Geneviève Janssens is Chief Winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery as well as the winemaker and co-owner, with her husband Luc, of Portfolio Limited Edition. She was born into a French winemaking family and earned her National Diploma of Enology at the University of Bordeaux, France in 1974. After her first visit to California in the late 1970s, she was hired at Robert Mondavi Winery where she has worked for the entirety of her career. She spent several years as director of production at Opus One—Robert Mondavi’s joint venture with Baron Philippe de Rothschild—before becoming director of winemaking at Robert Mondavi Winery in 1997. She has garnered many accolades during her career including Wine Enthusiast’s 2010 Winemaker of the Year award.
We interviewed Geneviève Janssens for WineSpeed in December 2019.
Karen MacNeil: You’ve said in the past that you loved working with Robert Mondavi. What did you learn from him and what was working with him like?
Geneviève Janssens: Robert Mondavi was a leader who inspired his employees and gave them very simple and clear directions. No ambiguity about his intentions: he wanted his wines to be part of the league of great wines of the world. He gave his employees every means to reach his dreams. He was a man of great integrity, very demanding and very generous at the same time. Everyone worked very hard and was proud to be part of his team. In his world, there was no room for compromise or shortcuts. I learnt to pay attention to details, never give up, be passionate, always do better, never rest on your laurels, always looking for perfection. His vineyards and winery were an experimental field to achieve excellence.
KM: As director of production at Opus One in the late 1980s-early 1990s, what was it like working with Baron Phillip de Rothschild and what was he like?
GJ: Sadly, I never met Baron Philippe de Rothschild. He passed away in January 1988. After his death, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild succeeded him. The Baroness was a wonderful person who loved all her employees, passionate for her chateaux and her wine business. She was always present for important events. Never tired! Une Grande Dame!
KM: For your own label, Portfolio Limited Edition, you produce only 250 cases of a single wine, yet you sell in Japan and Taiwan. How did that come about?
GJ: Portfolio is producing around 200 cases. Since the beginning the Asian market has appreciated our wine style and the story behind the brand. It is a joint venture between a husband and a wife combining passion for art, winemaking and philanthropy. It is all about relationships, friendship, and the desire to share. The Asian market is always “thirsty for art” and they found the ideal combination of Art and Wine in Portfolio.
“Portfolio Limited Edition is a joint venture between a husband and a wife combining passion for art, winemaking and philanthropy. It is all about relationships, friendship, and the desire to share.”
KM: Portfolio supports the work of the Lao Rehabilitation Foundation which your husband Luc began. What is the Lao Foundation and why is it important to you?
GJ: The Lao Foundation Rehabilitation provides medical services to citizens in remote areas of Laos, with a focus on children. Luc and I think that helping people is paramount if we want to participate in creating a harmonious world. For both of us it is very gratifying to shape a better future for many people.
KM: What is your take on the surprising appearance of wineries in Asia?
GJ: It is very encouraging to see that more and more the world appreciates the benefits of wine. It is a natural evolution for the Asian market to create their own vineyards and wineries. After turning their curiosity toward Europe and other world wine regions, the next chapter for them is to create their own wines and appreciate them. We will learn a lot from them as they have learned from us. The more the merrier!
KM: You‘ve said that while you love to cook, you will never make the same dish twice. Really?
GJ: Yes, definitely. I am always inspired by what I have eaten in restaurants or read in magazines. I open my refrigerator and check what is inside, then I get the spices and the herbs to associate flavors and fragrances in a pleasant way. My refrigerator is never the same from one day to another and don’t always eat in the same restaurant—so yes, I cannot repeat a recipe.
KM: Also, would you say that you approach winemaking with the same philosophy?
GJ: Cooking and winemaking are two different things in my mind. The way I cook is very spontaneous—one hour thinking and preparing and no more than an hour executing the meal. I get my inspiration while shopping. I go to the grocery store almost every day to be sure that the ingredients of the meal are always fresh. I approach winemaking in a totally different way. It is based on science, knowledge, experience, intuition, inspiration, team effort from vineyard to table. There is a discipline making wine which I don’t see in cooking a meal at home. I am sure if I wanted to become a Chef, I would have to apply the same criteria as winemaking.
KM: With so many talented, passionate and long-lived winemakers of renown on the planet, what is it that makes you “one of the most respected winemakers in the world?
GJ: That is a very difficult question to answer. It’s always hard to be your own critic. There is no doubt that in order to make great wine, we must establish strong human relationships, inspire trust, establish a common goal and execute it together.
KM: France has bestowed upon you some of its highest honors: the “Croix de Chevaliere dans l’Ordre du Merite Agricole” and the title of “Commandeur d’Honneur de l’Ordre du Bontemps”. Oscar-winners often claim to keep their trophies in their powder rooms or closets. Where would we find your medals.
GJ: They are locked in our safe at home. Peacefully resting to be appreciated by the next generation.
KM: If you had not become a winemaker, what path do you believe you would have followed instead?
GJ: I grew up in Nice, South of France close to the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco. I spent my youth going there to view its aquariums, exhibits, and collections. Jacques Cousteau had his research laboratory there. My dream was to work with his team and be on his research boat.
KM: Tell us something about you that would surprise most people to learn.
GJ: To pursue my dream to be a marine biologist, I spent my first two years of college studying Geology, climbing mountains and diving in the Mediterranean Sea.