A story about an expatriate—and about his wine
SAINT PONS LA CALM, FRANCE : : At first take, Denis Gayte’s story sounds like the kind of best-selling novel you’d pick up at the airport or throw in your bag for the beach:
All-American 20-something with promising dot-com office job moves from Seattle to a bucolic village in French Provence countryside to farm his ancestral land and make wine.
Of course there’s a love interest—a beautiful fiancée who speaks no Francais whom he must convince to join him in his crazy quest. Ah yes, mon amour, can’t you just see the Van Gogh’s fields of sunflower, smell the lavender, taste the wine and cheese à la Peter Mayle?
It certainly qualifies as a romantic adventure, but the real story is much more complicated. Très difficile, you might even say, though not without a happy ending. You can, after all, buy a bottle of Denis Gayte Côtes du Rhône (red or rosé) at the Whole Foods Market in Seattle. It retails for about $11 and sells under the name “Harmonie.” “We should have called it blood, sweat, and tears,” jokes his wife, Kirstin.
THE AMERICAN DREAM
You can’t tell Denis Gayte’s story without dipping into that of his father’s, a classic immigrant tale of success in the New World. One of six siblings in Avignon, France, Philippe Gayte struck out on his own to America in the mid-’60s. The son of a great French restaurateur, he eventually founded, managed, and was head chef at “Le Provençal,” an institution of French country cooking in the Seattle area (Kirkland) until he sold it in 2001. Like many recent European immigrants, he carefully tended the relationship with his family back home, making annual treks with his wife and children to see relatives in Provence and keep the cultural ties alive. But despite this, the importance of integration into American life and the influence of an American wife resulted in little French being spoken in the home. In the small circle of French expats in Seattle, Denis was often working on his curveball at baseball practice while the other children were conjugating verbs at French lessons.
“He was just a typical kid from Bellevue who went to Wazzu,” recalls Peter Dow, owner of Seattle’s Cavatappi Distribution, which imports Denis Gayte wines. Dow and Gayte’s father were friendly Mediterranean cuisine competitors. Dow had the Italian joint, Phillipe Gayte the French one. So when Gayte’s son, Denis, turned up a few years after college with a bottle of his own Côtes du Rhône for distribution, Dow expected he would live up to the family name.
“I liked the wines, and they were priced where they needed to be—the magic number is $10. You sell a lot of wine at that price. But when you go above that—well, you hit a big wall at $20.”
After four years at WSU, Denis graduated with a degree in communications. Before joining the workforce grind, he decided to ski bum the French Alps for a season. He quickly found a job at a chalet hotel in Chamonix where he could live cheap and save money working nights to powder-hound during the day. All good things come to an end, however. Come summer, he returned to Seattle and found a respectable well-paying job at a public relations firm. Typical white-collar office stuff. Press releases. Advertising. Grant proposals. Fundraisers.
“One night I was making a call to hit up a client for $15,000 to support a golf tournament and I realized my heart just wasn’t in it. I was like, what am I doing? It was time for a lifestyle change.”
THE FRENCH DREAM
His father called up a cousin in France and asked if Denis could come over for the summer and work the asparagus fields and cherry orchards. She welcomed her eager American nephew with open arms. But that year, the family lost its matriarch. When Denis’s grandmother passed away, France’s forced inheritance laws required her large estate to be divided among the six siblings. A carefree summer job turned into a complicated sorting out of family affairs, with Denis doing his best in limited French to represent his father’s interests. They settled for a small apartment in the rural village of Saint Pons La Calm and several hectares of century-old vineyards on rocky, hard-to-farm soil. It was, essentially, the piece of the pie nobody else in the family wanted.
“I thought, well then, we’ll take this. Then my father will always have a place here, he’ll never lose his roots in France.”
The estate’s jewel—the premier hotel and restaurant in the main square of Avignon across from the Palace of the Popes—was taken over by the siblings willing to keep it running. Of course, there’s a Denis Gayte wine on the list (marked up six times its retail).
“Eehh Denis. Alors, ça va?”
The sous chef in his billowy white hat and apron spots Denis as we walk by. How’s it going? How’s business? he asks.
Et le vin, ça marche?
Bien, bien, merci.
This is the man who originally apprenticed under Denis’s grandfather, the commis who “remembers me from when I was in my superman pajamas,” he explains. As we walk away the chef waves au revoir. The restaurant manager picks up the tab and then waves us off with his hand as if to say, “Did you really expect to have to pay here?”
We leave Avignon and head northwest into the Provence countryside toward Gard. The golden sun sets the pastels aglow—silvery green shrubs, pale sandstone homes with shutters painted periwinkle to match the lavender blooming by the front steps.
WHEN IN RHÔNE
The 125-mile Rhône Valley is one of the three great classic wine regions of France, though it has never quite achieved the prestige or price range of the other two—Bordeaux and Burgundy. The Rhône is second only behind Bordeaux in production of wines that are AOC, Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, the government’s certification of quality. The AOC system divides vineyards into a tangled web of appellations and classifications depending on regions and terroir. The wines in the northern and southern Rhône share the river and the name, but that is about all, as there are substantial differences in wines from the mountainous northern end and those from the southern end, which extends just below Avignon. Red Côtes du Rhône is usually dominated by Grenache, but Denis also has several of the other common varietals, including Syrah, Mourvedre, aromatic Cinsault, and Carignan. With so many varietals, most of the wines are blends, an art that depends on the producer’s percentage of each grape, how wines are aged, and whether they are stored in vats, tanks, or oak barriques (he has all three).
In the little town of Domazan, he slows the car to a crawl as we pass an old unmarked stone building with enormous beat-up wooden doors. That’s the “cave,” he says, using the French word for wine cellar. We’ll stop there later.”
We arrive at Gayte’s village 20 minutes later. Its name, Saint Pons “la Calm,” is an understatement. There’s no café, no bar, no bakery or bank or post office or services to speak of. The big action is the daily early morning delivery of 40 baguettes and a bundle of newspapers to the church steps. Elderly men in tipped black berets and rubber farm galoshes gather to play cards in the parish house and smoke behind the church. Most of the young people have gone off to Paris or Lyon to study or work and only come home on weekends or for the annual cherry festival, where families come out to drink wine and eat grilled saucisson and the local kids all compete in the cherry pit spitting contest. The next day, the local newspaper reports on the story of the day: “Cherry Pit Spitting Record Broken in St. Pons!”
Right on the edge of town, with a picturesque view of the church and village, are Denis’s family vines. We rattle down the dirt farm roads on the
edge of town in his Renault farm truck, a robin’s egg blue ex-French Telecom utility vehicle with a faded Seattle Mariners sticker peeling off the bumper.
“This is where I’d like to build a house some day,” he says, as we bump up into the vineyard and park under the shade of an ancient cherry tree standing guard over several hectares of Syrah. Five years ago he ripped out the old Grenache goblins like those in the adjacent fields and planted syrah along a T-shaped trellis system like those he’d seen in Washington state. The locals laughed. “If you want to waste your money, go ahead,” he recalls them saying. Now the valley is spotted with Syrah being grown that way.
Most of the wine produced here in Saint Pons la Calm—including Denis’s—is AOC Côtes du Rhône. It is brought to the local cooperative, which then sells it in bulk to commercial blenders (négociants) who bottle, distribute, and export on an industrial scale. Each week the cooperative holds meetings to discuss prices, yields, and other business. Of the 76,000 liters Denis produces a year, more than half is sold to bulk wine buyers.
One step up on the certification scale is Côtes du Rhône Villages, which he uses for his Harmonie wines. At the very top are the “Cru” wines, which include some of the region’s most famous names, such as Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which produced the Wine Spectator‘s 2002 wine of the year. While his family vineyards produced grapes good enough for the local cooperative, they probably wouldn’t suffice—in volume or quality—for his own retail wine. He would have to add acreage and different terroir. Getting his hands on Côtes du Rhône Villages vineyards wasn’t easy. For an outsider, there seemed to be one bureaucratic or cultural obstacle after another. “I thought, I have a French passport, why not try to actually enter the French system?” Despite having just graduated from one of the best ag schools in the nation, he enrolled at a wine growing/oenology school in the Provence and set out to learn all he could about farming, winemaking, the Rhône Valley, and how things are done by those who know it best—the French. He apprenticed at a respected vintner in the famed “Châteauneuf-du-Pape” appellation region between Orange and Avignon, from where some of the finest Côtes du Rhône wines are produced. After two years, he earned a diploma recognizing him as a “young winegrower.” That distinction made him eligible for government grants, low interest rates, and other incentives. It also gave him priority for buying land in the Rhône Valley. With the “young winemaker” diploma in hand, he went to the bank.
GO SOUTH, YOUNG MAN
Eighteen parcels of mostly Côtes du Rhône Villages land had come up for sale in the nearby village of Domazan, situated on a rocky plateau across the river from Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards. The property also included a place for making and storing wine, called a “cave,” after the caves and catacombs where the wine was traditionally made and stored. Denis needed capital, fast.
In Denis’s version, the banker took one look at the eager American with a solid business plan and a decent Audi, and pretty much rubber-stamped a significant loan. The financing, in fact, proved much simpler than actually buying the land. In accordance with French law, all potential buyers would have to submit candidacy in a lengthy bidding process with the family. Denis was one of 16 interested buyers. Though he held both a French passport and a newly minted “young French winemaker” degree, he was still referred to (and not always affectionately) as “l’Americain.” But while the other buyers, mostly area farmers, wanted to buy a parcel here and there to augment existing operations, Denis wanted it all. He bid on all 12 parcels, plus the cave. The bid was accepted. In that moment, quelle horreur, he made instant foes. One of the angriest was a neighboring farmer whose vineyards literally surround one of the best parcels. The Saint Sylvester vineyard was an island of opportunity for Gayte, but a thorn in the side of his new neighbor.
“He pretty much said what the f7*$&#* are you doing here? You have no right to buy land here,” recalls Gayte. “Even when you are from the next village over, you are considered an outsider. I had the advantage of at least having a clean slate. But it was hard in the beginning.”
It wasn’t just that he was young, American, or making rookie mistakes. He did unorthodox things on purpose. He still takes flack, for example, for letting grass (i.e., weeds) grow in his vineyards. Too many herbicides poison the soil, he says. Instead he just pulls out the worst ones and tills the rest under to give nutrients back to the soil. Across the road, the neighboring vines grow up through stones and cracked, barren earth.
“So what’s the main difference between your vineyards and your French comrades’?” I ask him as we look out over the lush green hills. “I have grasses and flowers and it doesn’t look like Baghdad,” he jokes, nodding across the way. “Roots have to go down. I am a big believer in making the vines suffer a little, not spoiling them. You need them to work for it.”
You could say his fellow French comrades felt the same way about him.
“Here, no one will ever tell you their secrets,” he admits. “It is trial and error. You just have to do it.”
His tenacity and can-do attitude has earned him some respect. Five years later he’s one of the three (of 26) vintners in Domazan who sell wine to the U.S. market. And though some of their agricultural practices still differ, he’s now friends with most of the guys who were hardest on him. They meet for coffee in the mornings and gather at the local bar after work for a few pastis, the anise-flavored liquor popular in the countryside. The neighboring farmer waves from his tractor as we pass in the fields.
The addition of Domazan vineyards gave him a total of three different terroirs (12 hectares in Domazan and six in Saint Pons la Calm), for a total of about 45 acres. The Domazan parcels, largely Côtes du Rhône Villages, have a longer grape maturity requirement and the soil and microclimates are very different from the family vineyards, “St. Pons,” as locals call it. Here the red clay soil has given way to sandy quartz, limestone, and smooth alluvial stones the size of small frisbees. The rocks are hard on Gayte’s tractors and tillers, but they do the wine several favors: they provide excellent drainage, they reflect the sun, aiding maturation, and they accumulate heat during the day, which is released at night. This leads to intense ripeness and higher alcohol levels. At his prized Saint Sylvester vineyard, which sits atop the Domazan plateau, there’s a daily visit from the mistral that blows down the western flank of the Rhône river.
“Up here I know I have to be done with all my spraying in the morning,” Gayte says of the mistral, which doesn’t touch another of his vineyards just a few kilometers away. That reliable wind, which blows 158 days a year and is downright annoying in the colder months, is also a friend of the vineyards. It keeps the grapes dry (and therefore more disease-resistant) and moderates the temperatures summer and winter.
The appellation just above Domazan, Tavel, is reputedly the site of the best rosé wine in the world. No surprise, then, that Denis Gayte’s rosé, which is 50 percent Grenache noir, 40 percent Cinsault, and 10 percent Syrah, is delicious?-?a full-bodied dry rosé, with a marvelous peachy hue. “Unfortunately, rosé has that zinfandel-blush reputation, the bum-on-the-street, bottle-in-the-bag stereotype, and it has not been taken seriously.”
Gayte’s 2007 Harmonie rosé is to be taken seriously. While conditions could have been better in the 2004, he notes, the Aurum 2005, dense and rich with black fruit and spicy notes, and Harmonie 2006, a full-bodied, fruit-driven wine packed with ripe cherries, cassis, and a hint of vanilla, are
drinking well now. The Wine Spectator called the Rhône’s superb 2005 “the valley’s most consistent and cellar-worthy vintage since 1990.” The Harmonie 2007, Denis says “is going to be really good.”
His Harmonie 2004 scored an 80 in Wine Spectator’s Ultimate Buying Guide 2007 Compendium. That’s in line with many other reds in that price range, but fell short when compared to many of his French counterparts’ Rhône scores.
“Having a grade like an 80 shows me the progress I need to make,” Gayte said. “You can take it personally for about the first few minutes.”
As blending is an important part of the Côtes du Rhône character, he now pays an oenologist from a private lab to analyze his wine and follow him through the season.
“It is important to have someone you can trust, who will say, ‘oh there’s a sharp tannin there,’ and then you can play with the blend. In the end it is all about tasting, a bit of luck, and not making mistakes.”
“Well,” he says sheepishly, opening up the creaky, weathered wooden doors. “This is it.” We step into cool darkness. There’s no ambient lighting. No jazz playing in the background. No signs, tasting room, or t-shirts for sale.
He grabs a lantern from an antique tool pegboard and closes the double doors, which still have their original square, hand-made bolts. Above us, massive hand-hewn beams crisscross the insulated ceiling. There are two underground cement holding tanks, a few oak casks, and several stainless steel Italian-made vats.
“Some might call it a winery. I call it a garage with some tanks in it. But this is where I bring my grapes and make my wine. ” Kirstin jokes that it’s the laboratory where he plays mad scientist.
Using a large wine thief, he pulls two glasses of 2006 Carignan from the wooden barrels. He drinks a large swill, swishes vigorously, and then spits the wine expertly into a black plastic bucket nearby. Then we try the 2007 Côtes du Rhône from the tanks, followed by the 2007 Côtes du Rhône Villages from the vat. Each time he does the same routine. Drink, swish, spit. I sip and watch silently, wishing I were as savvy as he, but instead think up a myriad of reasons why I shouldn’t spit it out. I can’t hit the bucket. I’ll probably dribble unladylike on my blouse. I have a high tolerance. And most convincing: “What a terrible waste of perfectly good Côtes du Rhône.” I dutifully finish off each sample.
Let’s see now. What do my notes say here? Oh yeah, the wine. Very fruit forward. A hint of cherry, of violet. Lots of body and character. Now this is an assignment I can get into. Using a specialized set of tongs, he lowers a bottle into the six-foot-deep tank of ruby-colored Syrah. “We’ll drink this tonight.” I nod as he opens the huge wooden doors and squint as we step out of the damp, dark cave into the bright Provence sun. I’m glad he’s driving.
THE EURO BLUES
Gayte’s timing could have been better. The 2002 Rhône grape harvest was one of the worst seasons in decades. Since then the euro has continued to rise, leaving the dollar scraping the bottom of the foreign exchange barrel. That has made European wines more expensive for Americans. In March, the president of France’s Burgundy association announced producers would raise prices in the U.S. market by 10-20 percent.
In effect, Gayte pays expenses in euros, but has been “forced to cut margins” to compensate for the struggling dollar. In exchange, he’s getting a foot in the door of the U.S. market.
It’s not such a bad deal when you consider the huge potential of the American market. The U.S. wine market soared to an estimated $30 billion in 2007 as consumption of wine continued to boom despite a bust economy. Wine has gotten a lot of recent positive press with studies showing that moderate consumption has positive health benefits. That hasn’t sent Americans running to Trader Joe’s for cases of two-buck chuck, however. They’re gravitating toward premium wines, which translated into an eight-percent increase in actual market value in 2007, according to a report issued by the wine industry consulting firm Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates. That makes the United States the world’s biggest wine market.
But while Americans are willing to pay more for good wine, the stiff competition from other French winemakers keeps prices of Côtes du Rhône low. You can’t just slap on any price you want. In Washington state, there’s a large cash requirement for start-up winemakers, explains distributor Peter Dow. They have to buy fruits, build a winery, buy barrels. To cover that investment, Dow says, their bottles must cost $20-$40. Gayte says he couldn’t get away with prices like that.
“In the United States, anybody can open a winery. You just find an investor with capital, but then you have to pay him back, so you start selling your Washington or Oregon wine for $40 a bottle. I could never sell a $20 Côtes du Rhône. I’d be tarred and feathered!”
He faces other problems that his U.S. counterparts do not—mind-boggling bureaucracy and labor union activism, like the dockworker’s strike last spring that left cases of his wine (and many other French winemakers) stranded at the port of Marseille for months.
And then there’s the crush of competition from the New World wines, those coming from Australia, the United States, South Africa, Argentina, and Chile. The United Kingdom used to be dominated by Old World (European) wines, but now it is getting tougher to sell a 25-euro bottle. What’s hot are what Gayte calls “critter wines,” those ubiquitous wines with names like Yellow Dog, Red Tail, or Jumping Frog featuring animals on the labels. The problem, Denis says, is that New World winemakers are often “obsessed with making their wines too perfect.” He calls them Pamela Anderson wines. You know the type: big, sexy, flamboyant, but not really the kind of wine you’d like to settle down with for conversation at the dinner table. In their French Wine for Dummies, wine columnists and critics Mary Ewing-Mulligan and Ed McCarthy describe Rhône wines as offering “an animalistic sort of pleasure” that Bordeauxs cannot. Often under $15 a bottle, they are food-friendly wine values, primitive yet comforting, meant to be drunk with a hearty, lengthy meal.
Denis Gayte’s Harmonie lives up to this reputation.
“Everybody has a learning curve,” says Dow, owner of Seattle’s Cavatappi Distribution and also a winemaker himself (Sangiovese and Nebbiolo). “But his wines are comparable in quality, fairly priced, he’s learning more and more each year and becoming a little more open-minded to possibilities of change and different things. He delivers high quality for the dollar and we’ve had a lot of success with his wines. We’re happy to represent him.”
Outside the Seattle area, Gayte’s wines are also available in North and South Carolina, Missouri, Illinois, and Virginia.
If you are Johnny Depp or Bono, or Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, it’s easy to come over and buy a million-dollar vineyard in Provence. “But for me it was different,” says Denis. “I had to give up everything. I had to put my soul into it.”
A photo essay of the Denis Gayte winery would include shots of Denis on the tractor, Denis pruning (he hires a hand for nine euros an hour and five liters of wine a week), Denis tasting, mixing, bottling, marketing. It’s pretty much a one-man show, though his family helps whenever they can.
The first years, he taught his dad to drive the tractor and together they yanked out the old vines and planted new varieties. When it’s harvest or bottling time, “I call up all my expat friends and say, we’re bottling on the first, and then we have a big work party picnic.” His wife, Kirstin, a fellow Seattle-ite whom he met on his way to watch the Cougs play in the Rose Bowl back in ’03, regularly accompanies him out into the fields to prune or pull leaves.
“We both put our i-Pods on and head out there together,” she said. They have separate
playlists, but are otherwise unified in their adventure. They’ve weathered the insular culture of rural France. They celebrate their local gastronomic artisans with fabulous fare at the dinner table. They just had their first baby, in a French clinic, just like Brangelina. While the locals may marvel with perplexity at these young foreigners heading out into the fields with their matching i-Pods, it symbolizes their affable mix of French joie de vivre and American ingenuity and optimism. They take advantage of long holidays, the slower pace, the excellent vin de pays of the surrounding villages, but they haven’t shied away from the unique risks and challenges facing expatriate entrepreneurs.
“The wine is important, but I also think it is important to tell the story behind the wine,” says Gayte between sips of a local Viognier in the quietly elegant Provence town of Uzès. “If it is just another Côtes du Rhône, who cares?”
L’Américain en Provence en miniature
A whimsical travelog illustrated by Cathy Johnson