Column: Arbor Vinous

WineFest 2010: New digs and Châteauneuf's Laurence Féraud
Joel Goldberg

Joel Goldberg

Visualize the Ann Arbor Art Center’s WineFest as the Châteauneuf-du-Pape of fundraisers.

The annual wine-and-food extravaganza, on tap May 6 through 8, bears a surprising resemblance to the multi-grape assemblage of the flagship wine from France’s southern Rhone, blending supporters of the century-old arts institution with a panoply of local glitterati out for some innocent merriment, plus a dollop of area wine cognoscenti keen to sample and acquire some hard-to-find bottles.

So it’s a good fit that Honorary Chair Laurence Féraud, the first French winemaker to chair WineFest, comes from first-tier Châteauneuf winery, Domaine du Pegau.

And just as some Châteauneuf producers (but not Pegau) have adapted their wines to changing customer preferences for early-drinking, more fruit-driven styles, so the 28th annual WineFest sports a different look from years past.

“We’ve thrown everything up in the air and had it come down in a new format,” says Art Center president Marsha Chamberlin. “It’s going to be this bright, colorful upbeat format in a very stylish location. We’re trying to make this an event that people can enjoy on lots of different levels.”

The makeover starts with new digs for Saturday evening’s main event: the former Pfizer facility on Plymouth Road, lately demedicalized into the University of Michigan North Campus Research Complex. Kalamazoo-based BIGThink arts collaborative will create a series of supersize installations designed to generate a sense of community throughout the space.

Hardcore bidders can hunker down for the live auction in a new, Vegas-style “bidders’ pit.” This way, explains Chamberlin, “people who aren’t into the auction don’t have to be forced to be quiet and sit and listen. They can enjoy the wine and food and each other, while the bidders can keep focused.”

Focus-worthy auction lots include two sets of Bordeaux out of the cellar of über-collector Ron Weiser, from the outstanding 1961 and 2000 vintages, a ten-bottle assortment of 1998 and 1999 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, donated by Honorary Community Chairs Rich and Karen Brown, and a ten-year collection of the ever-popular Marilyn Merlot.

Also on offer: a half-dozen travel packages, home-prepared meals by local chefs Craig Common and Scott MacInnis, and dinner at The Lark – with a bottle of 1989 Château Margaux thrown in.

On Thursday, May 6, Féraud will pour five of her wines for a Winemaker Dinner at Mediterrano. This will be the only chance during the weekend to taste two vintages of Pegau’s upscale Châteauneuf, Cuvée Laurence.

A sold-out “Wine Crawl” joins the weekend mix for the first time on Friday evening, May 7. Participants will start at the Art Center on Liberty Street to meet the Honorary Chair, then wind their way through a series of downtown drinkeries – Babs Underground Lounge, Café Felix, Gratzi, Mélange and The Chop House – sampling a small food and wine pairing at each.

Ticket pricing also receives a facelift, with the introduction of a second tier for Saturday’s event. The new General Admission ducat ($100) buys entry to the strolling supper, wine sampling and the rare wine bar, along with open seating at the live auction.

WineFest logo

Those who spring for the Patron level ($200) receive the traditional WineFest perks, which include a custom wine glass and reserved seats for the live auction. They also get in the door an hour earlier for a reception with Féraud and an early-bird chance to snap up silent auction lots at “Buy It Now” prices.

Chamberlin said that signups were running about 50-50 between the two ticket levels.

Whether or not the new format and prices succeed in boosting interest in WineFest, many observers feel that change is long overdue in the face of a long-term slide in attendance and revenues for what was once the area’s premier charity event.

A decade ago, WineFest’s Saturday event regularly sold out more than 500 tickets and raised upwards of $250,000 for Art Center programs, representing as much as 1/3 of the organization’s annual budget.

This year’s take is projected at a mere $70,000, and the current rate of signups suggests that Saturday’s event may have difficulty reaching its goal of 400 paid attendees.

Chamberlin acknowledges that the Art Center has been forced to “wean itself off” dependence on WineFest for operating funds, and today counts on the event more to fund new projects.

The area’s economic travails account for a large chunk of the decline, especially in the area of corporate support, which Chamberlin says “has dried up.”

But critics also suggest that the event’s organizers failed to adapt to the proliferation of competing charity circuit wine events and a steady decline in the once-generous level of auction donations from left coast wineries and area collectors.

“No one was proposing anything new for years,” one WineFest insider put it succinctly.

“Part of the issue for me is whether there is an audience for WineFest any longer, in the form we currently know it,” Chamberlin said. “One of the things we’ve tried to do this year is create a broader appeal for it.”

Some of that appeal arrives in the person of the charismatic Laurence Féraud. I caught up with her while she multi-tasked at home in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, preparing a Thai green curry dinner for her two children as we chatted on the phone.

Féraud – petite, dark and intense, with a ready laugh and strong entrepreneurial bent – graduated from oenology school in Paris and returned to Châteauneuf as the region’s first female winemaker in 1986. A year later, she and her father, Paul, extracted their 17 vineyard acres from the Féraud family holdings to make their own wine under a new label: Domaine du Pegau.

She was in a celebratory mood when we spoke, saying she’d just signed “a big check” to purchase three additional acres in Châteauneuf, bringing Pegau’s current holdings to just over 50. Better still, the new vineyard comes planted with excellent vines, in the prime “La Crau” section of the appellation.

Our conversation (she’s bilingual) began with her family’s long-term ties to Ann Arbor, thanks to her father’s friendship with retired UM Professor J.C. Mathes and his wife, Rosemary, who began to spend summers in Provence about 35 years ago.

At almost the same time that Féraud and her father struck out with their own winery, Mathes begat J et R Selections to import southern Rhone wines into Michigan.

It was a match made in Provence.

Joel Goldberg: Tell me about your family’s history with J.C. Mathes.

Laurence Féraud: He’s a very close friend to us, like a member of the family. All of his life, he spent two months minimum in the south of France, and he was very close to the people. Then one day, he decided to import the wine.

[Robert] Parker started to speak about Châteauneuf-du-Pape – that was in 1992 – and everything expanded so fast. J.C. was our importer, and his business grew so fast. Like me, he was so happy about this increasing enthusiasm for Provence.

JG: You had your own property before you created Pegau, but you didn’t bottle wine under your name?

LF: I was studying, and my father worked with his parents and his brothers and sister; it was the family domaine. But when I arrived, I worked for one year with all the family, which was not very convenient for me [laughs]. So I proposed we create our own name.

JG: What does Pegau mean?

LF: It’s a clay wine pitcher. The original was found around the Pope’s palace [in Châteauneuf]. They did some excavations and some antique research; this clay pitcher is from the 14th century, from the Pope’s period.

JG: When you started out, you were the only woman running a domaine in Châteauneuf. Even though you had an education as a winemaker, was it hard for you to have people take you seriously?

LF: Yes, in the beginning it was a bit difficult. Sometimes the men clients wanted to visit only with my father. And my father really insisted; he said, “No, my daughter knows more than I do because she studied enology and she speaks English. He always tried to convince people to visit with me.”

Laurence Féraud

Laurence Féraud, dressed for the harvest: Not her sister. (Photo courtesy of Laurence Féraud)

Also, I worked in the vineyard. At the beginning, the people – they didn’t laugh, but they said, “This is work for men.”

But I knew how to work in a vineyard, and dress like the men in the vineyard. But I also knew how to have a shower and how to be dressed like a woman, with high heels. When I come to an auction in Michigan, I know that I am not in a vineyard. So I am dressed different. I know how I have to be.

The people here, they didn’t understand that we can have a different face. When I am working during the harvest, making wine, picking grapes, because I have a scarf around my head, people would think I was Fatima. [roars with laughter].

Or people would say, “Oh, we met your sister at the wine fair.”

And I’d say, “No, I haven’t got any sister. It was me.” They were so shocked; they couldn’t believe it.

JG: So do you have any advice for women who are trying to make it in the wine business?

LF: My advice is to be strong, because we are better than men. [laughs]

No, our palate is quite developed, because for centuries we stay at home, we do the cooking, we have a sense of taste.

JG: There are many different grapes that can go into Châteauneuf-du-Pape. What blend do you use?

LF: It’s a blend of all the vineyards we have. About 45 acres of the vines are more than 45 years old.

There is already what we call co-planting. So the blend is already in the vineyard. Because 45 years ago, they planted blended. In fact, they still do.

The blend of Pegau is 80% Grenache, 15% Syrah, 4% Mourvedre and 1% mixed types of grapes.

JG: The newer properties you’ve bought in recent years, were those already planted?

LF: They were already planted, and in good condition, and in La Crau, in the best place. I can tell you that I paid more, but the result is the more I pay in the beginning, the less I have to work after. Because when you want good quality, a good vineyard will give you good grapes without too much working.

Bottle of 1990 Domaine du Pegau

1990 Domaine du Pegau: Robert Parker started to speak. (Photo by the author)

JG: How many bottles of Châteauneuf do you make?

LF: I produce 80,000 bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Cuvée Reservée, and 6,000 to 8,000 bottles of Cuvée Laurence.

JG: And Cuvée da Capo? [The estate’s top wine, made in small amounts in better vintages. The 2007 got a pre-release score of 98-100 points from Robert Parker.]

LF: When I do the Da Capo, I’m not doing the Cuvée Laurence. The Cuvée Laurence is easy to do every year; it’s an extra aging of the Cuvée Reservée. When it’s a perfect harvest and a perfect vintage, then I am doing the Cuvée da Capo, not the Cuvée Laurence. So the production is exactly the same.

JG: You also have a second line of wines under your own name.

LF: Starting in 2001 and 2002, I created another company called “Selection Laurence Féraud.” I’m not buying or producing wine, but I do the selection. I go to different cellars, different producers, I taste the different wines and I blend.

I created a Vin du Pays d’Oc [from the Languedoc] called “Pegau Vino,” and I have a Séguret [a less-known Rhone village].

“Plan Pegau” [a non-appellation table wine] existed under Domaine du Pegau, but the quality was not consistent. So I decided to have more consistent quality, and to blend in a big volume in another place. We could not do that at Domaine du Pegau.

I blend 50% of the Plan Pegau from the Domaine, with some other wine – enough to have the quantity for 60,000 bottles in one bottling. We sell that wine for export, with a screw cap.

JG: So you’re becoming a negociant? [merchants who buy wine produced by others and sell them under their own brand]

LF: If I look at my job name, it’s blender [laughs]. In French, we say assembleur, which is nicer.

JG: How many countries does Pegau distribute in today?

LF: Thirty countries, 80 wine importers around the world.

JG: What wines will you be pouring in Ann Arbor for WineFest?

LF: On the 8th, all the people will have a cocktail of Pegau Vino. Then we’ll have the Séguret, then the Plan Pegau, and then the Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Domaine du Pegau red.

JG: Are you serving either the Cuvée Laurence or Cuvée da Capo?

LF: Cuvée da Capo? For over 100 people? No, it’s impossible. [Roars with laughter] But what I’m giving for the auction is Cuvée da Capo in a magnum, three Cuvée Laurence, a weekend at a B&B I have in Châteauneuf, a day with me in the vineyards, and lunch or dinner at my place.

WineFest tickets are available at the website, or by phoning the Ann Arbor Art Center at 734-994-8004, x101.

About the author: Joel Goldberg, an Ann Arbor area resident, edits the MichWine website and tweets @MichWine. His Arbor Vinous column for The Chronicle is published on the first Saturday of the month.