As wine dynasties go, only a handful of families can claim the international prestige of France’s Maison Joseph Drouhin. In fact, the Drouhins are founding members of the Primum Familiae Vini—“The First Families in Wine”— an international wine alliance made up exclusively of 11 renowned producers. When it comes to Burgundian wines, the Drouhins are regarded in the company of such greats as Maison Louis Latour and Domaine Louis Jadot. The Drouhin’s illustrious reputation is manifested in over 130 years in business, in over 182-acres of largely Premier and Grand Cru vineyards, and in approximately 90 appellations produced from just two grapes.
Laurent Drouhin, a member of the fourth generation of this historic family, has been crowned this Nantucket Wine Festival’s Luminary of the Year. Along with his sister Véronique and brothers Frédéric and Philippe, Laurent leads Maison Joseph Drouhin into a new era, serving as the family’s ambassador to the United States and Caribbean. Charming and eloquent, Laurent exudes the Drouhin’s regal mystique with what the French might call a certain je ne sais quoi as he champions his family’s wines around the world. And though highly sought after for speaking engagements and in perpetual transit, Laurent always saves the date when it comes to the Nantucket Wine Festival.
If anyone has the authority to weigh in on Burgundy, Laurent surely does. His family tree is rooted deeply in the same rocky soil as the vines that bear his family’s fruit. Laurent’s great grandfather, Joseph, founded the family business in 1880. From there, in 1918, Joseph’s son Maurice purchased vineyards in Burgundy, and the Drouhin estate was established. The family survived two World Wars, including the Nazi occupation of France, during which the country’s wines were ransacked and many historic vintages were lost forever. Laurent’s father, Robert, who took over in 1957 and today sits watchfully as the chairman of the board, is largely responsible for elevating the quality of Drouhin wine. Fusing old world methods with emerging technology and appointing Laurence Jobard winemaker in 1976 (thought to be the first ever female enologist in Burgundy), Robert set the high standards that his four children now strive to maintain. “The three previous generations have been constantly trying to improve the vinification to truly highlight the diversity of Burgundy,” explains Laurent. “As the fourth generation, we keep trying to do that, and it all starts in the vineyards and obviously in details in the winery and then in the aging process.” Fortunately for Laurent, whose knowledge in wine was gained more through years of tasting with his father than any formal education in enology, his brothers and sister share the mission of upholding the Drouhin’s quality and time-earned reputation.
Along with their commitment to the centuries old terroir of Burgundy, the Drouhins literally broke ground in American wine country in 1988 with a 104-acre vineyard in the Willamette Valley known as Domaine Drouhin Oregon. The move was significant to both the Drouhins and the US wine scene at large, as it gave some credibility to America’s emerging Pinot Noir producers. The estate, which sits on nearly the same latitude as their vineyards in Burgundy, also offers the Drouhins a satellite in the US, their number-one market. “Historically, we have always been selling our wines to the United States; among the first few bottles shipped were in 1908 to very wealthy American families,” says Laurent. “Even though my heart is in Burgundy, I moved my family to Westchester, New York to be in this country and to talk and promote the wines of Maison Joseph Drouhin, because the competition is even tougher.” He continues,
“When my father was traveling in the ‘60s in the US, you only had a few producers from Burgundy. And now if you look at the Burgundy selection in some stores, it’s just incredible. We have to keep the signature name of Joseph Drouhin up front and continue to relate to high quality and great repute.”
By all measure the Drouhins are succeeding in this pursuit, their wines consistently rated highly by the likes of Antonio Galloni and publications such as Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. While flattered, Laurent cautions Americans against putting too much stock in ratings or scores. “Trust your palate,” he says. “No one is choosing your food for you in a restaurant. Why would you let a writer choose your wine for you?” Fortunately there are many, many stellar Drouhin wines to develop your palate with. Famed vintages include 1961, 1978, 2005 and nearly any year ending in nine. In addition to the organic chardonnays, pinot noirs and varietals they produce on their own vineyards, as a négociant the Drouhins also buy grapes from smaller growers with whom they have long-standing relationship.
And so it is that the Drouhin’s kingdom continues to expand from Burgundy to Oregon to Nantucket to tables and cellars around the world. Although the next generation is still young, Laurent says that they are already showing some interest in the family business: “At home in Burgundy, my daughter enjoys a small sip of wine and likes to talk about it. I do that on purpose, because that’s how I was trained and informed on wine by my father.” He continues, “My playground used to be the winery and the cellar. And since I was a kid, I’ve been tasting wines with my father. He planted the seed early, and it grew naturally.” Only time will tell where the Drouhin legacy will grow in the years to come. However if the past 130 years or so are any indication, the future is sure to be fruitful indeed.