Françoise Peschon was the long-time winemaker for the famous Napa Valley winery Araujo and is now the consulting winemaker for three small, exclusive estates: Cornell, Vine Hill Ranch, and Accendo (the Araujo family’s newest project in Napa Valley). Early in Françoise’s career, she worked at Château Haut-Brion in Bordeaux. In 2000, Françoise partnered with her neighbor and friend to make their own wine, Drinkward Peschon. Françoise holds an enology degree from the University of California, Davis.
Karen MacNeil interviewed Françoise Peschon for WineSpeed in July 2019.
Karen MacNeil: How did your passion for wine lead you to study enology at UC Davis?
Françoise Peschon: The University of California at Davis was the logical choice for me and the only school I applied to. It was close to where both my parents and horses lived, and I knew I wanted to study enology.
KM: What was the first wine that truly inspired you?
FP: 1979 Château Haut-Brion. I never knew wine could taste like that! It was the ah-ha wine that set my senses on fire. Grace, power, elegance and gravitas united in that bottle.
KM: Did you have a mentor? Tell us about her/him.
FP: I’ve had the good fortune of having many mentors. From Ann Noble and Roger Boulton at the University of California, Davis; Jean Delmas at Haut-Brion; Michel Rolland and Amigo Bob. But the two who have had the most influence in my winemaking career have been Tony Soter and Mia Klein. Mia introduced me to Tony in 1993, and they hired me to be the on-site winemaker at the Eisele Vineyard. Tony’s gentle winemaking approach came from his pinot noir model. What has always stuck with me was his advice to “visualize the wine you want to make and work backwards.” Basically, get it right the first time; have a gentle hand. At the end of every blending tasting, he would ask “What wine here is the most Eisele-like in character?” Many consultants adhere to a style of winemaking. Tony’s clients all made unique wines from their estate properties. While Tony was more the ethereal consultant, Mia was hands-on, grounded, generous with her time, patient and kind.
“Visualize the wine you want to make and work backwards.”
Karen MacNeil: What does your average day look like?
Françoise Peschon: It really depends on the season. That’s the beauty of this profession; the work is always different. This time of year, bottling is in the rear-view mirror and I’m starting to do weekly vineyard rounds and prepare for harvest. During harvest, I’m in vineyards every day and splitting my time between wineries and tasting out of tanks every day. Winter is a slower pace, shorter days, reduced adrenaline, and no sense of urgency. In January, its tastings, blendings, budgets and so on….the cycle continues.
KM: If you couldn’t make wine in Napa Valley or Bordeaux, where would your next choice be?
FP: I think I’d like to explore a cooler wine growing region and make aromatic whites. Alto Adige, the Mosel, or Willamette Valley of Oregon. Henry Cornell gives me grief for my love of “weird whites” – but these are the wines I always seek out on a wine list and are intriguing to me.
KM: You are a consultant to three important wineries: Cornell, Accendo, and Vine Hill Ranch. How is being a consulting winemaker different from being a regular winemaker?
FP: I’m actually only a consultant to one—Cornell Vineyards. Elizabeth Tangney is the winemaker and I collaborate with her. She is responsible for the day-to-day responsibilities of grape growing and wine making, basically the heavy lifting. We taste together, make blends together and bounce ideas off each other.
At Accendo, I make white wines now—Nigel Kinsman is responsible for the cabernet sauvignon—so I’m not a consultant, but a producer. The same holds true for Vine Hill Ranch. I’m making the wines. This doesn’t mean there’s a lack of collaboration, though. There is a very strong team in place, and we all taste blends together, but I’m the one doing the work—with some help, of course!
KM: You’ve often said you like making estate wines. Why?
FP: Once you work for an estate property, there is no going back. It’s not only the commitment that the owner, grower and maker share, but it’s the beauty of living the full life-cycle of the wine. We are all working together for the same goal. There is continuity and purpose. By contrast, when a grower/crew delivers grapes to a winery, there’s both a joy and a sadness—we find joy in that a season’s work is almost complete, but unless those responsible for bringing in the fruit get to see the transformation and subsequent success, that is sad to me. There is no bigger joy than to have your vineyard crew follow the fruit from field to winery, taste the wines and feel that pride of ownership.
With Cornell Vineyards specifically, I was attracted to the raw honesty of the place and the people involved. There are 240 acres of mostly untouched, rugged land, rolling hills, oaks, firs, and chaparral surrounding just 20 acres of vineyards planted high on the ridgetops. Considering its elevation, different aspects and exposures, various soils types, Cornell Vineyards has no choice but to make distinctive wines.
The Cornell’s commitment to doing things right is unparalleled. Their vision for the property is unique—it’s farmed organically by a crew that lives on the property, raising their children, tending their flocks and herds. The estate fosters its own community and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be a part of it.
KM: I’m not going to ask what’s your favorite type of wine. But what wine or type of wine do you like the least?
FP: Of course you can ask that question—my final answer is of course cabernet sauvignon! I have a love affair with this variety, clearly. The way it thrives in so many different wine growing regions and takes on the personality of its surroundings without losing itself make it a classic. It’s versatile, yet distinctive.
My least favorite—or instead, why don’t we say the variety that I continue to fail at—is merlot, although I do love merlots from Bordeaux or Italy. The good news is that we will be planting merlot at Cornell Vineyards and Elizabeth will change my mind! She’s that good.
KM: What is it about wine that moves you?
FP: The way a wine has the ability to transport you. If I taste a wine with a tar-y or asphalt character, my mind goes straight to summers in Luxembourg where they are always doing work in the city. The way tasting a specific wine takes you directly to the property and its roots. There are other products with this sense of place or terroir that can transport you this way, like tea, chocolate, and cheese; but wine is my favorite.
KM: How often do you drink your own wine? Are you a harsh critic of wines you’ve made?
FP: There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t taste wine, usually from barrel or tank.
I can’t say I’m a harsh critic of my own wines because every project is a collaborative effort. For Cornell Vineyards, I work with Elizabeth and the entire team there. For Accendo, I work with the Araujo’s, Michel Rolland, and Nigel Kinsman. For Vine Hill Ranch, I work with the Phillips family and their team. I’m prouder of the team and the work we do together, than I am critical of the wines. I don’t feel the same joy tasting wine by myself. I love the spirit of collaboration.
KM: In addition to wine, what’s your other favorite beverage?
FP: Bubbles and Bourbon (not together).
KM: What do you consider your greatest achievement in life?
FP: My family is my greatest achievement. With respect to my career, I take pride in the relationships I’ve developed with winemakers and growers and encouraging the next generation of winemakers.