the cows. And we talk about composting, which is how we give back to Mother Nature and create a full cycle.
Elaine Chukan Brown:
Here in Napa Valley, you’ve challenged the region to become 100% organic. Could you tell us a little bit more about this commitment to change the game, but also the importance of organic farming? And it strikes me Napa Valley is one of the most famous wine regions in the world. And if a region like that made a commitment of the scale you’re talking about to go 100% organic, that would have a huge global impact.
You know, people came here with a dream, came here with a sense of being able to fulfil that dream, being able to be who they wanted to be, being able to express themselves. This is really what attracted me to come here. I got the pleasure, the honour and the enormous chance to discover California when I was 11 years old. I knew from the vibration I got that it was the place I wanted to be. We are naturally bathed with this beautiful Pacific Ocean, with this gentle breeze coming from further east. We have this fabulous soil that is fertile and giving, and rich, and at the same time has all the attributes to cultivate anything you want in agriculture. You plant it, it grows.
The magic of that terroir—the soil, the weather conditions, the plants, accompanied with the energy of the people and their passion—could be the most respectful cultural movement in the history of the United States. Why? It’s very easy to be true to Mother Nature in California. It’s very easy to farm organically. It’s very easy to eliminate herbicides and pesticides.
The second objective should respect Mother Nature without polluting her and destroying her. Synthetic products are 100 years old. We’ve been farming for 8000 years around the globe, from Mesopotamia to obviously the Middle East to China to so many other places. So, the fact of preventing Mother Nature through what Mother Nature gives us, the plant and the insect, is a natural way to do it.
So, I make the big claim that the 47,000 acres farmed in vineyards should all be organic in California. We’ve done it with hundreds and hundreds of acres. We organically certified and biodynamically certified. What did this do to our vineyard at Raymond, as an example? It is better grapes, better root management, better defence system on the rootstocks and the plants. Much higher quality of vinification, greater quality of wine and greater ageability of the wine, which is another attribute we never speak enough about.
DeLoach even was the first one to write in the 70’s The Sustainable Code of Organic Farming in Russian River and Sonoma County. We are the ones who are pushing it as the probably largest estate, organic and biodynamically certified. Why are so many great producers in Burgundy, in Alsace, in Champagne, in Bordeaux, in the Rhône or in California so good? Because they are true to Mother Nature, and I don’t think we should ever cheat Mother Nature. We cannot afford it. And we should not be in the wine world or in agriculture or viticulture if we cannot be honest with Mother Nature.
Elaine Chukan Brown:
You said democracy is respecting other’s opinions too, and organic farming is respecting the land of your neighbor too. If you dig into that point, you’re saying in a way that must respect the community of which I’m a part. And then to the point you were just making about farming and respecting Mother Nature, you’re saying that you expect accountability. You’re channeling your values into your choices in the hospitality framework, in the sensory experiences that you’re describing, in the farming commitments that you’re making in the call to action that you’re really putting out to California’s wine industry as a whole. You’re saying let’s be accountable and let’s be accountable to the place we live. Let’s respect Mother Nature because it’s where our life comes from, too.
Democracy is respecting other’s opinions, and organic farming is respecting the land of your neighbor.Elaine Chukan Brown
By being an organic and biodynamic farmer, we minimize the potential effect of any product that can have a negative influence on someone else mind, body and soul. And, you know, we have a responsibility. If I make a wine, I have a responsibility not only to my neighbour, but as well to you as a wine drinker. You could be in Asia, you could be on the East Coast, you could be in Europe, Africa, wherever you are. I have a moral engagement to say I’m making the best wine I can to make you vibrate, to make you excited, to make you energised, and to have an amazing time.
Elaine Chukan Brown:
Going back to Raymond, we’ve had conversations before about how this place is mapped. The placement of the driveway was intentional. The trees and plants planted along the the entrance are intentional. The placement of the buildings, the design of the rooms inside every single piece, the vineyards, you’re talking about intention all the way down.
If we go back to this French concept of terroir, one way to understand it is bringing human intention into the understanding of the place. So it’s never just the soil, it’s never just the plants. It’s also always all the choices and intentions of the people. If you’re comfortable talking about it, I know that you have actually brought this level of intention into that energy piece that we touched on briefly earlier. I think sometimes people are resistant to something like biodynamic farming because it sounds strange, but actually it’s the synthetic or chemical farming that’s new and short lived, right?
And you made a comment earlier about energy. And I think in one way to maybe start the conversation is to say how it feels to be in a place, or how it feels to be with each other in one sense is as simple as the harmony we do or don’t feel. Do I feel in balance with myself today, or does something feel out of sorts? Those are questions that are about the energy we have for that day and in a way that links to that larger spiritual question. I think sometimes in a wine context, when we bridge into questions of energy or spirituality, it sounds strange. And why are we even doing that! In another way, we all do this all the time. “Do I feel balanced today?”, “Do I feel in harmony with my place today?” Those are questions of energy and our spiritual commitments.
Could you tell us more about how you are bringing intention with the energy of a place and the spiritual potential of a place in concert with the farming, the vineyards, the hospitality, all of these things together?
My pleasure. Thank you for enhancing this. On energy. We are energy. So, this is very exciting. So why do I say this? We have intention at all time. You get up, you have an intention throughout your day, you have intentions. At the end of your day, you have intentions. So, what I personally believe in is to bring an intention to a sense of place, to a terroir. We have five key intentions for you as you come in through the door and the gate at the bottom of the hill. The intention of love.
We want you to feel love. And I’ll tell you how we’ve done the energy translation to this. As you go up, we want you to feel passion and energy, as you drive up that two-mile driveway. Third, we want you to feel that energy with a certain sense of balance. We want to feel that you are very grounded and healthy as you pass through the door. And then the fifth intention is we want you to escape and dream and be the person you want to be as you enter the final door of the house. So there’s five intentions. At every place we have, we program a site through intention.
What I personally believe in is to bring an intention to a sense of place, to a terroir. We have five key intentions for you as you come in through the door and the gate at the bottom of the hill: we want you to feel love, to feel passion and energy, sense of balance, to feel that you are grounded and healthy and finally we want you to escape and dream and be the person you want to be as you enter the final door of the house.Jean-Charles Boisset
I’m going to go back to Raymond now. So we energize you through the sense of place. And then what we do again, we brought intentions to Raymond, by using crystals and programming those crystals with those intention that then are being used in the winery to basically bring that level of intrinsic energy to the wine. In many cases we use unique proportions, like divine proportions, like Pythagoras for the famous measurement of Pi to bring a sense of place and the ultimate geometrical architecture that brings that spirituality within the place, similar to the Vatican, similar to the Pantheon, similar to many temples in Asia or in India. And I rarely talk about it because a lot of the people could say, “Wow, this is beyond what I could imagine,” but this is no different than feng shui.
Elaine Chukan Brown:
For some listeners, this might sound really out there or unusual or like, why would this be relevant to wine? But you’re actually touching on a grand history of architecture and creating a sense of place in the land and in our buildings. You know, you mentioned earlier [Editor: this section of the conversation is in the podcast, not the transcript], ‘as above, so below’. This is the principle on which the great Pyramids of Egypt were designed. A lot of people don’t realize that there’s the visible pyramid above ground, but they were designed with an equal pyramid below ground and with a grand entrance path. This is a very ancient idea; these are not new ideas.
I think sometimes we talk about these ideas of energy and spiritual focus, and it can sound a little out there. But actually, from another perspective, it’s very practical. So as a simple example, I was speaking with a winemaker years ago and he wanted to feel himself at peace in his wine cellar because he also imagined that this would help the wines feel at peace in the aging process. And that sounds rather esoteric and maybe a little out there, but think about the practical aspect of it. He designed his cellar so it was set back against a hillside surrounded by trees. And then he made sure there were no fans, and very little electricity in the space.
But now this is describing an incredibly peaceful environment. But in another sense, no fan means you’re not going to dry out the air in the space, so you have more natural humidity in the space. Keeping it tucked against the hillside and surrounded by trees keeps it naturally cooler. So, in a way, he’s created a peaceful cellar that has all of these practical applications that make it work as well. And I think it’s good to remember that these energy commitments, these spiritual commitments, these high-level intentions are also practical.
This is the essence of how the world is created. All those principles are surrounding us, right? They are in Mother Nature, in flowers, in trees, in orientation, with a purpose. We are the ones who have actually disturbed it and want to change it for whatever reason of practicality. But really, if you reapply those principles that you just described, you end up in a much better place. We need to acknowledge that spirits remain, souls are with us. We may go, but we remain. And the power of these remnants creates a collection of energy on the earth that makes it such a great place to be. But let’s allow ourselves to open our hands like the priest does, to bring the light into the church and bring that energy to each other and allow it to be recognised.
If we allow the fact that under us, we have enormous energetic forces or magnetic forces or magnetic flow, we are a better person. At Raymond, I don’t explain it a lot or nor at Buena Vista. People feel comfortable. And that’s the goal. We’ve achieved the invisible architecture that we’ve built for them to be enjoyed. And sometimes when you explain it, you scare people. So sometimes it may be better to be silent and have it. But there’s a reason why, you know, people keep coming back to certain sites in the world and feel so comfortable in those sites because the intention of the people who’ve programmed those sites is still there. And that’s, I think, important.
This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. To enjoy the entire conversation, listen to the podcast.
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