In the heart of Saint-Émilion sits Château Angélus, an utterly charming family estate on the right bank of the winding Garonne River. Nestled comfortably between lush rows of Cabernet Franc and Merlot vines, its handsome central manor has been home to the bottling of rich, heady, and exotic wines worthy of Bordeaux’s legacy for eight generations and counting.
A continent away, Chik Brenneman and Dusty Baker, the legendary Major League Baseball manager, craft wines at the Baker Family vineyard in the rolling verdant hills of California’s Sonoma Valley. Framed by the rugged Pacific coastline and towering forests of ancient Redwoods, this is the heart of America’s wine industry, where farmers and vintners have been crafting Chardonnay and Syrah in the same careful, slow process since the 18th century.
When it comes to provenance, Napa and Sonoma stand in the shadow of Europe. Even the oldest California wineries are several generations younger than those in France or Italy, but in this increasingly digitized world, the younger wineries offer something different to their Old World counterparts.
Every summer, California’s top winemakers and wine connoisseurs gather at the Wine Industry Technology Symposium—or WITS, as its attendees like to call it—an annual confab whose roster of speakers last year included representatives from multi-generational family vineyards such as Chateau Ste Michelle, Huneeus Vintners, and Duckhorn Wine Company. From tips for managing online payment to software that helps smaller wineries compete in the broader market, the topics discussed at WITS comprise one of the most heated conversations in the wine industry today: how to stay current in a field that is steeped in tradition.
“The economics of grape-growing and wine-making are getting so much tighter, we’re getting squeezed from every direction. Any tools we have that help make us more efficient are great,” Andy Mitchell told Wines & Vines magazine. Mitchell, who manages 1,000 acres for the family-run Hahn Estates in Soledad, California, says that technology like his weather station, which monitors mildew and determines a schedule for spraying the vines, has helped many wineries maintain their family legacies through difficult economic times.
Like all heritage brands, wineries must balance a desire to modernize with a reverence for the historical lineage that sets them apart from their competition. Technology can increase efficiency and keep smaller wineries afloat, but at what cost? Ultimately, it is the cherished methods of previous generations that have created the distinctive tastes and qualities that define each brand.
Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal, the head of Château Angélus, is a proud proponent of the idea that when it comes to tradition and technology, you can have your wine and drink it too.
“Maintaining tradition and being a pioneer are really two things that are complimentary and that are very important in our field,” she says. “I think it’s great to [combine] the hand craft with [the] technique, the modern methods.”
At Château Angélus, teams in the field now follow the green harvest, which boosts flavor compounds, as well as de-leafing, which eliminates the use of harmful fungicides. Both are modern farming methods which De Boüard-Rivoal’s great- great-grandparents likely never knew. Yet, embracing them, she says, helps her stay true to their legacy. After all, the Château Angélus bell is a symbol of the family’s loyalty to tradition, without complacency. While the methods may change over time, the craftsmanship, attention to detail and respect for core materials passed down from generation to generation remains steadfast.
“Technology in wine-making is a tool in itself, a tool that allows the winemaker to interpret a process and more efficiently make wine,” Brenneman told Wines & Vines, pointing to advantages in wine harvesting, sorting, settling, and filtration. While not working on the vines at Baker Family Wines, Brenneman teaches in the department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis. His courses focus both on the craft and the academics of wine-making, exploring the art and impact the industry has had on our culture and society.
While he takes a pragmatic approach to modernizing the wine-making process, Brenneman maintains a deep reverence for the history and legacy of the industry. He makes frequent field visits to France to offer his students a deeper understanding of familial legacy as well as a first-hand look at how certain practices have evolved.
Brenneman may be on to something—there is no place that encapsulates the nexus between tradition and modernity like Bordeaux.
Across the river from Château Angélus is the city’s bustling left bank adorned by the Gothic Cathédrale Saint-André and the grand Place de la Bourse. And, just a brief walk away is the recently opened InterContinental Bordeaux Le Grand Hotel, Bordeaux’s flagship luxury hotel.
At the InterContinental Bordeaux Le Grand Hotel, guests can sit in a plush, sweeping lobby and enjoy a glass of Château Angélus’s varietals. It is a suitable match when considering De Boüard-Rivoal’s philosophy. Housed in an 18th-century building, the InterContinental Bordeaux Le Grand Hotel pays homage to a tradition of service that dates back to 1777, while offering state of the art rooms packed with modern amenities. Similarly, Château Angélus incorporates modern techniques to bottle vintage wines that have upheld their integrity since 1782.
“We share [the] values of excellency and precision,” De Boüard-Rivoal says of the InterContinental brand. “We cannot reach perfection but we can get closer to it every day.”