Postscript: On May 11, 2020 Jean-Michel Comme resigned his position at Pontet-Canet, saying the pressure of the job had become unbearable. In our interview, he spoke openly and honestly about that incredible stress and the emotional toll of managing an estate with first growth expectations. It was an incredible interview for me. I wish Jean-Michel and the Tesseron family the very best in the next chapter of their respective stories.
When we met Château Pontet-Canet’s venerable régisseur (estate manager) Jean-Michel Comme back in September, he was more than a little sleep deprived. Stuffing his hands deep in his pockets, he apologized for his ‘condition’ and warned he might be a little off his game. He’d had one, perhaps two hours of sleep the night before, charged with the responsibility of getting his California-based daughter to the Bordeaux airport at the ungodly hour of 3am.
Our visit happened just days before the 2019 Médoc harvest was to begin. 2018 had not been kind to this pioneering biodynamic château, so the stakes were decidedly high for the man and the vintage. All of the estates I’d visited on this trip to Bordeaux were somewhere on the sustainable, organic, biodynamic continuum but none had the obvious experience and pedigree of Pontet-Canet. And none were home-schooled in the rich ecology, theology, anthropology and cosmology of biodynamie like Jean-Michel Comme.
Did I have questions or should he just speak…..? I decided to give him runway.
So began his soliloquy, a Shakespeare-worthy discourse during which the Pauillac winemaker extolled his fierce beliefs on building a symbiotic relationship with Mother Nature, the brilliance of Rudolf Steiner and his utter devotion to his wife and family. Elizabethan scholars will argue a true soliloquy is delivered in the absence of other characters, so perhaps it’s more accurate to say it was a monologue.
Whatever the literary device, what’s clear is this deeply contemplative man is as much philosopher as he is winemaker. Is philosophy, the human struggle and man’s search for meaning (to quote another Austrian philosopher) a prerequisite for biodynamic winemaking? It clearly is for Jean-Michel Comme, whose resilient journey down an unconventional winemaking road has seen extraordinary highs and lows in his attempt to produce terroir-expressive, naturally balanced wine.
The Natural Evolution of Pontet-Canet
Acquired by Cognac merchant Guy Tesseron in 1975, the 300+ year old 81-hectare, Pontet-Canet property is now run by Guy’s son Alfred and his nieces Mélanie and Philippine. As early under-the-radar proponents of biodynamic viticulture in risk-averse Bordeaux, the Tesseron family understood early on they’d need to take risks to reap rewards.
Has it worked (the obvious question, asked by all)?
It’s hard to argue with the results. Many would suggest the wines of Pontet-Canet punch well above their Fifth Growth weight. Indeed, critics regularly assign 1855 Classification Super Second and often First Growth levels of quality to this Left Bank estate. It’s fair to say no other estate in Bordeaux has improved the quality of their wine at a level equal to Pontet-Canet.
It was an exceptionally beautiful fall day when we visited Pontet-Canet. Indeed, the entire month of September was one for the Bordeaux record books. All signs pointed to a stellar harvest, perhaps rivalling previous 100-point vintages 2009, 2010, 2016.
Still, if this philosopher king has learned anything, it’s that nature can’t be trusted. After losing two-thirds of the 2018 biodynamic crop to mildew, Jean-Michel Comme takes nothing for granted.
The Best Fertilizer is the Farmer’s Footprint
When Jean-Michel Comme joined the Tesseron family as vineyard manager in 1989 the engineer and oenologist inherited vineyards that were in need of serious repair. Vines were missing, there were problems with harvesting machines and the wine quality was …. fine. By the mid-90’s, however, things were looking up.
Around the same time Jean-Michel realized his traditional viticulture education – what he had learned in oenology school – was not enough. To make the kind of wine that he and owner Alfred Tesseron aspired too, they’d need to pivot. “What made the change for us,” he explains, “was discovering the importance of soil nutrition. It was really a true revolution…. 25 years ago, no one was promoting nutrition for plants – or for humans – it was still something very new.”
Jean-Michel will reference “us” a lot in the next hour.
“I say for us and not for me – because it’s been a common path with my wife, Corinne,” he explains. “She’s not involved in Pontet-Canet, but we are growers together. We have a small family estate – Château de Champs de Treilles in St Foy – coming from my family. It’s very modest, but my wife is in charge of this family estate and we share our experiences.” He grins a little mischievously and leans in: “You know, we’ve been together since high school, when we were 18. So, a long time. And we share and we progress…. together.” “Sounds like love,” I say, risking an editorial comment. “Yes, it is,” he smiles.
Jean-Michel credits his and Corinne’s agricultural awakening to Francis Chaboussou, a researcher and author from the French National Institute of Agricultural Research in Bordeaux. Chaboussou’s research attempted to demonstrate the positive influence of good nutrition on plants with the use of minerals. At the same time, it examined the detrimental affect of mainstream agricultural science and pesticides on soils and to the physiology of the vines. “When I read this book, it was the second half of the nineties but the book had been printed in 1980.” He says at that point, he and the team at Pontet-Canet were pretty darned impressed with themselves. “We’d managed to halt an influx of spider mites on the vines, and we felt very powerful and technically correct in our use of pesticides.”
But 20 years earlier, Chaboussou had described these very tactics, as wrong and misguided. “So you understand he basically described me as the stupid guy in his book. His research showed that the pesticides have serious effects on the vines and on their growth. And sometimes when you have a disease and you try to cure a disease with pesticides, you create a new disease. And then you use a pesticide to cure the second disease and you create a third one. And so on. And in the end, everyone is dead and you solve nothing!” he says throwing up his hands, with a hint of Shakespearean drama. “I was that stupid guy.”
A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool. (William Shakespeare: As You Like It)
That dressing-down, signalled the beginning of the Pontet-Canet evolution. “In the beginning we tried to just lower the use of pesticides, but we were not controlling anything. So the goal was to reduce more and more the use of those products to be more and more safe for the vines.” By the end of that process – voila – they were organic.
“It sounds so simple now, but you know, in the late 90’s there was nobody else doing this. There was no one in Bordeaux to show us the way or to be used as an example. So, we had to figure it out for ourselves and determine if this was a good practice or not. And the size of the estate is pretty big and the prestige was not as much as it is now, but still, we all had a very high expectation of quality for the estate.”
“And so we said, yes, it’s nice to be almost organic, but the best would be biodynamic…. It’s easier to explain that you have no pesticide instead of almost no pesticides.” And that’s why we were not totally comfortable with the organic vision. In our heart we felt it was just not good enough for us.”
Not good enough why, I ask.
“The organic approach is important but it’s still too close to the conventional way,” he suggests. “It’s always about war and going to battle. The only difference is the weapons we use. On one side you have nuclear weapons. On the other you have arrows. But the goal remains the same: you try to kill your enemy and your enemy tries to kill you…. Except,” he shrugs, “the goal is always to kill the enemy first.”
Biodynamics, he suggests, shifts the paradigm. Self-sustaining growers work in harmony with nature and the environment and not in opposition. It’s not only a philosophical shift but a shift beyond conventional, technical and mechanical ways. And it looks at disease and pest problems from an agricultural and non-violent perspective. “If one day a fungus or insect becomes aggressive it’s not the fault of the fungus or insect,” he says, “it’s probably coming from the plant itself and the soil below. As with Chinese Medicine – the disease is the response to the problem and not the cause.” Disease, is nature’s answer to a lack of balance, he argues.
“And with biodynamie, before trying to kill your enemy you first try to understand why the enemy became the enemy in the first place and what role and responsibility you play in the situation,” he explains. “And if we used this way of thinking for our geo-politics you see there is a lot we could do,” he smiles wryly.
“It’s like people who take drugs,” he observes. “Suppressing the drug will not solve a person’s problem. That person takes the drug as an easy, short-term solution to ease the pain that is buried deep in their soul. But – of course – this will eventually destroy the person. The true solution is to try to look deep in the heart and the soul of that person to understand where the problem is coming from. And if you address the problem from the beginning, maybe you will succeed.”
“And that’s how it works for the plant and that’s why we decided to convert to biodynamics,” he declares.
Nature can’t be Trusted
This philosophical, spiritual and physical conversion to biodynamic farming went well …. and then it didn’t.
By 2007 Pontet-Canet had evolved from an 18-hectare test (2004) to an all-in, 81-hectare roll-out to the entire vineyard.
But 2007 was a particularly humid year and that summer Pontet-Canet had their first major attack of Downey Mildew. “It was not so easy or so clear why the plants were behaving differently,” he says. “At that point we only had three years of experience,” he sighed. “The owner asked me to go back to spraying pesticide and so we lost the three years of biodynamic conversion. I understood his fear and the owner wanted to save his estate,” he adds, charitably.
So was that the right decision….when you need to save your estate you spray, I ask?
“No. It was not the right decision. But I wasn’t in a position to say no. And when we started, no-one in Bordeaux trusted in biodynamie as a possible solution for grape crops. I took the problem, I said we will do it, and it will work. And it did for three years. And in the fourth it did not. So, in a growing area where you have 100% of people who are opposed and do not trust it at all, it’s easy for someone who is in a bad position to say it’s not possible. Two weeks later we went back to organic spraying because it was no longer possible for us to go back to the conventional way.”
Jean-Michel says they all learned a lot from 2007; especially, how to work with Mother Nature. “We had to research, study and re-learn the terroir and its relationship to fungus, insects and quality. We discovered each place, each row, each soil type has a single personality and we needed to understand this personality as best we could. Each variety also has its own personality,” he emphasizes, “and in the end we were able to build and anticipate single case solutions for every part of the vineyard for disease management and for quality.”
Bordeaux’s Quality Standard-Bearer
This depth of learning proved fruitful and allowed Pontet-Canet to build a healthy crop for 10 years. And not only a healthy crop, but quality grapes and extraordinarily complex wines that significantly improved the esteem of the château. Influential critics gushed about improvements in the vineyards and the cellars, applauding Pontet Canet’s ‘holistic’ approach to vineyard ecosystems that included Jean-Michel Comme designed amphorae built with sand and gravel from the property, geothermal heating and cooling and metal-free/hemp insulated electrical. The the purity of the fruit….the exceptional quality of the wines – Pontet-Canet was described as “a tour de force in viticultural precision and winemaking savoir faire”.
Jean-Michel says they underestimated the degree to which the wines would improve from biodynamics. The expression of the vines, healthier and better-balanced soils, better biodiversity – they quickly saw the difference it made in the vineyards, And, with better grapes, came better wines and with better wines came better prices.
“Year after year, the proportion of our second label went down. And now, we produce no second label at all… 100% of the crop goes to the great label,” he says. “Pontet-Canet is the only estate in Bordeaux with a commitment to quality that sees 100% of the crop going to the great label.”
He’s quick to point out this quality differential is not coming from God: “It’s coming from hard work,” he says. “But you know, with nature, when you start to believe nothing can hurt you, and you’ve learned everything there is to know, you miss the signs,” he says shaking his head. “And so, after a decade of good growth, in 2018 we were hit again and it was really damaging … just to show that nothing is written forever.”
Jean-Michel says this time Alfred Tesseron allowed him to continue their biodynamic farming practices. “But I still feel guilty and I have this pain in my heart. But there was something I could not see because it had never happened before. And the first time you see this, it’s difficult to know if it will be damaging.” What he would give to encounter the same weather conditions again…”I’d like to show that it’s possible to organically manage this level of disease with little to no damage,” he says. “We learned a lot. I learned a lot. And I think my vision of the wine and the vine is very different from what it was before.”
I risk sharing an observation and a question….
“I was here in Bordeaux for En Primeur in 2019 and read a lot of the media and trade coverage. I thought some critics were quite harsh on Pontet-Canet and the other biodynamic estates. How did you feel you were treated…earlier you said Bordeaux hasn’t embraced biodynamic viticulture?”
What makes it bearable, he sighs, is that all three biodynamic estates in the Médoc: Château Palmer, Château Dufort Viviens and Pontet-Canet, lost the same two-thirds of the crop. “I don’t need or want people to applaud what we do here, but since last year we’ve had to explain and apologize for having lost this amount of grapes. Those who use pesticides that provide cancer to the vine, cancer mutation and birth defects, it’s a smart move on their part and yet here at Pontet-Canet we have to apologize. And in people’s minds, you are the stupid guy and a crazy man and so there you go….”
Do you have a therapist, I ask, only half-joking…
“No,” he laughs, “but you know, the people working at the estate are employees like me. They have nothing to win, nothing to gain in taking risks and the owners are trying to be better vignerons by taking this risk. But in an estate like ours that has a big size, we do the best we can and sometimes it’s not working well. But it’s difficult to have to apologize for that.” There is a saying in French, he says, called a ‘passage oublié (a necessary evil). “This was a lesson, a calling for us to change our ways and become better.”
I ask him what he learned from the rains of 2018? You said if I could do it again, to be better…..
“Yes, well I feel very pretentious saying I will be better next time (laughter) …because, after all, it’s nature.” But what I can say is that I carry the same feeling as after 2007.”
Jean-Michel admits that vintage took a terrible toll on him – emotionally.
“Imagine, my position,” he says. “I was the only one to trust in. Even the owner, he was confident in what I do, because we have a long history together. But he is not in charge in the vineyard and he has to be confident in somebody. And so, I took on this task because of the vines. And I did it. And then, when I went through troubles in 2007, nobody trusted me. And you have to admit it did not work, but now we will restart and now it will work. You have to find in your heart the energy to restart. Against all the odds. And that’s when my work stops being work and it’s a mystical path. It’s like the path of the cross for me. Because otherwise, I would not be able to manage this pressure. Because for me, it’s no longer a job. I don’t do it for money, I do it for the sake of the vines.”
“Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the ability to move ahead in spite of your fear.” – Rollo May
What I found so striking about our conversation was Jean-Michel’s unbridled honesty. And vulnerability. He says what saved him through this period of profound despair was his family.
“I had to have money for my children – and without my wife around me, I probably would have committed suicide. Because when you have no more crop and you go to bed, you do not sleep with the weight of that responsibility. And then the next morning you are not clear-headed and the situation is worse than the day before.”
He said what helped offer perspective was an article by French wine journalist Michel Bettane who was writing about Domaine Roumier in Burgundy. “He talked about the difference between a very good wine and a great wine, and I understood at that moment, even if our loss was difficult, it was just because we had another goal. We had a goal of true greatness and others – including us before – had the goal of very good.”
Greatness, he suggests, takes it up a notch and has a connection with art and emotion. “A great wine in my mind is a wine that is able to make a person tremble or cry. I’m not saying I have produced any, but this is my goal. Some people are moved because of a painting…. it’s something that has touched your soul. Just like there are a few musicians, a few football players, a few chefs who received a gift from nature. There are billions of people who cook every day but just one or two chefs who have the capacity to create great emotion. I use the example of Zidane the famous French football player. He was an artist who played with such control and elegance. He came from the poor side of Marseille and many of his classmates probably went to jail. But someone saw his gift and helped him excel.”
A great wine, he says, has this same level of connection, and only a few estates around the world have achieved that level of greatness.
And terroir at that level of greatness, is a gift to create emotion, but the emotion must be created, he explains. “The great location comes first and we cannot change that. And the place of humans is to serve. I am serving the artist. I am carrying the brushes of the artist. I am not the artist myself. I am simply carrying the brushes and if I do my work well, maybe I will improve the final results. If I do not do it well or do not clean well the brushes, I will lower the final result.”
And so biodynamic agriculture, he suggests, is probably the best tool to try to achieve emotion.
It’s that very human connection to the vine – his vines – that left him feeling so distraught last year. It’s like being a negligent parent, he suggests. “It’s the feeling I had with the vines. I’d seen that they were not in perfect shape but I was not aware that it could be so damaging and that’s why I feel guilty.”
When I ask who he turns to for inspiration, he says his family.
His wife, Corinne, is an esteemed viticulturalist and biodynamic consultant. As her first venture, she helped Château Clemens in Barsac transition to biodynamic viticulture. Today, she consults with vineyards around the world and is able to track biodynamics across a range of growing conditions.
Jean-Michel’s son, Thomas, is managing the new 653 acre Pym-Rae Tesseron Napa Valley estate purchased by Alfred Tesseron in 2016. Previously owned by Robin Williams, the Comme family has been working with the Tesseron family to transition the estate to biodynamics. Adding yet another level of expertise, Thomas Comme is married to an oenologist and former intern at Pontet-Canet, who provides biodynamic consulting in California. Did I mention Jean-Michel’s Napa-based daughter also works in the wine industry….but not in production, he assures me.
“So we share our experience in the family and after years I feel more and more comfortable with the ideas and philosophies of Rudolph Steiner. Biodynamics is not a treatment or technique. It’s much deeper than that. The ideas are rooted in the culture of western civilization.” But with biodynamics, he cautions, it’s difficult because Bordeaux is not ‘in the soul’ of Steiner. “Steiner gave recipes for German and north German climates and you cannot always extend it to Western or Southern Europe or to California, or China. That’s why it’s important to understand the limitations of the system.”
“At the same time, you cannot just take half or take parts of the preparations you like and leave the rest. The ideas are global, and the knowledge and wisdom woven into the preps is very wise and powerful. Here at Pontet-Canet it’s the basis for our destiny.”
He says the more he has progressed ‘with my little knowledge’, the more impressed he is with Steiner. “But people have to enter this knowledge step by step. It’s often very far from the common sense that people have so you have to be cautious. Thankfully we progressed that way and it’s going well but it’s difficult to enter that alone with no help.”
And 2019, what are you thinking about the vintage, I ask.
“We have had perfect weather. Probably the best crop and the best yields in terms of quantity. Here, we make no hedging, we do not cut the shoots, we do not de-leaf, we do not green-harvest, we do not de-bud in early spring.” He says they stopped these practices because they’re not natural. “At the end of the season we want a low-yield based on the natural balance of the vine.”
“So you see, it’s not easy to make wine naturally and for sure we do not work like we did last year anymore.”
Is it too early to say “All’s well that ends well…”?
Post-script: Clearly, with Covid-19, everything has changed. These are trying times for producers and consumers and this pandemic was definitely not part of the equasion when we met with Jean-Michel. We wish the team at Pontet-Canet the best of luck. I look forward to enjoying the 2019 vintage soon!
Feature Photo: Photo credit: Pontet Canet