Highlights of Return to Terroir's Annual Caravan to France...and Italy!
January / February 2015


Caravan 2015 team in Cherasco, Piemonte

Over the last few years RTT has taken a few buyers at a time to France for what has come to be known as the "Caravan." Since last year's contingent was made up of San Franciscans only, this year we've invited a crew from Los Angeles: Justin Prairie, the wine buyer for Capo and Brentwood, and Stephen Rudicel, proprietor and buyer at The Press Restaurant, to join us on this 12 day voyage. Jean-Baptiste, our Los Angeles sales manager, is also coming along.



Toby Bainbridge (right) in Anjou

We changed things up a bit this year and the new schedule proved to be a model for trips to come. Instead of going to the numerous fairs, we spent more time with our producers and also visiting areas where we have never taken buyers before.


Bertrand Jousset (Montlouis)


The trip began on Friday, January 23rd when we departed Paris for Anjou to see Toby Bainbridge and visit his old vine Grolleau vineyards. For dinner, we voyaged to the hallowed ground of Savennières, the home of our producer, Clément Baraut. Just to make sure my jetlagged guests were completely exhausted by the first night, we then drove an hour and a half to the home of Lise and Bertrand Jousset in Montlouis to sleep. But, not before drinking a magnum of the Jousset's Singulier, made from 100 year-old Chenin Blanc vines.



Bertrand Jousset (Montlouis) during dinner at his home

Continuing with the Chenin theme, we moved on to Vouvray next to meet Sébastien Brunet on Saturday morning, returning to Chez Jousset in the afternoon to taste and dine with Bertrand. Lise left n late morning to drive to a wine fair in Montpellier.so unfortunately couldn't join us.  


Brendan Tracey (Touraine) and his wife in front of their house


On Sunday, we departed the Touraine and headed to the area around Vendome to see Brendan Tracey (new producer), where we sampled through his old barrels, before tasting through a nice Pineau D'Aunis line up, one of our favorite Loire varietals. Brendan is a very interesting man: he grew up between New York and San Francisco before marrying a chatelain in the heart of the Loire farmland between Orleans and Tours. 



Our clients Justin Prairie and Steven Rudicel loving Toby Bainbridge labels

He mostly buys grapes and his wines are delicious with plenty of freshness and focus. Brendan is quite similar to Toby Bainbridge: both produce solely  Vin de France, both are incredibly genuin, people, and their approaches are removed from any inhibition. And, both have rather infamous mentors- Rene Mosse for Toby and Thierry Puzelat for Brendan. They bring a refreshing approach to the world of French wines.



Sebastien Riffault (Sancerre)

After another long day, we ended with Sébastien Riffault in the Sancerre AOC, where we arrived a few minutes before sunset. Just in time to see the white Kimmeridgian limestone reflecting the sun's last rays from his steep Skelvedra parcel. i The Sauvignon Blanc from this plot is aged in large foudre for 24 months, without sulfur. The result is one of the most dynamic, complex Sancerres out there. Last year, this visit was a highlight for the San Francisco group who were blown away by Sébastien's unique vineyards, philosophy and wines. It was just as enlightening for the LA contingent this year.  



Alexandre Bain (left) in Pouilly Fumé 

We picked up the next morning where we leftoff n Sauvignon Blanc territory   with a quick trip across the Loire to see Alexandre Bain in Pouilly Fumé. Alexandre and Sébastien are good friends and trade tips on biodynamic farming, historic wines of the region and ploughing with their respective horses, Phénomène and Ophélie.


Yvon Contat (left) of Domaine Contat Grange in Maranges 


From the Loire we travelled  to Burgundy, where we spent the evening with Yvon and Chantal Contat-Grangé in Dezize-lès-Maranges. We didn't have a chance to see them last year so it was a visit we were especially looking forward to. Contat-Grangé was one of the first producers in the Return to Terroir portfolio so this relationship is special. Check out their wines out if you are interested in great values from lesser known Burgundy appellations. Their Maranges - including some premier crus - are superb  examples of the potential of Pinot Noir in the Cote de Beaune. If there is still a region in Burgundy that can be considreed up and coming, this is it.



Didier Grappe (Saint Lothain, Jura)


We spent most of the next day, Tuesday, in picturesque Jura with upcoming new producer Didier Grappe in Saint Lothain, a few miles from Poligny. We started the day in his 40 year old Trousseau vineyard. Didier owns 2 hectares only, which allows him to do everything himself thoughout the year. Harvest is the only time that he hires a few extra hands.  



An example of selection massale at Renaud Boyer (Meursault)


We then headed back to Meursault to meet a very exciting new winemaker, Renaud Boyer. I had seen his wines in some of Paris' best wine shops before I met him for the first time last Fall. This second visit was confirmation that he will be a key player in the natural wine world of Burgundy. 


Dinner at Renaud Boyer (Meursault)


He owns several plots in Puligny and Saint-Romain. Renaud doesn't add anything to the wines - no sulfur, no yeast of course - and they are extremely pure and vibrant. As he described it to us - his wines are made of fermented grapes only. For dinner, we stood around an old barrel where Renaud laid out some Jambon persille, gougeres and comté cheese that he bought from one of his favorite nearby caterers.



Pierre Frick (Pfaffenheim, Alsace)

Wednesday takes us to Pfaffenheim in Alsace where we encountered the charming Jean-Pierre Frick (of Domaine Pierre Frick) in the evening. He is our first Alsatian vigneron and his stunning Rieslings have become favorites among our buyers in California. This is the first time we've taken buyers to Alsace and we instructed them to pack warm clothes...there is a huge temperature difference between Strasbourg and Los Angeles this time of year! 


Doing research at Pierre Frick's

Dinner was prepared by Jean-Pierre and his wife at the winery, and we shared it with their Saint Petersburg, Russia importer and staff. I love meeting other importers as we can share information about who we taste and discover in France, and learn about other country's traditions. For example, the Russian importer made a 10 minute thank you speech at the end of dinner, before offering Jean-Pierre a bottle of Vodka!


Walking through Michel Guignier's vineyards in Vauxernard, Beaujolais


The next day, we trekked to Vauxrenard, to see biodynamic winemaker Michel Guignier  in Villié-Morgon.  Michel is new to the book and we expect the first wines in a few months. He is another producer whose wines are simply fermented grape juice. The result is ethereal, nuanced, beautiful Beaujolais. After tasting, we sat down to a spectacular lunch of sausages marinated in pomace.  It was an amazing visit for everyone and we all eagerly anticipate the wines arrival in California . Waiting will be the hardest part.


Marina Marcarino, owner winemaker of Punset in Neive


You might think that at this point there would be rest for the wine weary. And we got it (kind of) on Friday, during the five hour car ride through the Alps and into Piemonte. The ride was epic. Jean-Baptiste and Raphael shared the driving through heavy snow on the Autoroute, as we crossed Bugey and  Savoie before reaching the 10 mile-long Tunnel du Frejus to Italy. For 2 hours, our speed didn't exceed 30 miles per hour on the snowy 6 lane highway.


 In Punset vineyards


Italy began with Punset, our Barbaresco producer. Organic since the mid 80's, winemaker and owner, Marina Marcarino has a wealth of knowledge and opinions so this was an appropriate  introduction to Raphael's mother's country. We spent two nights in a medieval monastery turned into an hotel (especially exciting for the Anglenos, where nothing was built more than 60 years ago!).



Didier Gerbelle (Val d'Aosta)

On Sunday we headed back towards the French border for an evening with Didier Gerbelle, a new producer for us in the Valle d'Aosta. Didier is the sort of inspiring winemaker that we love - young, passionate and dedicated to native grapes and finding the truest expression of his vineyards.



Raphael Bartucci  (Merignat in Bugey-Cerdon)

From there we drove due west, crossed the border back to France and ended up in the tiny hamlet of Mérignat to meet Raphal Bartucci, our Bugey-Cerdon producer. (See link here for his recentwrite-up in the San Francisco Chronicle.) After an improvised snow ball fight, we visited his vineyards including a new parcel of gamay he planted last year. 


 Instead of a digestif, we got a snow storm post dinner with Raphael Bartucci


For dinner, Raphaël, his wife, and two children roasted a Poulet de Bresse (AOC for chicken raised in the nearby Bresse region). We leftaround 11pm and a few inches of fresh snow made our trip down the hill epic. Again! We drove at 15 miles per hour for 20 miles to reach our hotel in Bourg-en-Bresse around midnight.


Philippe Pacalet (Beaune)


It was back to Burgundy on Monday, February 2nd, when we got to spend the afternoon and evening with Philippe Pacalet. As some of you may know, Philippe and his wife, Monica, came to the states last week and its always enlightening to see them. But, nothing really beats hanging out with the king in his castle, and not least, his vineyards and cellar. This year we visited his vineyards in the Cote de Nuits, including Gevrey Chambertin Premier Cru Lavaux Saint Jacques and his rows in the Grand Cru Echezeaux.


In the vineyards with Philippe Pacalet

The trip ended in Champagne with a morning tasting and lunch with our Aube producer, Charles Dufour.  The reception of Charles' "Bulles de Comptoir" in California exceeded our wildest dreams so far and we can't wait to bring in more wines from him. Charles makes several other cuvées, including one that is entirely Pinot Blanc and a Rosé Champagne (made viasaignée).  



Charles Dufour in the Cotes des Bars (Aube department). Corroy vineyard of Pinot Noir. 40 year old, east facing. Kimmerigian limestone.


Champagne is a great way to start offa trip, as we did last year, but it also makes for a most appropriately festive ending. Everyone headed back to Paris in the afternoon, just as tired as when they arrived, but with head full of knowledge and memories of where the wines they have supported are born. 


XXL Gougère and Charles Dufour single vineyard bottling

Nothing beats a trip to a winery for context, culture and personal growth. Each year we do this trip we learn a lot-- about our producers, buyers and the wines that make us so happy. Last year's Caravan raised the bar pretty high but I think the Angelenos made Caravan 2015 equally exciting. Starting in 2016 we will organize two trips: one for our SF clients and one for LA. California, are you ready for 2016?


The Alps in Piemonte. Autostrada Alba-Cuneo on our way back towards Val d'Aosta


Check the rest of our portfolio here.


Thank you. 



Raphael, Jean-Baptiste, Oscar, Kaci, Hollis & Cristin 
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