From viticulture to village

Thomas Duroux has a dream – one of a worker-friendly terroir that goes beyond the usual tenets of biodynamics and poly-agriculture. Roger Morris takes a journey with him into the trees.

Château Palmer
Château Palmer

It is a rainy November morning in Manhattan, but Thomas Duroux, director of Château Palmer in the Medoc, is in an ebullient mood coming off another American marketing and media road trip. He sips espresso in the café abutting the Sofitel on West 44th and gives a brief update on the just-harvested 2016 vintage. The quality of the fruit was very good, he explains, although it was a short crop because of loss to mildew during a rainy spring.

But what Duroux really wants to discuss is his village, the excitement reflected in his somewhat oval face, rimmed by close-cropped hair and a short, edgy beard, and punctuated by bookish, rounded eyeglasses.

Creating a community

First as winemaker at Ornellaia in Tuscany and for the past 13 years at Palmer, Duroux has revelled in probing the edges of winegrowing, to chase after uncommon and retro ideas and to ask ‘what if?’ Early on, he was a protégée of Robert Mondavi and the Californian’s ‘think big’ philosophy, including being a leader of the team that sketched out Mondavi’s abortive attempt at founding a major estate in Languedoc in the days before Languedoc was cool.

At Palmer, he replanted heirloom white grapes to blend with Sauvignon Gris and Muscadelle to resurrect a Palmer blanc like the estate made prior to World War II. He went back to the future a second time when he made a Syrah cuvée at an associate’s winery in the northern Rhône and blended it with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from Palmer’s estate grapes, labelling it Historical XIXth Century Wine, a vin de pays. And Palmer was one of the first high-profile Bordeaux wineries to fully convert to biodynamic growing.

Now Duroux is working his way toward a new goal, a dream he realises he may never achieve – one that goes far beyond biodynamics, sustainability, and simple poly-agriculture. Duroux wants to create a functioning wine village, a tightly knit community of Palmer employees that will combine the best practices of the past and the future. “My dream is to build a double-circular organisation with 50 families living within and without the estate,” he says, “where everyone does about everything. While it may never be a perfect model, in the end, I would like to closer blend agronomy, economy, and social care.” Workers and their families would enjoy the bounty of vegetable gardens and orchards on the estate and share in the pride of creating great wines, a rural example of what America’s Silicon Valley companies call ‘doing well by doing good’. “But this is not a political statement,” Duroux emphasises. “It’s all about agriculture.”

Gradually, the idea of a ‘community’ – not a closed one, yet one tending toward self-sufficiency – took hold. “A farm has to be as orderly as the human body,” he says. “It needs to be an organism that works together. If that happens, not a lot is needed from the outside.”

With biodynamics came the beginnings of poly-agriculture. “We want to increase our flock to 100 sheep,” he says, “and move from the seven cows we have now to 25. I want to plant barley and oats between the vine rows. Trees in the vineyard.” He smiles as the latent smells of breakfast whiff by. “I want to taste a Palmer peach and eat fig marmalade made at Palmer.” Surprisingly, he does not see horses ploughing the vineyard. “It would take too many,” he says, “and I don’t want to start something that can’t be applied to the total estate.” Yet don’t put Duroux in the ‘natural wine’ camp when it comes to vinification. “To me, what happens in the cellar is not at all linked to biodynamics,” he says.

But now, the coffee long since gone, Duroux excuses himself to go to a meeting.

Attention to detail

Duroux may be a dreamer, but he is also a realist. Under his tutelage, Palmer has produced great – not merely good – wines that have yielded profits to the ownership syndicate, chief among them the Sichel and Mähler-Besse négociant families. The 2016 vintage showed Duroux’s continued excellence at delivering in both categories. Neal Martin of the Wine Advocate gave Palmer’s château wine a 95-97, James Suckling awarded it a flat-out 100, and it hit the market at €240.00 ($281.65) a bottle, up 14.3% over the 2015.

“The work Thomas and his team are carrying out is the result of 10 years of testing, questioning, investigating, and experimenting,” says Allan Sichel, who also heads the Bordeaux governing Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB). “Even after those 10 years of research we are only at the very beginning. I find the whole concept absolutely fascinating and very exciting. The whole approach of biodynamics is more of a philosophy, a way of thinking, a way of life which once you’ve grasped its fundamentals makes an awful lot of sense.”

“In my opinion, we need a minimum of 10 years to see how successful biodynamics is,” adds Ferdinand Mähler-Besse. “These 10 years should be able to give us a good example of every type of ‘vintage’ we may have in Bordeaux. So far, I found the wines more precise than they were before.”

A few months after his New York visit, during the last afternoon of the annual en primeur barrel tasting in April, Duroux climbs into his grey Škoda station wagon for a drive through Palmer’s vineyards, which sprawl on both sides of the D2, the two-lane main artery that meanders through the Medoc from top to bottom. The estate sits atop the rolling Margaux plateau that slopes gradually toward the Gironde estuary. Duroux turns left in that direction.

As the car moves slowly down a dirt path that snakes through the property, he points out kitchen herbs planted at the end of rows instead of roses and cites work done by an intern on herbs and beneficial insects. He then explains that the sheep grazed here during the winter months before being harvested for food. Another flock will be brought in this winter.

Duroux stops at a short, recently planted hedgerow that seems out of place among the spring foliage of the vines. “It sounds stupid to say so,” he says, “but we’re not just vine growers.” Like the herbs, the hedges, utilising a type of beech with small leaves and tangled limbs similar to those that outline pastures in Scotland, have their place in Palmer’s husbandry of insects and small animals.

Next, into the trees. “I started planting down here where they aren’t noticeable,” Duroux says, like a schoolboy with a secret. Indeed the château is well out of sight of the rows of trees, each about head high and each protected for now by wire netting. Every fourteenth row has trees, and there is a tree about every 10 vines. “In the old days, people planted fruit trees in the vineyards,” Duroux says. “Trees serve as regulators and act as water pumps for the soil.” He scoops up a handful of dark earth to show how well it has recovered from the beating it took during the days of heavy chemical use.

As the drive continues, the terroir flattens out into rich bottom land, and the vines disappear. Across a ditch and over an electrified fence are Duroux’s cows, a herd whose ancestors lived in the area for centuries and whose manure forms the compost to make the sprays or teas necessary for biodynamic practice.

So far, Duroux’s experiments have been working. Biodynamics has proved a success, as have the first steps in poly-agriculture. “We’re not trying to totally feed everyone,” he says. “Our goal is to get employees access to better food, organic food, and not that industrial supermarket crap.” Educating the work force to do a broad, even communal range of jobs is well underway.

He also plans a programme at the new hospitality centre where some of the visitors will have an opportunity to interact with vineyard and cellar employees – an interaction that he believes will be mutually beneficial for both. He also would like to see more interaction between families of employees, and plans to install an outdoor oven soon and have pizza nights. “We could also supply bread for everyone,” he adds.

So far, employees seem to be buying in.

People-centred farming

“I remember Château Palmer without grass in the vineyards,” says Christine Valino, a vineyard worker. “It was less pleasant to look at, though it was easier to walk through. The transition to biodynamic viticulture especially helped us to work under better conditions. We no longer have any contact with harmful products.”

Still, the word ‘community’ implies the idea of a small village at the estate. While Duroux doesn’t rule that out in the future, he says there are no architectural sketches or housing construction budgets. And yet… “We already have five families living on Palmer property,” he says. “If there is a chance to increase that number, we will do it. After all, [housing] is the best way to keep people and their expertise.”

The last stop is the river, sluggish at the moment, as its movements are governed by the Atlantic tides. The water is a murky brown, a reminder that all of the Medoc got its soils in centuries past from the river’s deposits of gravels and silt. “This is where it all starts,” Duroux says, using the present tense, not the past.

From river’s edge, Duroux’s quest seems at once futuristic and nostalgic, yet his feet seem to be firmly planted both in the vineyard soil and in his boardroom and the economic reality of running an iconic, hugely successful enterprise. Perhaps there was also a lesson learned in Mondavi’s overreach in the Languedoc, where local opposition killed that ambitious project.

But, quite simply, the unanswered questions are: Is his dream too expensive and too grandiose? Will changes he envisions help produce better wine or just a more-enlightened business atmosphere? In a word, is Duroux’s dream necessary?

“We don’t want to do anything crazy.” Duroux smiles and gets back into the Škoda.

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